Saturday, 9 January 2016

GSOH: The comic itch I had to scratch

Just how did I get into the modern stand-up comedy scene? The answer was when one of my favourite local pubs, the Horseshoe Inn, decided to put on a weekly comedy night on Sundays.

The idea of there being a regular comedy night just five minutes walk away from my doorstep really appealed to me. However, at the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman in Swindon. I'd spend every second weekend with her in the Wiltshire sort-of-city-but-not-actually-a-city.

The Horseshoe Inn is run by landlady Debbie Dexter, with her husband Nick in charge of a lot of the stage presentation, in particular, sound. Since they took it over in 2005, the pub has a solid reputation as the home of live music in Wellingborough1.

My friends at the first night of comedy at The Horseshoe
Now, this wasn't the first time I'd seen comedy in my hometown. In fact, a local pub - The Royal Oak - put on a monthly night of comedy that my friend Marcus took us along to. The night we attended there was a bit of a disaster, not due to the comedians, but because of some of the drunken clientele really spoiled it. The MC for that night detailed that catastrophic night on a comedian's forum.

This was 2011, Debbie and Nick of The Horseshoe had been scouting around for new ideas. In the wake of the BBC showing stand-up in prime-time with Live At The Apollo and Michael McIntyre's Comedy Road Show, there had been (and arguably still is) an explosion of stand-up comedy across the UK.

Subsequently, pubs found it fairly easy to get a night of cheap entertainment with semi-pro comedians and open spot acts. Debbie and Nick saw such a night over in Northampton and approached one of the organisers of it to do the same thing for them.

Tweed-jacketed Will Morris may not have been the typical idea of a comedian, but he took charge of Horseshoe's comedy Sundays. The format was established in that around ten open spot comedians would do five minutes each on one Sunday, in a gong show. The following Sunday would be pro and semi-pro comics. Three in total, finishing on a decent 30-40m headliner. It'd alternative like that.

Being a huge fan of comedy, I came back early from Swindon to see the Horseshoe's first stand-up night, which was all open spot. This is where I had my comic epiphany. It is the reason why I'm doing comedy now, running two monthly nights, compering, booking acts, designing posters and being a prat in daft costumes.

More from the front row...
The moment came when one comedian asked the audience a question...

"What's the collective noun for slags?"

I instantly yelled out "Wellingborough", which caused everybody in the pub to erupt with laughter.

The comedian had to proceed with his planned answer - which was "limousine". Not a bad gag at all. Yet I had the bigger laugh. I'm not saying I was the better comedian, I just managed to think of something good at the right moment. And what a moment it was, those four seconds where an entire pub is laughing at something you said.

Later on that night I had managed to say something else that got a fairly good round of laughter2. I hasten to add that I'm not a heckler and I do try to keep my gob shut. However, there is something in the water over in Wellingborough which means the regulars do like to 'contribute', something that continues even today.

After about four or five pints and the entertainment ending, the huge lift I had from my spontaneous shout-outs had grown my ego to the size of a George Osborne deficit. I approached Will Morris, asking if I could "go on stage next week".

He looked stunned for a moment, spluttered and then insisted that it'd be a few months before I could have a spot. "And it can't be here. Not in front of your friends and family."

These are very very wise words indeed. However, at the time I was taken aback. I felt I could easily knock up five minutes of comedy and be on stage being the Bill Hicks I imagined I was. Will was already booked up for many of the following nights and in any case, he treated me perfectly. Not that I saw it at the time.

Will insisted that I do his mate's gong night over in Northampton before I could be ready to take the stage at the Horseshoe. I was rather taken aback, but he held the cards. He could green-light me if I did well in a place where I didn't know anyone. I was given a date and had to take it.

The following morning, I woke up, got washed and put on the shirt and trousers for work. On my forty minute trek I realised what happened the night before. I had to come up with five minutes of really funny material in a couple of months' time, or face public humiliation.


1: Very much helped by The Deportees' Rob Matheson's weekly acoustic nights on Wednesdays, plus Trina Breedon bringing loads of punk rock bands over.

2: Don't ask me what it was, I simply can't remember.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

GSOH: Seen and not heard

Kids, eh? Being a child is quite a popular pastime in the UK, especially among the under-16s. I myself have indulged in it. After just over a decade and a half though, you start to lose your natural talent at it and Simon Danczuk's just not that interested in you any more.

I've recently blogged about the first ever gig I did, as a child. That's not exactly the start of my interest in comedy. I was addicted watching slapstick on the television when I was three, with my earliest memories of seeing Laurel & Hardy shorts on Sunday mornings on BBC2; the utter silliness of The Goodies and of course the absolutely untouchable mayhem of Tiswas.

At some point in the infants school, I thought I could actually be funny. (Yeah, an adjective I still struggle to attain these days.) I'd do the Charlie Chaplin walk in the playground. Unsurprisingly, this didn't make me as popular as I thought it would. The kids just wanted to play 'War' as much as possible.

Me, before a crucial stage performance in 1978. I'm in the checked trousers.

Could it be possible to combine the thrill of imitation gunfire and slapstick comedy together? Film director Alan Parker thought so, and came up with Bugsy Malone.

The comedy what I wrote

Anyway, one Christmas, I had a brilliant idea to actually write some comic material. The opportunity came to me when my mum asked me to write a letter back to my uncle to thank him for the Christmas presents I got. I think I was six or seven. I can remember exactly what I wrote, but, it was really nowhere near as funny as I thought it was. It's not funny at all, to be frank.

Now, when a kid tries to come up with an original joke, the results are often confusing. They can result in laughter, but not in the way intended.

Take, for instance, the Tumblr blog Bad Kids Jokes, which catalogues rejected submissions to a children's joke website. Here's a fantastic example:

Q: what do you call a tiger with glasses on?
A: a scientist tiger

That is utterly magnificent. I like the way it ticks some of the boxes for being a joke, like the stereotype for a vocation and the off-beat anthropomorphic attribution. There's a good case for this being labelled as 'meta-comedy'.

A year ago, I was having dinner with the son of a very famous comedian1; plus two writers on classic comedy2. Our conversation turned to the comedic intentions we had when we were young. This led to one of my fellow diners reciting something his six-year-old daughter came up with...

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Crisp who?
Conker crisp!

Well, this one knocks it out of the park on sheer surrealism alone. I could dissect this one, but it's more fascinating for it to be left as it is.

So, what post-Christmas words did my uncle receive from me? Well, a sincere note of thanks for the gifts. You see, my mother took one look at what I originally wrote and stated that I couldn't send that. She didn't find it funny at all, and despite my protestations, I had to write a sensible thank-you letter.

She was bloody right, because this, in all its illogical glory, is what I wrote:

Thank you for the presents, they're better than fresh air. Well, I could do with fresh air because I need some for the tyres of my bicycle!

There's no getting away from how bad that is. There's not even any charm to it, unlike the previous two examples of kids' writing. If I had continued in that vein, I may as well have ended up as chief scriptwriter for short-lived Channel 4 show Tonightly.

1: Nick Emery, son of 1970s telly sketch legend, Dick Emery.
2: Georgy Jamieson, director of the British Comedy Society; Louis Barfe, biographer of Les Dawson and chronicler of light entertainment.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

GSOH: Wildling, you make my heart sing

The stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve saw me in a pub in Leicester, in the company of many local comedians who had just put on a storming end-of-year gig as part of Proper Funny. I was just there in punter mode, but having been introduced to these people throughout the preceding 365 days, ended up as the recipient of many kisses and an invitation to join Daniel Nicholas at his house party.

That was a fitting end to 2015. About a year ago, I was spending New Year's Eve/Day with my friend Monique. At that point, I hadn't performed for nearly two years and had agreed to organise and host a comedy night at a brand new pub in Market Harborough in January.

Monique's not a comedian but she has been locked and soaked inside the cage on Tiswas
I'd never compered before, but had still kept in contact with a few people on the local circuit, so getting the acts was not a problem. Trying to come up with material relevant to Market Harborough - a middle class picture-postcard town with a lot of high-end boutiques - was the tricky bit. Sure, I could go on and do bits of my usual set (I certainly did), but wanted to at least tailor my presentation to the audience for this one-off comedy night.

Slating the town you're in is a thing I'd seen many MCs do. It's a bit risky, so some tend to aim their comic vitriol at a nearby 'rival' town. If you're doing a gig in Newcastle, have a go at Sunderland. If you're in Sunderland, have a go at Newcastle. (Bonus points if you can say the same joke in both cities.)

Monique likes to introduce me to television I wouldn't normally watch, mainly stuff that's huge in America. I'm not entirely sure when the stroke of midnight occurred, but I know we were watching Bob's Burgers, which I enjoyed immensely. She's a huge fan of Game Of Thrones, something I had heard of (you'd have to live on Mars to not know of it), but wasn't too keen to start on.

After about three episodes, I was 1) hooked and 2) realising there was an idea in this. I believed this fantasy world could be partially modelled on Leicestershire.

Lions Eat Ice Cream Every Saturday

If you're not familiar with Leicestershire, well, I'd describe Leicester itself as a fairly decent city with a lot going for it. It is large, grey and sprawling, but with a bit more ambition than Nottingham or Birmingham.

I had dated a girl in Leicester back in 2010, and recall that she arranged a game of bowling for us over in Loughborough. We travelled 12 miles north to this desolate town, and it soon became apparent the sports centre was only host to Crown Green Bowling, not the cool American pin games we had been thinking of. She was mortified. I found it hilarious.

Loughborough is rather glum. It's primarily famous for the Ladybird books and Big Brother contestant Bonnie Holt. Until East Midlands Parkway was built, the town was the way you'd get to East Midlands Airport if you were on your way via train/bus. I spent an hour searching for the right bus stop with a past girlfriend, with some massive suitcases in tow. (Thankfully we did end up in Prague, avoiding the horrifying scenario of a Loughborough-based holiday.)

What has this got to do with Game Of Thrones anyway?

Well, for my first few minutes of hosting Beerhouse Comedy, I pretended to take a phone call from a very late act. I was giving them directions to Market Harborough - a town I decided they had not heard of, enabling me to describe the place.

"It's very posh. Full of Daily Mail reading farmers. They have Radio 4 played out from speakers on every lamp-post. And the streets are paved with tofu."

This went down well with the 70-80 Harborough residents who had turned up for the comedy night. I wasn't finished there. I continued with the phone conversation, ensuring that my (non-existent) comic foil wasn't even familiar with Leicestershire.

Having established my phone-based counterpart was a big Game Of Thrones fan, I then used its mythical world to describe Leicestershire. In the south, you've got Kings Landing, all posh, classy and where the wealth is. A bit north up from that, is Leicester - or should I say Winterfell - on account of it being cold and grey.

And anywhere further north from that? Beyond The Wall? It's all filled with zombies and incest. The perfect analogy for Loughborough.

I got a big round of applause for that one. I'd like to say I carried on with this hilarity for the rest of the night, but that wouldn't be true. Quite a few ideas I had, just flopped, but there was enough in there that established me as an adequate MC. The acts we had were pretty solid, and there's one final bit which had ensured a large audience and was a fantastic end. Pub owner Jon Pollard decided to set it as a monthly night - every third Thursday - which it continues to be.

In another time, I'll go into more detail into why that first night was pivotal in me having 2015 as a great year of comedy.

For anyone who is from Loughborough and is offended at my negative portrayal of their area, I give you the caveat that I describe my hometown - Wellingborough - as "the Loughborough of Northamptonshire". It's crap and we know it.

Friday, 1 January 2016

GSOH: Do you remember the first time?

Theoretically, your first gig is your worst gig. A newbie comedian starts off all shaky and nervous, does a few more, then ends up on Live At The Apollo and selling millions of DVDs. That's the idea, anyway and I'm sure I'm just a couple of gigs away from that success.

I'm not going make chronology a factor in the order I write posts in the GSOH blog, but I guess I have to start somewhere.

If people ask me about my first stand-up gig, I tell them it took place in 2011 in Northampton. Technically, that was my second gig. The first time I told gags to an audience was back in the mid-1980s.

Wellingborough's Victoria Junior School as it looks today
The third year at my junior school was fairly refreshing, as some of the more creative members of my class had the freedom to put on shows. Only about six girls really took part, along with myself.

One day we had decided to put on a talent show. I'd be telling jokes; Heena would be singing the Theme From Fame and Rebecca - my first ever girlfriend - did... well, I can't remember what she did. That's probably why I'm not with her now.

The class got to vote for their favourite act at the conclusion of the show. This was probably inspired by The Fame Game on ITV, something that's barely-remembered these days, but it was like a predecessor to Britain's Got Talent, although probably closer to Opportunity Knocks.

I reckon the big gender split in the voting had caused me to win. This was the time of your life when girls were all soppy, stupid and had fleas, after all. Although Heena's diabolical rendition of Irene Cara's sole hit probably helped.

My set was 100% unoriginal. It was a load of gags I took from the joke books of the day. Plenty of them were Irish gags. Come to think of it, a lot where of that "Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman" trope that you never get any more. These went down really well with the class and the teacher. There you go, early signs of institutionalised racism.

Of course, these days I wouldn't dream of using a joke I've never written, but this was a simpler time, I was modelling myself on the old school bow-tie-and-velvet-jacket comics you'd get on the telly of the day. These pre-alternative comedians would use a 'pool' of gags and routines.

What went down really well for me, was a really childish shaggy-dog story- one with the Irishman being the victim of course. I'd told it in the playground many times, and even though everyone knew it, I stormed it with this utterly immature shaggy dog story...

There's an Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman at the top of a slide (entirely plausible, I'm sure it's a common occurrence) and God tells them that whatever they say on the way down, they will land in.
The Englishman has the first go, and shouts "money!"
He lands in loads of coins and notes. He's a bit battered and bruised, but hey, he's rich, and he leaves.
The Scotsman is next, and he shouts "whiskey!" 
He lands in a big pool of whiskey and is happy. (See? Scots are all alcoholics. That's just the first hilarity, wait for the big pay off up next...)
The Irishman has a go, and he shouts "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
See? It's hilarious. I had learnt to end the gag there, because I knew when others told it, they added the unnecessary description of the Irishman landing in a vat of piss. Never telegraph the gag.

So yeah, first ever gig, smashed it. What could be funnier, in the minds of the assembled 10-11 year olds, than a man plunging into a load of urine? Nothing, really.

I suppose there is one exception. Another routine that did the playgrounds was the story of three schoolkids, respectively called Fuck Off; Manners and Shit. I very much doubt I'd get to utter such profanities in front of Mr Fisher without a ruler being thrown at me and a summoning to the headmaster's office, so this is why I decided to opt for the safer conclusion of a piss-drenched Irishman.

I'd like to assure you that, nowadays, my jokes are my own and they're politically situated a lot further to the left than the feeble Bernard-Manning-style material I cribbed in order to storm that vital Class 6 gig at Victoria Junior School.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

GSOH: Year Goggles

It's strange what a difference 365 days can make. Somehow I ended up running and hosting two comedy nights; performing at the Edinburgh Festival and getting my own 12-part television series. That's not supposed to happen to an open spot comedian in the space of a year.

My terrible Chris Tarrant impersonation on The A-Z Of Tiswas
Okay, let's rewind a bit. I was someone who did stand-up comedy very occasionally. At this point in 2014, it had been almost two years since I last stepped behind a mic to tell jokes.

Oh, and another thing - GSOH - this new strand of my blog that deals with my comedy work, is meant to be entirely honest about my tragedies as well as my triumphs. After all, a detailed review of a comic failing, can, perversely, end up making the reader smile. Nobody ever chuckled at someone showing off their 52-bedroom gold-plated  mansion, so I'll try to keep it light on any anecdotes of having "smashed it last night".

Three point turn

A lot of my professional life is spent in marketing, stating the good features of products and grabbing the reader with concise points to win them over.I think this is described by the layman as "making something sound more interesting and exciting than it actually is", and I'm guilty of doing just in the opening paragraph.

Let's just go over those three aren't-I-great points at the top of the blog entry with a bit of detail and reason.
  • Running and hosting two comedy nights. Absolutely true, I've got two monthly comedy nights in the east midlands, though there are people much younger than me doing a heck of a lot more.
  • Performing at the Edinburgh Festival. This happened this year, but unlike most comedians, I didn't book a few weeks, or even a single week. In fact, I didn't book a single venue for myself and spent only one night there. I performed my ten-minute set twice on the same night, on 'showcase' gigs, where a resident comedian introduces a bill of acts. Yes, my approach to Edinburgh is very much toe-dipping. Comics can spend up to five grand on rent, food and venue costs, ending up playing to three people and a dog most nights.
  • My own 12-part television series. Okay, this is largely based on material from Tiswas - the cult 70s-80s Saturday morning kids' show. I put together clips from Tiswas footage to a couple of theme that fits the 'A-Z' format. I get to voice it over with my own script. I've even put together fresh graphics and animation, plus it's my choice of music to illustrate certain scenes. And yes, I've taken turns in being front of camera, just for a silly link here and there, nothing that last more than 10 seconds. The resulting programme - The A-Z Of Tiswas - was a five-minute segment that aired weekly as part of a TV station's magazine-style round-up. The channel is one of those Jeremy-Hunt-instigated 'local TV' outposts. You can't pick it up if you're outside Birmingham or the Black Country, but it is viewable online. I suspect the viewing audience was minuscule.
So there you go, I am still an open spot act, albeit with some lucky breaks. The two comedy nights give me adequate pay, not exactly beer money but not enough to quit the day job. There are people more talented than I, who aren't doing as well. And plenty doing better.

2015 has been a blast, travelling hundreds of miles around the UK just to shout obscenities about the Prime Minister into a microphone. I've made a lot of great friends, had some superb gigs and a handful of duff ones. I'll be going into detail on these things as this blog continues...

1: Before you think I'm a complete bastard for being part of the advertising brigade, consider that the audience in that role is almost exclusively IT-focused. There's no point in trying to lie to technology experts, you'll get found out. I dare say it's probably the only part of the marketing industry where there's honesty. Plus, I'm a really shit liar, so it suits me as a day job.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Television Kingdoms: Yorkshire, Hill Communication

Remember that tour of the UK via television regions that I said I'd be doing? Started over a year ago and I haven't been arsed with blogging since. Well, somewhere over Stamford I conked out, just needed a jumpstart and here I am in the next spot, Yorkshire...

TV for thee

Even if you're not a telly nerd, you must be familiar with 'the Big Five'. The ITV franchises that dominated prime time in the days before it all turned into a unified mush of soaps, TOWIE, Kyle and Cowell. I'm referring to Thames; LWT; Granada; ATV/Central and Yorkshire.

Well, this is my first step into the territory of the Big Five and I dare say YTV is the smallest out of that elite ITV tier. In fact, Yorkshire's area was formerly served by neighbouring Granada on weekdays, with ABC - who would go on to become 51% of Thames) taking weekends. That was all before the 1968 change in the network.

There's something about the northern England, where it appears to those of us outside it, that they tend to hate each other, with the Pennines being a major dividing line between the north west folk and Yorkshiremen. Of course, I'm fairly sure hostilities ended in 1487 and the peoples are united in their hatred of anyone south of Worksop.

Why TV

So, I've travelled up here from my base in Anglia. And hey, the roads tell me to "keep two chevrons apart". Ha ha ha! You see? Because, um, Yorkshire's on-screen identity was a chevron. (Okay, that gag needs some work.)

According to many telly nostalgia forum users, the parping yellow chevron drilled fear into them as a child. Not for me, it just signalled the start of Tim Brooke-Taylor-narrated cartoon Gideon.

Having barely visited the region in my childhood (despite it being the birthplace for everyone on my mother's side) I can't really say I've had memories of growing up with the service. We holidayed for two weeks every year, but my parents tended to have 'northophobia', citing "the cold" as a reason to head southbound. Only twice was this rule broken - Blackpool and Scarborough.

On the Aire...

Come the age of the internet, my first meeting with someone online was over in Sheffield. A chap called Chris - a huge Sheffield Wednesday fan - took me on a walking tour of the Steel City. Fans of the Owls don't have a lot of respect for Leeds-based Yorkshire Television, with the station opting not to show any of Wednesday's post-match celebrations over Manchester United in the 1991 League Cup final, even though many other regions continued showing a rightfully exuberant SWFC.

YTV had decided that its viewers would enjoy the scheduled American import, War Of The Monster Trucks. Such disdain for Sheffield has had accusations slung over at Kirkstall Road for having a bias to West Yorkshire. The incident spawned a Wednesday fanzine to sarcastically adopt the name. Indeed, my online friend described the regional news show as CaLeedsar. Admittedly, that's a rather weak pun, but seeing as I've just used a gag about road chevrons, who am I to complain?

So, for those you that don't know, Yorkshire is actually four counties. It's also our true midlands, if you take Great Britain into consideration. As such, playing cricket, regarding tea as a science and moaning about change - all Yorkshire stereotypes - can be considered the beating heart of our country.

There are three things on British television that convey their own vision of Yorkshire to the rest of the country. Last Of The Summer Wine; Emmerdale and Heartbeat. The first one, undoubtedly a stalwart of the BBC schedules up until recently, portrayed the massive hills and valleys to the point where they actually played a part in the comedy.

Woolpacking in them

I really really wish I could state that Rising Damp has been Yorkshire Television's biggest and most prolific export, but the sorry truth is that it's Emmerdale, ITV's 'B' soap, has that title. Probably the biggest money spinner for the franchise, the farm-based serial started life as Emmerdale Farm - filler for afternoons in 1972 when the IBA allowed ITV to broadcast non-stop through the day.

As someone with no time for soaps, I've very little to say on them, but even I recognise Emmerdale. The earworming melody of the theme tune followed by 27 minutes of rural tedium. It was a sneered-upon parochial offering back in the day, at a time when ATV's Crossroads was neck-and-neck in a prime-time war with Coronation Street from Granada.

Of course, by the early Noughties, the roles were reversed. Crossroads was the daft hopeless afternoon filler, whereas Emmerdale had already cemented its place in the evening schedules thanks to a 1993 plane crash storyline. That epoch had turned the soap from dreary Archers-on-TV mediocrity to being an eyebrow-raising 'drama serial' with realism-defying incidents. A bit like every other prime time soap on telly.

I'll recognise Rising Damp as the greatest thing Yorkshire Television have ever produced. It's a bit of a cliche, but most folk will agree it's the best sitcom ITV have ever made. To this day, it deservedly forms part of the ITV3 listings. Miserly landlord Rupert Rigsby, with his right-wing leanings, is played brilliantly as a pathetic petty character by Leonard Rossiter. Students Alan (Richard Beckinsdale) and Philip (Don Warrington) were the target of Rigsby's spite.

Alan's hippy-esque ways and, sadly, Philip's skin colour, would bring out the worst in Rigsby. Thankfully, he always came a cropper, making it a delight to see an on-screen bigot fail every week, just like Alf Garnett over on the Beeb. Unifying all the male tenants' attention was spinster Ruth Jones (Frances De La Tour).

Having established a ratings hit, Yorkshire kept Rising Damp's writer Eric Chappell employed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Subsequent sitcoms from his pen were Only When I Laugh; The Bounder; Duty Free; Home to Roost; Singles and Haggard. Of those, I could only say I heard of Duty Free and Home To Roost. Rising Damp was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Les is more

A huge face in comedy, figuratively and literally, Les Dawson had won ABC's talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967. He went on to be compere on BBC2's International Cabaret. In 1969, with Yorkshire Television being a year old, he was signed up for their comedy panel show Jokers Wild, helmed by comic mastermind Barry Cryer.

Now, there are two genres of television that are highly prolific these days. The TV talent contest and the comedy panel show. Two things that have me reaching for the 'off' button. However, with Les Dawson on board, you can bet it was a joy to watch. Alas, I was suffering with Not Being Born at the time.

Yorkshire must have taken a shine to the gruff Blackpool-based comic, as they handed him his own star vehicle, Sez Les. This sketch show ran for eleven series and various specials. It was the birthplace of 'Cissie and Ada', where Roy Barraclough and Les dragged up to play the northern gossipmongers. Also, John Cleese joined the series after exiting Monty Python's Flying Circus. Despite the jaw-dropping differences in their comedy styles, the two became great friends.

Kirkstall Road continued to pay Les's mortgage for much of the rest of the 1970s, as Yorkshire continued with a news series - Dawson's Weekly and various specials, such as Dawson And Friends. In 1978, he signed a contract with the BBC, largely sticking with the broadcaster for the rest of his life.

Based on Un Dos Tres, Devised by Ibanez Serrador

A really massive thing YTV was famous for in the 1980s, was the evening game show 3-2-1. It's a cliche to point out how the clues were totally unfathomable. Mind you, all game shows were baffling to me at that age. What kept me amused was the way Yorkshire's chevron could whizz around the screen in the animated titles, before landing in a bin.

This receptacle for refuse would then transform into Dusty Bin. Well, that's the magic qualities of the mighty Yorkshire chevron. It all went tits up by the mid-80s when they took on computer graphics, with the animation so incredibly stilted, they may as well have pointed a camera at a real bin.

Of course, computer graphics would also infiltrate the Yorkshire ident itself. According to TVS's The Television Show, the new sequence where a solid 3D chevron rose out of liquid gold, cost a million pounds.

"Hello, 'Benders!"

So far I've not really mentioned anything of Yorkshire's contributions to kids' television. The station tended to contribute a fair bit to the lunchtime pre-school strand, keeping former Rutle Neil Innes busy with the cartoon Raggy Dolls and wizard-based antics in Puddle Lane.

The Book Tower remained part of Children's ITV for a very long time, having started long before the strand existed. Its title sequence was utterly terrifying, the exterior of some empty stately home, soundtracked by Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Variation 18 - a doom laden piece of orchestral prog-rock. Once that ordeal was over, we had the host, a post-Doctor-Who Tom Baker. Actually, that didn't make things any less scary. The series ended in 1989, with Timmy Mallett as host.

The TV-am irritant also got his own vehicle, Utterly Brilliant, in the early 90s. While this show tried to take on a 'cool' street style, it wasn't going to go far with Timmy Mallett as host. Also, around this time, another TV-am refugee - Mike Morris - ended up fronting Calendar, the region's evening news.

Now, for my money, Yorkshire Television didn't put a foot wrong when commissioning Round The Bend - an 'electronic comic' (thankfully Krankies-free) that was devised by cartoonists/writers Patrick Gallagher; Tony Husband and Mark Rodgers, at a time when their own comic - Oink! (a sort of junior Viz) was facing an uncertain future.

This really was a televisual Oink! Of course, there was no Uncle Pigg battling it out with Mary Lighthouse. We had a puppet Doc Croc hosting the show from the comic's offices - based in a sewer - with all kinds of rodents struggling to get the show together. A bit like The Muppet Show with snot-and-bogey humour. All puppets were put together by the Spitting Image workshop. Tony Husband, now more famous for his Private Eye work, has every episode available to view on his website.

Naturally, anarchic humour has always been right up my street and I usually found that ATV/Central could deliver that in spades. However, Yorkshire did well with the aforementioned Round The Bend, plus a little known school-based comedy, Behind The Bike Sheds, featuring a pre-omnipresent Tony Slattery and numerous child actors. Maybe it could be seen as the parent of Hardwicke House or Palace Hill, but having just viewed a bit of it, it's way too song-and-dance heavy. I do recall the final show doing a bit of fourth-wall breaking, by just announcing they were in a television studio all along as the cast dismantled the set.

Whiteley Rose

I don't know whether to go with stuff outside of ITV for the Television Kingdoms strand of the blog, but then, early Channel Four was pretty much like an extension of the ITV network. Well, you don't get much more early Channel Four than Countdown - the first show on the fledgling station and it's still there today.

A Yorkshire Television production from the off, Countdown probably gave viewers the impression that Channel Four was a second ITV (and sets of the day would literally have 'ITV2' on such a button).

As unlikely as it sounds, Countdown actually began life as a branded spin-off from regional news programme Calendar, as Calendar Countdown. It was only screened on ITV in the Yorkshire region, and didn't get networked. Like YTV's other game show behemoth, 3-2-1, it was actually a format from the continent. Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres had been running since 1965.

Also, I'm stunned at how Yorkshire slapped their Calendar brand (itself a rather generic word that has no connotation to the region) on the show in its pre-Channel-Four days. They did the same with short-lived music show Calendar Goes Pop. Taking YTV's logic, maybe my home region could have produced About Anglia Sale Of The Century.

Anyway, Countdown is cemented in the Channel Four schedules and, as you'd suspect, it attracts a huge audience of pensioners. My friends from got to see the last edition Carol Vorderman worked on, and reported how the warm-up man constantly reminded the silver-haired demographic - without any irony - to take their pills during the breaks.

With the near mothballing of the Leeds Studios towards the end of last decade, Countdown was taken away from Kirkstall Road by ITV and relocated to the Granada region at Salford's MediaCity.

Now, if we're channel-hopping, I guess we could give a nod to BBC2's dark sitcom The League Of Gentlemen, as all the interior scenes were filmed at Kirkstall Road. This isn't too surprising, given that the BBC didn't really have any suitable studios in the area.

World Of Pub

Quite possibly the most Yorkshirest thing ever shown on TV has to be Indoor League. A none-more-1970s daytime filler that covered pub games like skittles, shove ha'penny and arm wrestling. This was actually networked (and is astonishingly out on DVD), but most people my age only really came across it when Frank Skinner and David Baddiel highlighted it on BBC2's Fantasy Football League.

The sight of Baddiel in drag as a darts-throwing old lady, replete with a Yorkshire Television badge, during one Phoenix From The Flames sketch had me cackling for about five minutes after it aired, despite me not having a clue about this utterly low-budget show.

Just tyke that...

Now, as I said at the start, I don't have much of a personal connection to the station or region. However, there is one incident which left me rather dismayed with Yorkshire Television Limited, to give it its full title.

During a rather extended break 'between jobs' in 1993, the DSS had myself and a friend join one of those 'job restart' clubs, designed to gently encourage long-term dole-ites into work. I could say it worked for me, using the reasoning that it was incredibly depressing to go to these daily meetings. I recall a former butcher at the table moaning that "increasing vegetarianism" was to blame for his redundancy. Quite a few of the assembled tutted and sneered when they saw a guy come in to set up a computer.

"That's where it's all at, these days," said the ex-butcher. "It's all bloody computers."

I nervously shuffled in my seat. Only my friend knew that I'd spent two years at college studying Information Technology and thankfully he stayed quiet on that subject. So, what does this have to do with Yorkshire Television?

Well, one day we were treated to a documentary on gaining employment. The programme was supplied on VHS tape and was shot just like a typical schools programme. The subject was Yorkshire Television and we saw the company giving auditions to would-be lunchtime newsreaders and a day in the life of an outside broadcast engineer.

I have no idea what the documentary was called and I very much doubt it was aired on actual television. The newsreading auditions included quite a bit of fluffing from nervous women, no doubt put off by the fact there was also this documentary camera crew present as well as the news crew gauging the performance.

The part that fascinated me was the outside broadcast truck. The narrator explained that, Yorkshire was very much physically different to other regions, due to having such massive hills and valleys. Having become a motorist three years ago, I can certainly attest to the eye-popping landscape. I've felt my ears pop as I've driven down hugely steep hills in the Whitby area. I've felt my car beg for mercy at the thought of driving up a steep cobbled road in Scarborough. I've had my breath taken away by the cliffs between Bradford and Keighley, where my mother and uncle spent their childhood.

The engineer was interviewing assistants and - with an implied wink - mentioned the need to 'sweet talk' authority figures into allowing the broadcast truck to spend some extended time in spots where a decent line of sight could be established over to Leeds. Evidently, their counterparts in Anglia would have it very easy.

A low point was when a black interviewee was asked about how his interview went. Sitting in the YTV canteen, he gave a rather negative view of the company and, with a nod towards a nearby black cleaning lady, said "that's probably the only kind of job people like me will get here". I hope he was wrong.

People's Republic of Yorkshire

I started work on this blog on Saturday 26th December 2015, at a time when a fair bit of Yorkshire (as well as the north west) was flooded. These events are unrelated to my decision to restart this blog, it's just down to having the spare time available.

By the following morning, ITV Yorkshire itself was facing Neptune's revenge, with the nearby River Aire having reached their archive building.

Now, the vast majority of ITV's archives are stored over in Leeds, partly due to the expertise of the staff and also due to having the space available. If you've ever travelled along Kirkstall Road, you'll notice that ITV Yorkshire spans quite a few buildings, a bit like a university campus.

Thankfully, I learnt from archivist Chris Perry that all was well. "ITV have replied and said that nothing has been lost in the flood. They had already made plans for this eventuality and all went smoothly."

So this goes to show that while it's at the opposite end of the M1 to ITV's major base in London, the Yorkshire HQ is still a major cog in the network.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Television Kingdoms: Anglia, museum of the airwaves

I'm going on a virtual journey through the UK, having always viewed the country divided into television regions. Sod country boundaries and accents, my head says this rainy island in north west Europe is made up of bizarre and effectively-defunct television stations from the past.

A brief introduction to regional television

The first half of the word 'television' is ancient Greek for 'far-away', and at times it seems like TV does appear to be from a totally different world. If you're over 30 and experienced television in Britain when growing up, then you'll be familiar with the patchwork quilt that was the ITV regional system.

Basically, the fourteen far-flung companies who made the shows on the third button, all had a piece of the United Kingdom (and Channel Islands) all to themselves. Of immediate recognition to anyone with a vague passing interest in telly would be big hitters like Manchester's Granada; Leeds's Yorkshire Television; London's Thames and the self-explained London Weekend Television. Oh, and Birmingham's ATV which meta-morphed into Central in the 1980s.

These were the 'Big Five' who delivered the most familiar programmes seen on ITV. Coronation Street; Emmerdale Farm; World In Action; This Is Your Life; The Muppet Show; Crossroads; Rising Damp and basically any shiny-floored stuff featuring Cilla Black or Jeremy Beadle.

The rest of the ITV stations are sadly vague memories to most people. Newcastle's Tyne Tees; Cardiff and Bristol's HTV; Southampton's Southern (and later TVS); Norwich's Anglia; and Glasgow's STV did manage to get a fair few notable productions on the nationwide network here and there, like the occasional FA Cup win from a perennial Premier League mid-table floater.

These could reasonably be termed as a 'Medium Five', which does sound like I'm damning them with faint praise. However, it'd be churlish to ignore their ITV contributions, such as Robin Of Sherwood; Worzel Gummidge; Tales Of The Unexpected; Taggart and The Tube. Actually, that last one was made for Channel Four, and the closest ITV equivalent would be Top-Of-The-Pops-wannabe The Roxy, but let's try to forget that.

If those are the B-list, then we're left with the minnows - Aberdeen's Grampian; Belfast's Ulster; Carlisle's Border; Plymouth's Westward/TSW/WestCountry and St Helier's Channel Television. Rarely spotted, and usually giving some token filler material, like religious programming, schools and children's slots.

In this post-Alan-Partridge era, the idea of regional television is something that is laughed at, just parochial telly to look down your nose upon. Much of these regional companies have been merged into one big massive PLC that uses the ITV brand, through a series of mergers that took place throughout the Nineties and Noughties. As a result, regional ITV is reduced to about 30 mins at 6pm every evening, presenting the news from a galvanised shed on some charmless industrial estate.

With digital, we have at least 70 channels available to anyone, and the quality is spread rather thinly. 'Constructed reality' is the order of the day, with members of the public making up the cast, real-world locations being the backdrop and no proper writers to be paid. It's strange to think that the North East is now represented on the airwaves by orange-hued twat party Geordie Shore.

However, I'm acutely aware that I should never come across like some finger-wagging old man, sneering at anything new. Thus I cannot say "things were better in my day" without remembering that we had to put up with a metric Bobby-Davro-load of televisual shite.

Eastern promise

I kick off this tour of the UK from my own region, Anglia. Actually, whether or not it is my region is disputed. I live in Northamptonshire, which for many decades has received a none-too-shabby signal from the midlands, so we've had the option of watching the far cooler ATV/Central offerings. Considering my county is officially and legally in the East Midlands, I've felt like it was an anomaly in the first place that we've had Anglia on our screens.

Nonetheless, with Anglia being the strongest signal here, Anglian Water serving us with dihydrogen monoxide and various other businesses with Anglia/Anglian in their name, people in my hometown have come to think of us being part of East Anglia. This is despite the somewhat less-than-flat topology and the obvious lack of rural charm of somewhere like Southwold. Oh, and Birmingham's just 60 miles away, whereas Norwich will set you back 100 miles.

Rural retreats

Still, channel 3 in most homes was dominated by that horse-riding knight statuette, which only confirmed that Anglia was a station broadcasting direct from the 19th Century. Other stations had beautiful geometric symbols, we had to endure about three hours of a heraldic crest placed on a turntable.

Anglia's station ident wasn't the only thing rendered in silver. Most of the announcers between the programmes seemed to be upwards of fifty, so tuning into Anglia was like having your television run by your grandparents.

On my only visit to Norwich, and continuing a childhood mission to visit as many television HQs as possible, we popped into Anglia Television's reception and managed to see a two-foot replica of the Knight-on-a-Horse. In neighbouring glass cabinets, there were many other smaller replicas. One of these had to be The One, surely? Well, I use that excuse to say I've literally seen a famous television ident 'in the flesh', so to speak.

One slight relief in the presentation would be during the children's programmes, where we were treated to the anarchy of B.C., a leopard-y tiger-y lion-y puppet thing, who was the focal point of 'Birthday Club'. Viewers would get their birthdays read out on air by the announcer and have a wave from the aforementioned feline jester.

I recently learnt this tradition lives on over on CBeebies, thanks to a neighbour whose sprog had their birthday cited by the announcer.

The regional news, About Anglia, where we'd learn of ward closures at Addenbrooks Hospital or of a bus strike in Lowestoft, rarely touched on our county. However, a visit by Princess Diana to Wellingborough's Victoria Centre granted me a fleeting appearance on the telly, my first time on the gogglebox.

Ambitiously filling an hour of weekday evening schedule, About Anglia would often pad the programme out with a cookery slot called Patrick's Pantry (brought on to the strains of Hot Butter's synthpop hit, Popcorn and helmed by Patrick Anthony), and an amusingly humble attempt at Points Of View, entitled Write Now! This would be hosted by Paul Barnes, who would 'spike' every viewer letter after reading it out, on some strange mustachioed bust of Victorian police officer. It made no sense to me, but seemed to be cult viewing for my mum and dad, like a newspaper letters page put on the airwaves.

Other local fare included farming programmes. Pretty much every weekend was made up of them. If you switched on your telly on a Sunday lunchtime, you'd be faced with some gruff presenter helming Farming Diary, Farming Today, Farming Now, Farming Calendar, Farming Appointment, Farming Right This Second, Farming For Farms, or whatever it was called.

Obviously, with the transmission area for Anglia being largely rural, this is what you had to expect, but it was televisual anathema for this young viewer. Still, it's one of the purest examples of public service broadcasting, and you can't imagine the ITV of today even contemplating such output.

Speaking of which, Anglia were rather famed for their in-depth weather forecasts, and they'd be presented by a chap entitled Michael Hunt, who was never to be referred to as 'Mike' for obvious reasons. Weathergirl Becky Jago superceded him, and then went onto bigger fame as a Newsround presenter and Chris Tarrant's sidekick on Capital FM, before returning back to Norfolk as newsreader on Anglia News.

Aside from B.C., one regional announcer tended to go off-script. I'm referring to the nocturnal Paul Lavers, who did all the live night-time continuity throughout most of the nineties. He of the unusual hair colour, would go into free-form monologues and worry the management. It's the closest Anglia ever got to a Phillip Schofield or Andy Crane, and yet you'd probably only see him if you set the video for WCW Wrestling or Prisoner Cell Block H.

Serving the nation

Ask anyone outside the region what Anglia was best known for, and you can expect the words "Live from Norwich, it's the quiz of the week!" to be bellowed. This phrase always introduced Sale Of The Century, which was rather confusing to me, having expected to see a show genuinely called The Quiz Of The Week. (Still, Central's Family Fortunes was also bewildering with the first words on screen being 'Big Money'.)

Much parodied and derided, this low budget game show operated a shoestring and yet gained something like twenty million viewers nationwide around the late 1970s. It's probably Anglia's biggest known hit.

At some point in 1996 I had a job interview for a satellite TV station in central London, run by a former LWT programme director. When they asked me what region I came from, they all went into the Sale Of The Century theme tune. I should have cited the much cooler and hipper Central instead.

Other things Anglia made for nationwide consumption was the wildlife-observational spectacular Survival, which went all around the world to film exotic animals. Heavily highbrow and definitely worth to make, this was a time when ITV could be expected to create output that rivalled BBC2 as well as BBC1. It simply wouldn't happen today. Anglia milked this for all its worth, putting reruns of it out in their region long after it stopped being nationally transmitted.

And then of course, there is Britain's answer to The Twilight Zone. Tales Of The Unexpected ran for many series, introduced by a frail-looking Roald Dahl and showcasing a standalone 30 minute supernatural drama each night. Nowadays just boiled down to that silhouetted-naked-dancer title sequence for talking heads clips shows and tired comedians to re-enact.

Tales Of The Unexpected did meet its ambitions, albeit not with an Anglia production crew. It was largely made in London by non-Anglia employees.

"And for our younger viewers"

One chance for smaller broadcasters to build up their IBA-mandated national programme quota was with children's television. As I've detailed so far, Anglia seemed a century out of touch, so it's actually quite surprising that it was behind one of the most well-remembered children's programmes of all time.

Knightmare hit Children's ITV in the late 1980s, combining the geeky world of role playing with a much more respectable pseudo-video-game-like concept. It nearly didn't get made at all, as the Anglia management were adamant that any programme they made had to reflect their region - something that never bothered The Big Five.

Thankfully, by pointing out Cambridgeshire's contribution to home computing (what with the Acorn Electron and Sir Clive Sinclair) and Northamptonshire being home to various games producers (such as Activision), the board of directors were convinced, and Knightmare become cult viewing for several years. Child players were chrome-keyed against backdrops of beautifully hand-pixellated art, as live actors and animations posed as risks or even assistance.

Anglia's big blue-screen studio was also used for a little-remembered Alice In Wonderland playlet, proving that chrome key would suffice in lieu of an expensive studio construction budget. Impressively, Michael Bentine, Eric Sykes, Leonard Rossiter, Bernard Cribbins and Windsor Davies were on the voice cast list.

While Anglia never played a big role in the Saturday morning slot, it did take part in the Get Fresh and Ghost Train shows, which were vehicles (yes, literally) managed by Tyne Tees in order to let all the regions outside of the Big Five and the Number-73-producing TVS to have a crack at putting their region on air.

The Anglia region of course played host to a few of these shows, and they also contributed to every show of Get Fresh series 2 and 3 with gunge-as-punishment game show slot Get Mucky (scarily reconstructed on YouTube by a muck enthusiast in his home here). This is pretty much as close as Anglia would get to making a new Tiswas.

The game involved two children playing computer game Starglider against each other. The later series used Xenon (on the Atari ST, I believe). The losing child would have their friend stood on a plinth, as host Charlotte Hindle pulled a lever to drop a load of gunk or flour over them. We're a long way from Farming Diary now.

Speaking of Tiswas, Anglia was one of the first regions to simulcast ATV's flan-stained parade of anarchy, although it did made the stupid decision to drop the show in favour of Southern's Saturday Banana in 1978, along with a few other regions. After the 1979 strike, most regions backed the return Tiswas, although Anglia decided to take on the Saturday Banana again for a second series, which no other region (apart from Southern, obviously) bothered with. By 1980, Anglia and Southern were back with Tiswas. I'm pretty sure at one point, Anglia had their normally staid announcer Michael Speke flanned by a replica Phantom as the show was introduced. I'm not imagining that, am I?

In a convoluted way, Anglia is responsible for The Prodigy's success. The Braintree-based rave anthem makers definitely lived in the region, and their official biography tells of how Charly managed to become their breakthrough hit, thanks to a decision to rerun 1970s Bash-Street-Kids-as-live-action serial The Double Deckers on Saturday mornings in 1991. Whether it was due to irony or budget constraints, I'm not sure, but both Central and Yorkshire were also shoving it out in a similar timeslot.

In the commercial break, Anglia had stuffed in a few vintage Public Information Films. This is usually a sign that a station hasn't sold enough adverts for the slot, but with this rerun evoking nostalgia amongst the student-age generation, especially a 19-year-old Liam Howlett, it could be said it was a deliberate move.

Impressed with the "Charly says..." cartoon (where the cat was allegedly voiced by Kenny Everett), Liam set the video for the following week, hoping to grab the PIF to include the lines as samples over a Joey-Beltram-riff-infused track he had been working on.

Thankfully it was repeated, and the result is of course Charly, the band's second single yet their first appearance in the mainstream. The rest is of course, history. It's odd to think that such a massive hard-edged band with over two decades of hits, owes its success to a space-filling decision made at Anglia Television.

Thatcher lot

As the eighties were about to expire, so would the regional make-up of ITV itself. The 1990 Broadcasting Act meant the once-a-decade-ish renewal of television franchise would now take bank balances into account rather than programme quality. Wiser stations, such as LWT, had broken themselves up into production facilities, transmission, studio hire and archives, ready for a worst-case scenario if they were no longer to be part of the ITV network.

Sensing the regulatory authority ITC would take into account regional commitments (just as its predecessor the IBA did back in the early 1980s) when assessing renewals, Anglia quickly carved its rather large region up into two by the middle of 1990. Hence, the service became a bit like HTV's West and Wales offerings, and here in Northants, we were served by the refreshingly titled 'Anglia West'.

This was a huge breath of fresh air, as no longer would we have to suffer boring reports about surfers in Gorleston from 120 miles away, we could instead sit through a handful of stories about Luton job cuts, Cambridge students and the occasional report from our county!

Neighbouring region Central had already sliced itself up into two east/west options by 1984, and did another act of localising segregation with the creation of the Central South region in 1989. We had Central News East as competition to Anglia West, and yet if Wellingborough would be featured, they tended to use the same video as each other.

It took years for the BBC's Look East offering to do the same. Now satellite viewers in my area have the rather bafflingly titled 'BBC One East (W)' label at the top of the EPG.

Of course, with cost-cutting going throughout the cash-strapped ITV plc in the Noughties, the two services were once again unified. The regional split does technically exist for advertising purposes, but Anglia is barely considered in the modern operation of ITV. Every feed of Anglia on HD or +1 is superceded by Meridian. So if you're in Stamford and hoping for a local report, you'll have Eastbourne on your screen instead.

While it barely bothered with Channel Four, Anglia's parent company in the 1990s (United News & Media) had the station producing early Channel 5 shows hosted by Matthew Wright.

Anglia also played host to the terrible Trisha Goddard shoutathon, which are the spiritual ancestors to Jeremy Kyle's daily humiliation platform. Yeah, er, cheers for that. Trisha herself is now a fairly big name on American network NBC.

Anglia had a go at digital satellite broadcasting, like many active and inactive ITV franchise-holders did in the 1990s. In an out-of-character move, it transmitted dance/club channel RaptureTV, which has collapsed and been revived a number of times.

So, Anglia, as parochial as an ITV region can get, firmly rooted in its region and fairly proud of it, even if it meant losing out on the national limelight on many an occasion. Never shifted by any latecomers, this eastern-counties broadcaster has remained on air since its inception in 1959.

Where are they now?

I believe Paul Barnes married announcer Helen McDermott. Paul went onto host a jazz-infused evening show on BBC Radio Norfolk, called The Late Paul Barnes. It went on to do so well that it's now shared across all BBC local radio in the BBC East region and even BBC Radio Kent.

Chef Patrick Anthony also jumped over to BBC East, having a radio gig on BBC Radio Norfolk at one point, and also became part of Ready Steady Cook.

As you probably know, Nicholas Parsons hosts Just A Minute, Roald Dahl is currently dead.

Paul Lavers plunged himself to satellite broadcasting, taking a major part in shambolic premium-phoneline-dependent Friendly TV, where he possibly libelled a couple of Hollywood stars on one occasion. This cash-strapped channel was a rare example of a satellite station fronted by visible continuity announcers, and in its death throes, it had a few hours where Paul Lavers was literally presenting and managing every caption on screen. Friendly TV evolved (or devolved) into one of those Babestation type affairs, and so now Paul treads the boards, having been an experienced thespian well before Anglia gave him a pay cheque.

As for Anglia itself? The regional archive is held by the University of East Anglia. Anglia's news output for the entire region emanates from Norfolk.

Paul Hayes has commented below this blog entry to correct me on a few things, which I'm grateful for. He points out: "...after selling off most of the latter bits, they're back just in the original building they started off in in 1959, the old Agricultural Hall. There's a story that the reason they don't leave this bigger-than-they-need property is that a condition of the lease is that they must return it to the condition in which they took it on, which would be very expensive, but I have no idea of the truth of that."

Good knight

And that's that. Quite a lengthy blog post, as I've lived in this region all of my life, plus I had to write a few paragraphs on the whole concept of this series of posts. If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back and book yourself in for a viewing marathon of Tales Of The Unexpected.