Manchester, 41 Years On

A lot has changed in Manchester city centre, at least on the surface, but to a great extent it’s still the same city as it always was. My book, Floating in Space is, as you probably know if you have ever visited this web page before, set in Manchester in 1977 and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the city, some 41 years later.

In 1977 there was no internet, no mobile phones and wireless was an old fashioned word that our parents used for the radio. Manchester was a busy and bustling city even back in 1977. People came into the city to shop, visit the cinema, eat at restaurants, drink beer and socialise in pubs and bars, pretty much just as they do today.

I loved my Saturday nights in Manchester. There was a quality of security, of expectancy, a feeling that the night and the future were going to be good. A feeling that you might just meet some gorgeous girl and that even if you didn’t, it didn’t really matter because there was always the excitement of the people and the music, and everything else that made up the evening. Then there was always the expectancy of the next night, and the next, and on and on into the future. The past building up inside you like a great data bank, reminding you, reassuring you, like a light burning in some empty room in the corner of your mind.

The main venue for me and my friends on a Saturday night in 1977 was the ‘Playground’, a small disco bar on Oxford Rd in the town centre. Flickering multi-coloured spotlights rotated across the red carpeted room which, on Fridays and Saturdays, was generally packed.

It had a small dance floor down at street level and when people stepped up to the bar, which was up on a slightly raised level, they could look down at the dancing, gyrating and mostly female dancers. Interestingly, on the same dance floor on week day lunchtimes, a topless dancer appeared at the stroke of one o’clock to translate the soul and disco music of the time into pulsating physical motion, the eyes of jaded office workers glued to her as she did so.

My friends and I used to meet up in the Salisbury, by Oxford Rd station, have a few pints and then make the short walk to the Playground. There was a paltry fifty pence charge to gain entry, the solitary bouncer was silent, but not unpleasant, and the DJ, who always began the night with ‘Love’s Theme’ by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, (Barry White’s backing band) played alternate sessions of rock, disco and chart music.

We were mad about Jenny, the barmaid. She was lovely. She had a kind of round, open face, framed by thick blonde hair and her skin was a creamy white. She served us Worthington ‘E’ and we melted into the hubbub of people on their Saturday night out whilst the music of the seventies drifted through us.

Those then, are my memories of Saturday nights in Manchester. Beer, music, girls and a kebab or curry before getting the late bus home.

I’m sure there are still Saturday nights like that, in Manchester’s 21st century world. Most of the pubs I used to frequent are still there, repainted, refurbished and in some cases re-named. They may look different but peel away those new outer layers and you’ll find things pretty much the same. Different decor, different music but still very similar people enjoying an evening of drinks, music and chat.

The Salisbury is still there. Today it looks just like it always did. Inside the pub has been refurbished but in a good way and it looks pretty similar to how it used to look. The room where my friends used to sit has gone. It’s now an office or a private room. Still, the same flagged stone floor is there and whenever I step inside the memories come flooding back.

The Playground is still there too, well not the Playground exactly but the building is there. It’s now the Palace Theatre bar and what it looks like inside I do not know. The last time I passed by it was closed but I imagine that the DJ’s booth and the dance floor have gone. Perhaps Jenny passes by and remembers the old times just like me. Perhaps not, perhaps it was just another bar job to her.

Once upon a time in 1977 I was a young office clerk who ate his sandwiches in St Peter’s Square on sunny weekday lunchtimes. All is different there now. Today Manchester looks cleaner and sleeker. Modern buildings of steel and glass sit side by side with traditional architecture and through it all glides the modern tram, toot tooting its way through the city.

Even at the old end of town, things are cleaner, smoother. Warehouses and old buildings have been reformed into trendy bars and restaurants and dance music venues. A short walk from Deansgate Station takes you to the Dukes 92, a lovely and trendy canalside bar but take plenty of money with you, it’s not cheap!

Walking up Peter St from Deansgate, the Café  Royale is gone. There is a bar called Henry’s Schloss, a huge Beer Keller sort of place where 2 pints of lager cost nearly ten pounds and large groups of men quaff beer and enjoy themselves. It’s not really my sort of place.

Just round the corner though, is a place that is my sort of place, the Abercromby, actually the Sir Ralph Abercromby, is one of those pubs that is a little like stepping into a time capsule. The decor is authentic seventies with lots of stained dark wood and leather seats and they serve a decent pint. I read on the internet that it was the model for the pub in the TV show Life on Mars. The former footballer turned property developer Gary Neville apparently wanted to knock down not only the pub but an entire block in the area to build two skyscrapers and a hotel. The fact that the pub dates back to the early 19th Century and is the only structure remaining from St Peter’s Field, site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre clearly meant nothing to him. Happily the council planners would not let him have his way.

As you read this on a Saturday morning the cleaners are busy in those Manchester bars. The chillers will be stocked, the carpets cleaned and the tables polished. New barrels of beer and lager will be made ready.

Everything is ready for another Saturday night.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester 1977

Some Random Thoughts on Box Rooms, Stormy Daniels and Action Man!

This is one of my favourite times of the year. March and its bad weather are on the way out (soon anyway) and April and gradually longer days are coming. Last weekend the hour went forward which was doubly enjoyable for me because I was working a night shift and therefore only worked 7 hours!

It was also the first morning this year that I left work in daylight and not the leftover darkness from the night before. Spring had arrived.

Last weekend I was staying with my Mum in Manchester and I slept in the small boxroom that I have used for years. It’s not my childhood bedroom, Mum and Dad have had a few house moves since then, but it’s pretty similar. It’s nice to be surrounded by my old books and cassette tapes from my past as well as my vinyl records and VHS tapes leftover from a previous house move.

Its called a boxroom, I suppose because of the large wooden ‘box’ that takes over one corner where the stairs below and this small room compete for space. When I was a young lad this part of the room was my focus. I used to have numerous plastic kit models on display there before my childhood Action Man phase took over. Action Man was a male figure about a foot high and you could buy various outfits and equipment for him. I think I’d almost forgotten about Action Man until the recent Money Supermarket TV advert brought my schoolboy memories flooding back.

We weren’t particularly well off so I used to make a lot of my Action Man gear myself, mainly out of cardboard, plastic or balsa wood. On the box in the corner of my room I set up a sort of control room based on the one in the TV show ‘The Time Tunnel’. In case you never watched that or were just too young when it aired, Time Tunnel is about ‘Two American scientists (who) are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America’s greatest and most secret project, the Time Tunnel. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips now tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time.” Or so the introduction told us.

I started off with one Action Man, a second-hand Action Man I picked up from my friend Peter Condron in a swap for something or other, I don’t remember what. Another one came from my brother in another swap and the third was a brand new Action Man I got free by collecting the ‘stars’ on new Action Man products. There were ‘stars’ on each product and when you collected 21 and fixed them to a special chart you were sent a free Action Man. As I didn’t buy much Action Man stuff I used to cadge stars off people at school or swap for comics, books or models.

One day I picked up this sheet of plywood about 3′ x 2′ and decided to convert my control room into a flying ‘jet raft’ for my Action figures. I built the seats out of balsa wood and cardboard, glued together with Bostick. The control and computer arrays were made from plastic bottle tops, toothpaste lids and bits of plastic model kits. They were cannibalised from the former control room and I added panels that lit up with some bulbs and bulb holders attached to a battery underneath the rear ‘thrusters’. How I loved that ‘Jet Raft’! When my free Action Man arrived I built a navigator’s console onto the rear area with maps and his own little control panel. Yes, lying there in my boxroom all those memories come back.

My present car was one I bought in 2008 and before that the old banger Rover I drove had a cassette player and I made and played music cassettes by the dozen. From my teenage years, right up to the present day I have made music tapes, although these days it’s CDs I put together rather than tapes. Most of my older tapes are still stored here in my little room. I used to mix vinyl tracks with bits and pieces I had taped from the radio over the years, not just music but film dialogue and comedy routines too. The other day I came across a tape with two of my favourite comedy sketches. In the first one an unknown American impressionist does the voice of JFK, uncannily realistic, as he speaks to his daughter Caroline. He reads her a bedtime story about the ‘Steel Duke’ and the ‘Bad Prince with the Black Beard from the island in the south’ (with me so far?). At the end of the story JFK leaves Caroline who says to the listener ‘these sessions do him so much good!’

In the other one, another impressionist voices Richard Nixon, again incredibly realistically, as he meets the Godfather, Don Corleone. ‘Thanks for coming to see me’ says the Don, ‘on the day of my daughter’s wedding. How may I help you?’ ‘Well, says Nixon. ‘I have to get out of the Watergate mess.’ ‘Do you want justice? asks Corleone. Nixon thinks for a moment: ‘Not necessarily!’ he replies.

As I said above, I’ve no idea who the impressionist was but it’s amazing what a simple search on google will bring up:

Back to the present and that last night shift. It was actually pretty busy but there was a lull around 3am when I had a chance to catch up on the recent news events courtesy of the BBC 24 news channel. Two interesting items stood out. The first was adult star Stormy Daniels and her revelations about her encounters with Donald Trump, now of course President of the USA. It seems Trump or at least ‘his people’, paid her $130,000 to keep quiet about their liaison. Pretty natural really if you’re running for the presidency. However, for whatever reasons Stormy decided to reveal all in a TV interview which probably wasn’t what Mr Trump had in mind when he bunged her the $130,000! I personally think now he would be within his rights to ask for his money back! Stormy of course is relishing in the free publicity and has even added more dates to her tour of US strip clubs.

The other item which I thought was interesting was the one about the ball tampering scandal in Australian cricket. Even the Aussie Prime Minister has had a say in the matter but what is it all about really? Cricketers tend to give the ball a bit of a polish don’t they so why shouldn’t they be able to go the other way and rough up the ball a little? To be honest, cricket is a sport that makes that age-old practice of watching paint dry look attractive. Ball tampering scandal? Do me a favour! I remember once when I was a coach driver taking a load of fans from the Lancashire Cricket Club which perversely, due to boundary changes is no longer in Lancashire but now in Greater Manchester. I took them to a match at Lytham Cricket Club and was given a free ticket to stay and watch the action. After thirty minutes I was so bored I was ready to end it all but instead I went for a wander around in search of a cup of tea and a sandwich. I’ve loved Lytham St Annes ever since.

One final nostalgic memory: Once, again when I was a coach driver, a job I used to get regularly was a pick up and drop off service for some small kids at a special school. I used to start off by picking up this supervising lady who told me where to go to pick up the kids. They were all problem kids with behavioural or physiological issues: Special needs is the term I think I’m looking for. Anyway, they were a bit of a handful and one week I was allocated a coach with a video player. So, I brought along a VHS tape of the TV show Thunderbirds and set it up for the kids to watch. It quickly got their attention and calmed them down and I felt pretty pleased with myself. However, the trip to the school was only about 30 minutes after the last pick up and Thunderbirds lasts for an hour, which unfortunately set up a scenario at school where the kids all started getting rowdy again because they wanted to see the end of the episode!

Anyway, I just fancy an hour of nostalgic TV viewing, something like Thunderbirds perhaps. Where did I put that box of old VHS tapes?


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!

Walks with and without my Dad

As you read this post my winter holiday will be over and I’ll be back in cold old England. It’s been a nice break though, a month in Lanzarote and it’s been sunny and warm for the most part. There were a number of things I wanted to do in Lanzarote including working on my new book and other writing projects but sadly I’ve not been completely successful in that area.

Another thing was to improve my fitness which I think I have achieved, at least in part. I’ve swum in our pool almost every day and I’ve tried to make up for missed swimming days by doing extra lengths on the next day. The tight trousers I brought with me are now slipping off me so I must have lost weight, unless I’ve just stretched them! I’ve also done a fair bit of walking here which has also helped in the fitness area. A favourite walk for me is going from our rented villa in Las Coloradas down to the sea front and then on along the coastal path down to the Marina Rubicon. There’s a lovely view of Fuerteventura, a lovely sea breeze and sometimes you can see the ferry going across.

As I’ve walked along the sea front I’ve thought about my old Dad and how he would have enjoyed this walk. He was a great walker and when I lived at home, not having a car, we walked everywhere. When he retired he used to get up, have breakfast and then take the dog for a walk. He walked for miles and Mickey, who was a pretty old dog then, used to be worn out when they returned home. Mickey would have a long drink of water and then drop down on the floor somewhere to recuperate, oblivious of everyone having to step over him as he dreamed his canine dreams.

Once, my Dad and I went for a drink together. Dad said he’d take me to the Griffin for a pint. ‘The Griffin?’ I asked. ‘Where’s the Griffin? There’s no pub round here called the Griffin?’

‘Oh yes, the Griffin. It’s not a bad pub. It’ll be a nice walk.’

Well, off we went, out of Wythenshawe where we lived, past Peel Hall and down towards Heald Green. Heald Green was a good thirty to forty minute walk and I remember saying, ‘look Dad, let’s go into the Heald Green hotel for a pint.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘The Griffin’s not far away now.’ So we walked and walked, past Heald Green and on towards Cheadle and eventually, after about an hour’s walk if not longer, we came to the Griffin. Inside there were a bunch of fellas who nodded to my Dad and he nodded in return. Up at the bar the barman came over and said ‘pint of mild Ralph?’ He’d been here before, apparently.

I was exhausted and gasping for a drink and I was probably hanging onto the bar for dear life when my dad asked me what I was drinking?

‘Pint of lager please,’ I said. Dad nodded to the barman then looked back at me. ‘Not a bad stretch of the legs was it?’ he said.

Wythenshawe is supposed to be the biggest council estate in Europe, at least I remember reading that somewhere. When my Dad left school at 14 during the Second World War the estate was small and was surrounded by farms and market gardens. Gradually as the estate became larger the farms were swallowed up and built on. Dad worked on a farm in those early days and on one walk he decided to show me the first farm he’d worked at. I doubted there would be much to see but he took me through some unfamiliar streets and we came to a green with a few trees and there, just at the head of the green was an old house. The house was surrounded by the council estate which had been built around it. This used to be the farmhouse where he once worked. The green had once been part of the orchard. As we looked closer I could see that the trees were pear trees and I tried to imagine this place in a rural setting, instead of the urban one it had become.

Getting back to Lanzarote, it’s about a half hour walk to the beginning of the marina. The footpath comes in from high up on the rocks and you get a great view of the marina before you drop down and walk past the yachts and boats, their masts jogging slightly in the breeze. The picture above is one of me surveying the harbour.

After that it’s down to the marina proper and it’s nice to walk past the elegant restaurants and watch the boats bobbing about on the sea. Finally we arrive at our destination, the Cafe Berrugo and our waiter, Oscar, mimes the pouring of beer to us as we get seated. We mime back the thumbs up sign and the drinks quickly arrive along with our nibbles; nuts, olives and popcorn.

I reckon my Dad would have liked it here.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

Resignations, Old Friends and Green for Danger!

I don’t know if you remember that old British movie, Green for Danger? I’ve not seen it myself for a while but this week I’ve been thinking about it and even done a search through my old VHS video tapes to find my copy.

If you’ve not seen it, the film is a murder mystery set in World War 2, and Inspector Cockrill, who is sent by Scotland Yard to investigate, is played by none other than one of my favourite actors, Alastair Sim. Although the film is a serious one, as usual Alastair Sim adds just the right amount of whimsical humour to make it just a shade lighter than perhaps it might have been. In one scene Sim crouches down expecting the crash of a German Doodlebug only to find a tractor passing by. A number of great British actors are also in the movie, Trevor Howard and Leo Genn to name but two.

The film is narrated by Sim in the form of a letter of resignation to his superiors after the case is finally resolved although not in quite the way he would have liked.

This week, I too have written my letter of resignation. It has not been a great week for me at work. I’m a deputy manager but deputising in my organisation is slightly different. I work in an emergency control room and most of the time I am just an operator, just like my colleagues. When my boss is not around, either off sick or on leave then it is me, as his deputy, who steps up and manages the shift. When he comes back I must once again step down and join my colleagues on the shop- sorry, control room- floor.

Still, it’s not a bad arrangement you might think, surely a step up the corporate ladder? Wrong. Maybe in an organisation that takes notice of its staff perhaps, maybe in a company where senior management are actually aware of the performance of the lower echelons and the efforts they make, yes, but here in a place where anonymous panels judge staff by their form filling abilities, it’s not a great situation.

Anyway, a while ago the management undertook a ‘refreshment’ -to use their word- of the deputy management situation. In basic terms, anyone who was a deputy had to re-apply in order to stay on as a deputy and now I find after six years I have not made the cut and I am no longer able to call myself a deputy manager.

Perhaps I am not that good at my job you might think, perhaps I am no longer up to the task of managing. Well, after six years of deputising I am older and wiser and although I have more backache than I used to have, I can still run the control room as well as I have always done. I wonder if I skimmed over the application too quickly; approached it too flippantly? Surely though, with six years worth of experience under my belt I must be better, more knowledgeable, more experienced than before. Does that matter? Apparently not. Am I a bad form filler? Perhaps yes.

All this started me thinking about a much simpler time many years ago when I became a bus conductor at the tender age of nineteen. I had returned from hitch hiking around Europe, sunburned and penniless and my Dad was not at all happy that I moped about the house all day winding up his electric bills by playing music constantly. That’s where the bus conducting job offered a solution. Well paid work while I looked for a proper job.

My driver was a guy called Jimmy. He was older than me and became a sort of, not a father figure but more an older brother figure to me. He mentored me in the arts of bus conducting and people management and laughed at my timid efforts to chat up the girls on our bus. Jimmy was a big speedway fan and quite a few times I joined him at Belle Vue and other venues watching the sport. At the time Jimmy had a three-wheel Reliant van and we chugged our way about the country to various speedway venues and after a late shift Jimmy would drop me off at home to save me from waiting on the grumpy staff bus drivers’ pleasure.

In return, I once gave Jimmy this big Lego set that my brother and I had. It had been a joint Christmas present to us years before; a great assortment of Lego bricks in a big wooden box that over time my brother and I added to with more bricks and bits and pieces and gradually built it up into a pretty big Lego set. It was no longer used and my Mum had suggested I give it to Jimmy for his children.

Jimmy was over the moon with the Lego and told me several times how his kids loved it.

One day I had the call from the chief inspector and he told me it was time for me to go in the driving school to become a driver. I wasn’t keen on leaving Jimmy and asked if I could defer driver training for a while. He agreed and Jimmy and I carried on our teamwork up and down the roads of south Manchester. Not long afterwards Jimmy had the call too, only he was called to become a one man operator. One man operators were paid much more money than conventional bus crews and being a fellow with a wife, children and a mortgage, it was not something Jimmy could refuse.

On our last shift together, we had arranged to have a fish and chip treat to mark the occasion. We were on the 148 route from Manchester to Woodford where we had a long layover at the terminus. I think we had a twenty-minute drop back but as we had so much extra running time at the far end of the route we could easily put our foot down and extend that to twenty-five minutes. We stopped in Cheadle Hulme, I nipped out and bought the chips and then we raced up to Woodford. Just as we arrived a man was running for our bus, waving his hands presumably as he thought we were about to drive off and leave him behind. We pulled up in the layby and set ourselves up at the back of the bus. Jimmy poured us a brew but the guy was knocking on the window. I eventually let him in and he was glad he had seen us because he was in a rush to get to Bramhall, a place about ten minutes down the road. We told him that he had a long time to wait and that we weren’t due to leave for another twenty minutes but he sat down a couple of seats from us at the back, watching us eating our chips and looking at his watch, all the while carrying on a moan about buses and timetables and public transport in general. He completely ruined that last fish and chip supper on our final day of working together. We left on time and dropped our one passenger off at a place which was hardly a five-minute walk from where he had boarded our bus.

Jimmy settled down as a one-man bus driver but I left and came back to the company quite a few times as well as transferring to other depots and other rotas. On another occasion I took a job working in the coaching unit and then got a position in the bus control room. In those days I was always on the look out for something new and doing the same old thing bored me very quickly.

Years later I bumped into Jimmy and we had a long natter and a brew at the bus canteen in Stockport. I’d not seen him for many years and I was so pleased to see him again. ‘Listen my mate,’ he said, he always called me ‘my mate’. ‘I need to see you again, why don’t you meet me back here tomorrow?’

I met him in the car park the next day and he opened up the boot of his car with a big smile and there was the old Lego set. His kids had grown up and he was returning the Lego set to me for my kids.

Sadly, I never did have any children and the Lego set was lost, probably left forgotten in the attic on one of numerous house moves. Jimmy and I lost touch and I never saw him again.

I remember once sitting with Jimmy at some nameless bus terminus and he turned to me and told me how much he loved his job and how he knew he would stay as a bus driver until he retired. That’s the same feeling I used to have here at my present job; that this was the place where I would finish my working career. Yes, used to have: until they demoted me.

Anyway, back to the letter of resignation. What was it Alastair Sim said at the end of the film?

In view of my failure — correction, comparative failure — I feel that I have no alternative but to offer you, sir, my resignation, in the sincere hope that you will not accept it.

Yes, I think I’ll put my resignation on hold, for now!


If you enjoyed this post, why not try my book Floating in Space? Click the links at the top of the page or watch the video below for more information!

 

Schoolday Memories

The other day I was watching one of my favourite movies from my favourite director: Woody Allen’s Radio Days. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s about Woody Allen looking back at his young self and how he lived his life through the radio shows of the day. It pretty much reminded me of myself, and how I was obsessed with TV when I was a child. Personally, I wouldn’t have said obsessed but that’s what my Mum and Dad used to say. They used to tell me I watched that much TV I would grow up with ‘square eyes’.

Anyway, that movie got me thinking about my schooldays, but as I started to put pen to paper, I remembered an essay I had written years ago about my schooldays. I scoured my notebooks and old laptop archives and finally, after a long search, here it is, suitably updated.

My first school memory is of infant school, in fact I can remember my very first day there I remember being taken there by my Mum. She stayed for a while and watched me take my first tentative steps into the classroom. Once I was happy and started playing with the other kids she then slipped discreetly away. I remember playing with these large wooden bricks, like household bricks but wooden and light. I made a car with them, or a plane; some sort of vehicle that you could actually sit in and pretend to drive or fly.

On the next day a new climbing frame arrived at the school. It was made of wood, painted blue with a sort of platform at the top if you were good enough a climber to get there. It was much better than the old climbing frame which was just a series of wooden poles interlocked together. If you got to the top you could only pop your head out and look around. I much prefered the blue one, it gave you a goal: getting to the platform at the top.

The memory of Christmas at infant school still lingers fondly. I played one of the three kings in the nativity play. I can still remember the excitement of getting changed in the makeshift dressing room, actually the headmistress’ office. The backstage nerves, most of all I recall the feeling of being part of things, not just an observer.

In junior school I was a member of the choir and there was that same excitement: The rehearsals. Missing normal lessons to be in the hall for all the rehearsals and the big one, the dress rehearsal, then the even bigger one, the real thing.

One day, while in the choir practice, the music teacher stopped in front of me. After some thought she put her ear directly to my mouth, listened intently to my singing then banished me from the choir, from backstage, from everything that mattered. My voice clearly wasn’t good enough. Then I was once again just a spectator. Not really part of anything.

One exciting part of the Christmas events was the setting up of Mr Todd’s 16 mm projector and the watching of his films in the main hall. They were mostly cartoons like Woody Woodpecker but I also remember seeing those Walt Disney true-life films. I can still hear now the clicketty-click of the projector and feel the excitement of the lights going down just as the show began. When Mr Todd retired, the projector, which must have been his personally, retired also and the film sessions went with him.

In that same hall I danced with my childhood crush, Jacqueline Stonehouse. In junior school we used to have dance lessons and she was my regular partner.  One day after being off sick for a while, I returned to find she was dancing with Luke White, the class hard man. I was devastated.

When I walked home at lunchtime I used to save a biscuit from the tuck shop to give a to a dog that I had made friends with. He waited behind his gate on my way home for this usual treat. The dog was always there and always waited. One day at playtime Luke White demanded a biscuit and I refused. As I walked home he and his big brother chased me and took away my biscuit. The biscuit and Jacqueline Stonehouse. I don’t know which crime I hated him for the most.

The Christmas slide in the junior school playground is another memory; this was a dangerous slide, big and long and fast. Only for the biggest lads, only for the most skilled of sliders. You had to be skilful and quick because a split second behind you was the next man. No time for hesitancy, no time for time wasters. Go quickly, feel the ice, the slippery smoothness, the danger, keep your balance and enjoy the exhilaration of a great slide!

Then there was the Christmas party. I cannot remember enjoying any party more, even some fifty years later. Pass the parcel. Jelly and cream. Paper hats. I must have been happy all the time at junior school. I had all the important things in life; my bike, my friends and my favourite TV programmes: Star Trek, Stingray, Time Tunnel, Doctor Who and a hundred others, and not a worry in the world.

The move to ‘big’ school, comprehensive school, was a hard one. Leaving behind the familiarity and warmth of my old school and its teachers was hard. Not only that; I had been one of the big boys. I was among the oldest in the school and now I would be among the youngest again.  All I had heard about the new school was how the big lads would be after us. Don’t let them get you alone in the toilets because they would grab you and push your head into the toilet bowl and flush! The fear comes back to me again, deep in the stomach along with the smell and feel of my new green blazer, my brown leather briefcase, my gym kit and my hated football boots. I remember the thrill of going to school in my new long trousers. The feel of being a grown up.

Just like young Joe, the young Woody Allen character in Radio Days who was mad about radio, I was mad about television. I loved my TV programmes then and looked forward to my regular dose of Blue Peter, How, Magpie, and Crackerjack. One firm favourite was the Magic Boomerang. It was set in the outback of Australia and was about a young boy who has, yes, a magic boomerang. Whenever he threw it, time stood still for everyone except the boy. A little bit like those quick quid adverts today!

My absolute favourites though, were the puppet shows of Gerry Anderson. Four Feather Falls was about a sheriff with magic guns set in the wild west but then came Supercar, a show set a hundred years into the future. Supercar was a small craft that could fly up into the atmosphere or under the sea and was developed by professor Popkiss, Doctor Beaker and test pilot Mike Mercury.

Supercar was followed by Fireball Xl5, the adventures of a space patrol and its crew. Then came Stingray, a submarine operated by WASP, the World Aquanaut Security Patrol with Captain Troy Tempest and Marina, the mute girl from under the sea. I always loved the opening titles for Stingray; the fabulous theme tune, the battle stations at Marineville (WASP headquarters) and finally the launch of Stingray into the ocean. The best bit was always Commander Shore speaking into the tannoy and saying ‘anything can happen in the next half hour!’

The great thing about Gerry Anderson’s work was that it all linked together and never looked down on the children who watched it. It was all serious stuff. His next show was the highly successful Thunderbirds which I have to say was never really one of my favourites. I mean come on, who serviced all those craft at the underground base on Tracy island? Brains? By himself? I don’t think so and don’t get me started on the launch of Thunderbird 3 because the round house would have been totally incinerated when Thunderbird 3 launched and as for Alan Tracy’s launch procedure, well that’s a whole other blog post!

Gerry Anderson’s futuristic world was incorporated into a comic called TV21 which I bought every week and just like the young Woody Allen character who longed for a Masked Avenger ring, I was desperate for an Identicode with which I finally sent numerous coded messages to friends.

One last school memory to finish with. As time moved on my friends and I settled into the new routine. We all seemed to grow up at pretty much the same pace and as time went on we all naturally became taller. All except for Luke White that is.

Once the class hard man, Luke had stayed pretty much the same size as he was in junior school. One day he approached myself, and some others, demanding money or sweets, I can’t remember which but I do remember hearing his voice and having to look down to see him. The others looked down on Luke like the pygmy he was and some one, I can’t remember who it was, but I heard a voice say firmly and with some disgust, ‘piss off White!’ Luke looked at us and quietly shuffled away.

His days as the class tough guy were over.

Finally, yesterday, as you read this, was my last night shift for a while as next week Liz and I are off on our travels again to France. Leaving work I pulled onto the M6 to travel home and switched on Radio 2. Chris Evans had just started his morning show and began a long monologue about the morning’s highlights. What was that playing in the background though?

Yes, I remember it well; the theme from Thunderbirds!


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More about James Bond 007, and Me.

I spoke briefly about James Bond in a previous blog and thought I might write a little more about the UK’s most famous secret agent.

I started reading the Bond books when I was a schoolboy and unfortunately the very first one I read was the only one they had in our local library: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, one of writer Ian Fleming’s worst Bond books. Fleming used to write his initial drafts of the novels and then write a second one, adding in all the details which make the Bond books so interesting. Things like details of Bond’s clothes, (the Sea Island cotton shirts) his food, (Bond always had scrambled eggs for breakfast) his cars, his cigarettes (the special handmade ones with the triple gold band) and all that sort of stuff. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was published after Fleming had died and sadly he had not revised his original draft. I persevered though, did some research, found the proper order of the books and began to read ‘Casino Royale’, the first in the series. I have loved the books, and the films ever since.

004I didn’t see the Bond films until 1969 when I saw probably my favourite Bond film ever, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, at the cinema. It was everything I had imagined it would be and what I liked about George Lazenby, who played 007 in the film, was that he looked pretty much as I had imagined Bond. He had the authentic ‘comma of black hair’ as Fleming had always described Bond having and not only that, Diana Rigg was probably my favourite Bond girl too.

The Bond films were not then a staple of UK TV but there was always a Bond documentary, usually on TV at Christmas time which built up, as it was supposed to do, the public interest in Bond. It certainly built up mine. There was one documentary I remember which showed the viewer how Ian Fleming suffered with back pain and was sent to recuperate at a rest home where they put him on a back stretching machine which he later incorporated into ‘Thunderball’. Aha, I thought, this is how writers think!

Sean Connery was the first movie Bond and he did a great job in setting out the 007 ‘stall.’ The Bond movies are as much about Bond’s colleagues as they are about Bond and in the original films we had some great supporting actors, Miss Moneypenny, played by Lois Maxwell, ‘M’ played by Bernard Lee, and the long serving ‘Q’, played by Desmond Llewellyn. CIA man Felix Leiter was always played by a different actor in each of the movies, which never ceases to surprise me. A good Leiter would have been a pretty good idea for US cinema goers, surely.

George Lazenby was selected to play Bond when Connery tired of the role. However, he was new to the industry and advisers told him that the Bond movies were on the way out. Friction occurred with his movie bosses when he grew his hair long and sported a beard and eventually Lazenby was sacked. Connery returned to the Bond role in ‘Diamonds are Forever’. With Lazenby that would have been such a good movie but Connery played a tired and lacklustre Bond and after the serious and fast moving ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, ‘Diamonds’ perhaps appears a little tame. Worse was to follow however when Roger Moore was selected to play Bond. Moore plays Bond as a sort of smooth talking fashion icon and some dreadful Bond films were produced in the 1980s.

Timothy Dalton took over for two movies, ‘The Living Daylights’ and ‘License To Kill,’ and after that the film franchise was in limbo until it re started with ‘Goldeneye,’ which after OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie. Brosnan doesn’t overdo the comedy unlike Connery and Moore. He seems like a pretty tough customer yet looks good in a finely tailored suit and, like Sean Connery, he has a wonderful troupe of supporting actors to help him. Judi Dench plays a female ‘M,’ Samantha Bond plays the faithful Miss Moneypenny, and Desmond Lewellyn once again plays ‘Q.’

I was sorry to see Peirce Brosnan go because I can’t really say I’m keen on the latest Bond films although I have seen them all at the cinema except for the latest offering. The aim of the producers was to re-introduce Bond to 21st century moviegoers and to show Bond as the hard man he must really be. My feeling is that they have succeeded too well and the films have a hard edge that I don’t really care for. Let’s have another villain like Goldfinger or Doctor No. Not trying to take over the world perhaps but with a really clever criminal scheme for Bond to sort out. And give me some good espionage gadgets, please! Yes, I’m sorry to say that Daniel Craig isn’t my idea of James Bond. Fleming himself reckoned that Hoagy Carmichael was how he imagined Bond and he wanted David Niven to play the part, which he did although it was in the spoof version of Casino Royale back in 1967. And it’s my considered opinon that Bond was based on one man, yes, none other than Commander Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence in World war II.

Anyway, it was nice to see that in ‘Skyfall’, a good set of supporting actors was established and instead of one actor departing and being replaced, the introduction of the new ‘M’ was handled well and an interesting element was the story giving some background to the Moneypenny character.

Spectre is the latest Bond movie. It was released in 2016 and although I always try to see the new Bond at the cinema, I somehow managed to miss this one. I have not seen it until now as I recently managed to pick up a cheap second hand DVD version for a few pounds. It’s a very well made glossy movie although it is a little lacking in the story department. Yes, the fights scenes are great, as are the car chases although in recent years the Bond films have stepped away from reality slightly. In one scene Bond and a young lady are having dinner on a train. A Spectre assassin comes to assault Bond and a frantic fight scene ensues in which a great deal of the dining car is destroyed. Bond eventually gets the upper hand but the next morning, Bond and his companion are dropped off at the station as if nothing has happened.

One good thing was the return of Ernst Stavro Bolfeld who comes complete with a backstory linking him to Bond’s earlier life. I suspect somehow that Blofeld will return in another Bond but will Daniel Craig?

One annoying thing about Spectre was I felt that the scriptwriters had somehow confused Bond with the character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24. As you will know, if you’ve ever watched the TV show, Bauer is a sort of maverick agent who disregards any instruction or advice from his superiors, even the President, his commander in chief. He always goes off at a tangent and is a complete loose cannon. That is exactly how Bond starts out at the beginning of this film, he is at odds with ‘M’ the head of the secret service but, just like Jack Bauer, he disappears going completely his own way and later he gets colleagues within the service, like Miss Moneypenny and Q, to follow him just as Chloe O’Brian was an insider for Jack.

Hello, Bond scriptwriter! Just remember who you are writing about, it’s Bond, former English naval officer turned secret agent and not Jack Bauer!

Final result: Enjoyable, good in parts but the next Bond would benefit from a more tangible back story.

 


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My Dad, Fletcher Christian and John Lennon

My Dad.

I can’t remember which year my Dad retired from Manchester Corporation. He died in 2000 and he was 72 so I suppose it must have been 1993 or earlier.

Every day prior to that he rose for work. He had porridge for breakfast, mounted his battered old bike and taking his shoulder bag with his box of sandwiches my mother had made for him and his brew can, he left for the ride to work. He did that every day of his working life and, come rain, snow or sunshine, he rode his bike work. In the mid seventies we moved to a new Manchester overspill estate and the result was a much longer journey for him.

He was a fit man, much fitter than me but sadly he and I wasted such a lot of time when we were younger, not getting on together. One day something tragic happened to me. Perhaps tragic is not the right word although it seemed so at the time. Anyway, I knew I would have to tell Mum and Dad. I couldn’t face Mum so I told Dad. Instead of getting the negative response I expected, my Dad was full of support and from that day on our friendship never looked back.

When he died, those wasted years always seemed to haunt me, but then, we were people from such different generations. Young people and their parents are so much closer these days in terms of cultural identity but for me and my Dad things were not like that. He came from a background where he was given an apple and an orange for Christmas whereas my brother and I, who received a sackful of presents on Christmas Day, were part of a new youth culture involving music, television and film that he struggled to understand.

Dad had served in the South Staffordshire regiment and I remember once my brother did some research and found the regiment had been merged with the North Staffordshire regiment in 1959 and later with other regiments to become the Mercian regiment. He told me that when he had called the regiment to enquire what kind of records were kept, they had asked him various questions. When my brother replied that Dad had done his national service as a private they said rather coldly that records of enlisted men were not kept!

Perhaps then it is only officers that matter to the record keepers of the army. I don’t know why but whenever I think of that phrase ‘enlisted men’, I tend to think of that old film with Clark Gable, Mutiny on the Bounty’ where press gangs roamed Portsmouth to press unwitting men into service with Her Majesty’s Navy.

DadHowever they were enlisted, they served and did their duty, just like my dad who was proud of his army service. He served in Northern Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong, and told me many stories about his army life. In fact not long ago when I posted a picture of him at work for the council highways department, one of his old work mates replied mentioning the stories he used to tell his workmates about his army sergeant major.

Fletcher Christian.

There have been so many versions of Mutiny on the Bounty but the one my Dad and I loved was the Clark Gable version. He saw it first time round at the cinema and I saw it on television. If you haven’t seen it, and I can’t for  moment believe you haven’t, it is the supposedly true story of Captain Bligh who so ill-treated his crew that they mutinied and set Bligh adrift on the high seas in a long-boat. They took the ship back to Tahiti, together with some natives and came across Pitcairn island. The island had been marked incorrectly on the British naval maps of the time so they decided to settle there. The ship, the HMS Bounty, was stripped of everything possible and then burned, stranding the mutineers on the island.

The settlement descended into conflict and jealousy with disputes between the mutineers and the natives. The natives resented being treated like slaves and there were further arguments involving the small group of women on the island. Fletcher Christian was reportedly murdered but there were constant rumours he had somehow returned to England.

Whether events happened as they have been portrayed in films is anyone’s guess. Was Bligh’s conduct of his men so poor that they were compelled to mutiny? Or was the truth that the pleasures shown to them on the Pacific island of Tahiti were too good to leave? I have to say that if I had been one of the mutineers, the thought of spending my days on a distant deserted island would have not appealed to me and the burning of the Bounty would have been a disaster, stranding the mutineers on Pitcairn. Fletcher Christian came from Cockermouth in Cumbria and thoughts of returning there must have plagued him or at least arisen in times of quiet consideration.

Sometimes, now I have reached the status of the semi retired, I have wondered about living abroad. France appeals to me greatly. I like the relaxed lifestyle, the wine, the approach to food and restaurants and the cheap property prices. However, my French is very much the French of my schooldays and I often wonder whether I would pine for a pint of Guinness or a Wetherspoons meal on curry night. Similar thoughts arise when I have considered Spain or Lanzarote. My Spanish consists of a few phrases, Buenos dios and la cuenta, por favor (may I have the bill please.) On the flip side many brits live happily in foreign climes and in some places, especially Spain and Lanzarote, English is freely spoken.

John Lennon.

One man who chose to leave his home and live abroad was John Lennon. Lennon, suffocated by the incredible fame of the Beatles, decided to relocate to New York. New Yorkers were not overwhelmed by his celebrity status and he found himself a large apartment in the impressive Dakota Building on the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street. Lennon lived there from 1973 to 1980 when he was shot to death by a disturbed fan called Mark Chapman. Lennon lived with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean and retired from public life during his son’s early years. His comeback album Double Fantasy was released in 1980 and Lennon even autographed a copy for his would be assassin just hours before Chapman shot him.

The last vinyl album I ever bought, and the last one that John Lennon made. Double Fantasy. £2.99, what a bargain.

I can imagine Lennon in his room in the Dakota, looking down on New York and reflecting how far he had come. Did he ever think of his home in Liverpool? I am sure he did. He corresponded regularly with his Aunt Mimi who brought him up at their home, Mendips, in Liverpool.

Years ago when I used to work in Liverpool I visited his childhood home. I had always imagined Lennon came from a rough council house background but his former home is in Woolton, a pleasant leafy suburb of Liverpool with semi detached private houses and some rather nice pubs and shops. Not quite what I had expected.

One of the reasons that John Lennon came to mind for the end of this post is that over on Twitter where I spend a lot of time plugging this blog and my book, I’ve been running out of ideas for Tweets. Then I started tweeting a lot of ‘quote’ Tweets, you know the sort of thing I mean, a picture of some celebrity alongside a famous quote from them. I started with writers and various famous people like Einstein and Churchill, then I moved onto musicians like Bob Dylan and eventually John Lennon. Lennon appeared to be a popular choice and his quotes got a high percentage of likes and retweets bringing the words of John Lennon (and my web page) to new readers. My favourite was this one, one I hadn’t even heard of before but I liked it so much I’m thinking of having it as my motto.

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.


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Adventures with a Hard Drive TV Recorder

You may have read in a previous post about the numerous advantages, especially to a couch potato like me, of a hard drive TV recorder. Sometimes, I record things and completely forget about them until the day comes when I am free to sit down with a large cup of tea (mandatory for serious TV watching) a cheese sandwich, a chocolate digestive biscuit and see what television delights await me. Here are some recent highlights!

Rising Damp Forever

I do love a good documentary, especially ones about the making of a movie or TV programme. This last week I’ve watched a two-part programme about the TV sitcom Rising Damp. The documentary followed the story of how a play by Eric Chappell was seen by TV producers who then urged Chappell to make it into a TV series. The result was a sitcom that ran for four seasons and was one of the funniest things on TV in the late seventies. Leonard Rossiter’s performance as landlord Rigsby is nothing short of brilliant; a wonderful comic creation. Frances De La Tour played the spinsterish Miss Jones and the late Richard Beckinsale was a virginal long-haired student who shared a room with an African chieftain’s son played by Don Warrington.

A preview of the show billed the programme as a reunion of the cast members, however, if you know anything about Rising Damp, you will know that of its quartet of stars, Leonard Rossiter and Richard Beckinsale are no longer with us. Frances De La Tour is still alive as far as I know but did not appear in the documentary leaving Don Warrington to mostly chat with himself. The reunion appeared to involve Don, former directors, the former floor manager, a production assistant and the writer, Eric Chappell.

To be fair, the documentary was pretty interesting because I love anything like this, the back room story to a successful film or TV show, especially when we get to see the writer talking about his creation. Also appearing were some former guest stars, as well as Christopher Strauli who played the Richard Beckinsale part in the film version. When he first met Leonard Rossiter, the undoubted star of the show, Rossiter told him ‘We know this works as a TV show so if the film is a failure it’ll be your fault!’ No pressure then!

Among other things the programme revealed that De La Tour and Rossiter were poles apart in real life and did not get on well. Richard Beckinsale had just finished filming Porridge and had short hair so was forced to wear a long wig and the writer, Eric Chappell, based the show on a newspaper article about a bedsit tenant who pretended to be the son of an African chief in real life!

Beckinsale left the cast because he felt he was not being taken seriously as an actor and wanted to pursue more dramatic roles. Sadly, he died of an undiagnosed heart condition not long afterwards when he was only 31. Leonard Rossiter went on to star in the equally wonderful the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin but died during a stage performance of Joe Orton’s black comedy Loot.

Yes, remind me to dig out my box set of Rising Damp for my next rainy afternoon off.

The Secret life of Bob Monkhouse.

I have seen this documentary before and last week’s showing on BBC Four was a repeat but a very welcome one. Bob Monkhouse was a comedian who seemed to collect everything and the full extent of his collecting compulsion was only revealed after his death in 2003. He kept all his old scripts, all his old notes, even for things like The Golden Shot. He would make up small cards about the contestants with notes about their backgrounds. Then he would go through his joke notebooks which were indexed for subject and if the contestant was for instance a plumber, he would go down the list, look up plumber jokes and use it during the broadcast.

The other thing about Monkhouse was that he was a serial TV recorder. He bought one of the very first home video recorders when the cost was similar to that of a family car, and he set about recording anything and everything. During the 1980’s he apparently had six video recorders in his home and many of his recordings are the only remaining recordings of various TV shows. He had recorded episodes of the Golden Shot thought to be missing and also the only known recording of Lenny Henry’s TV debut. All in all, Monkhouse amassed 50,000 video tapes and numerous other film and audio recordings, all of which were kept in a temperature controlled unit he had built in his garden which he called the ‘Boardroom’.

Despite a career as a TV star, Monkhouse had a hard life. He was married three times, had a disabled son and another who died from a drugs overdose. He worked hard on the TV show The Golden Shot and was then fired for supposedly plugging a brand name on the show. When Norman Vaughn and later Charlie Williams seemed to struggle with the pressure of the live broadcast, Monkhouse was asked to return and he hosted the Golden Shot until the end of its TV run before moving on to Celebrity Squares.

After his death Bob’s daughter donated his huge video and film collection to Kaleidoscope, a television archive company, dedicated to finding and rescuing ‘lost’ TV shows which were routinely wiped or not recorded at all prior to the 1980’s. Pity Bob wasn’t a Doctor Who fan!

The Magic Box

This is one of those movies rarely, if ever, seen on terrestrial TV. Made in 1951 for the Festival of Britain it starred the Manchester born actor Robert Donat with a whole host of stars playing minor and supporting roles. The technicolor photography by cinematographer Jack Cardiff is excellent and the story of British cinema pioneer William Friese-Green is told in flashback by director John Boulting.

Friese-Green thought his troubles were over when he finally produced a working movie camera but his obsession with the project led to a serious neglect of his photography business which collapsed into debt and bankruptcy. When he died he had only the price of a cinema ticket in his pocket. The Magic Box is something of a sad film but well made and a feast for classic movie fans. Even the portraits on the walls of Friese-Green’s studio were of famous British film stars.

The Persuaders.

Roger Moore and Tony Curtis star in this seventies action and adventure series.  Tony Curtis plays  New York entrepreneur Danny Wilde who teams up with Roger Moore as Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime. Moore is perfect in the part. Pity he was so poor as James Bond! 

In my favourite episode, Danny and Lord Brett go camping and we see Danny getting up the next morning, emerging from his small one man tent. Lord Sinclair’s tent however, just across the way, is a massive tent worthy of an Arab prince. Danny wanders in to find Lord Brett in a huge fully fitted kitchen. He turns to Danny and remarks, ‘I’ve really enjoyed roughing it for once, Daniel!’

The Invaders.

I still have plenty of episodes saved on my hard drive, ready for viewing, of the 1960’s sci-fi series, the Invaders! Roy Thinnes plays architect David Vincent who becomes aware of an imminent alien invasion. As the narrator said in the opening titles:

The Invaders, alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: the Earth. Their purpose: to make it their world. David Vincent has seen them. For him, it began one lost night on a lonely country road, looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed deserted diner, and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here, that they have taken human form. Somehow he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun!

The Man From Uncle

Time to open channel D because over on the True Entertainment channel, free view 61, they are showing my school boy 1960’s favourite The Man from Uncle. Yes, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are back in action fighting the agents of the criminal organisation, Thrush. The last episode I caught was called Discotheque and involved a disco, quite unlike any I have ever visited – everyone wore a shirt and tie and there were mini skirted dancing girls in cages. Secret Agent Napoleon Solo’s oxy-acetylene torch-cum cigarette lighter put James Bond’s gadgets to shame and the lady strapped to a moving channel heading towards a cylindrical saw, provided a great finale. Eventually, super smooth agent Solo, helped ably by colleague Illya Kuryakin, foiled a plot to spy on head of Uncle, Mr Waverley, or was it to obtain secret Thrush files? I forget now but I loved it all anyway.

Love those opening titles with that fabulous theme by Jerry Goldsmith!

Press that pause button, time for another cuppa!


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The Soundtrack to my Life

The soundtrack to my life? What’s that all about? Well, quite simply it’s music. I don’t know about you but I’ve been a music fan all my life and I have always bought records of one sort or another. Vinyl singles and albums, cassette tapes, CDs and yes, even the occasional download.

picmonkey-imageMy Christmas present in 1972, my shared present I might add, which I shared with my brother, was a record player. I don’t actually remember getting any records to play on it though but a few days afterwards I bought a collection of TV and film themes by John Barry in the post Christmas sales.. Barry scored the early Bond films and wrote the theme from the Persuaders, the 70’s TV show starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. So much is that record built into my memory that whenever I hear the tune from the Persuaders, it’s not Curtis and Moore that comes to mind but that small portable record player that spent much of its life in the bedroom that my brother and I shared many years ago.

31436280925_c1d7ff01eb_oThe first single I ever bought was by my childhood heart-throb Olivia Newton-John. I actually bought two singles together, The Banks of the Ohio and What is life. A single back in 1973 cost thirty-eight pence if I remember correctly and as both those singles had dropped out of the charts I was able to get the two singles for half price, nineteen pence each. Olivia Newton-John started out as a country/folk singer but found greater fame as John Travolta’s co-star in the hit movie Grease. Sorry Olivia but Grease just didn’t do it for me.

Olivia Newton-JohnI’ve never been one for albums, I’m much more of a singles man but in the 1970s I was very fond of Elton John’s music. When I first heard his records I just assumed he was an American so I was pretty surprised to find he was English and hailed from Pinner in Middlesex. His first hit single was ‘Your Song’ from his second album, Elton John but the first album I bought was ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. Elton worked closely with lyricist Bernie Taupin to produce some memorable songs. Taupin wrote the lyrics in the fashion of poems, passed them over to Elton who worked them into a song, which is the way they work together today some five decades later. I still have all my Elton John albums but after Elton made Rock Of The Westies I lost interest in his music a little. In the CD era I picked up some of my favourites of his music on CD and I have found some of his newer work that I really like, in particular Made In England which must count to me as one of his best ever albums.

img_0142Back in my single buying days a work colleague lent me his copy of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. I didn’t really fancy it but my friend was insistent that I would love it and he was right. The idea of a whole album telling a single story including snippets of dialogue and sound effects is brilliant. I copied the album onto cassette tape and today I have two CD versions, one for in the home and one for my car.

It seems to me sometimes that back in the 70’s buying music was so easy. Hear a record on the radio, go out to the record shop and buy it; job done. Nowadays when I sometimes watch music videos channels like the Box, I hear something I like but there are no music stores to visit to buy the recording. Not only that, when and if you find one, they’ve never heard of the track that you noted down! Actually its much easier to just go online and search for the music you want and then its just a few clicks to download. However, I’m not convinced a download is what  I really want. I want something physical, something I can pick up and look at, something with sleeve notes and inserts, that’s what I used to love about vinyl albums.

The last vinyl album I ever bouht, and the last one that John lennon made. Double Fantasy. £2.99, what a bargain.

The last vinyl album I ever bought, and the last one that John Lennon made. Double Fantasy. £2.99, what a bargain.

So, back to the present. The other week I was watching a programme on BBC 4 about Kate Bush. It was all pretty interesting and seemed to portray a Kate Bush that was a whole world apart from babooshka babooshka and Kath-ee,  let me in at your window, the slightly scary Kate Bush that I remember from the seventies and eighties.

I did an online search and on e-Bay I found myself three fairly cheap CDs. 1: The Sensual World. (Sorry Kate, this didn’t do it for me at all.) 2: The Red Shoes. (Pretty good, nice album.)  3: Aerial. Now this was more like it. A cracking double CD. Actually more chill out than the Kate Bush of the seventies I’m used to hearing. It has not been off my in-car stereo since I bought it. It’s a fabulous album full of exciting rhythms and sounds.

aerialSo, what music do you have on the soundtrack to your life?


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(Almost) Unseen TV

tv documentaryIt’s interesting that on TV, the same movies come at us time after time. The Great Escape, wonderful film though it is, has been broadcast so many times I know the script off by heart. The Bond films are a staple of UK TV. They and the Die Hard films, the Carry on series and a hundred others–they are all constantly on British TV. Old TV shows are another staple of the new free view channels.

In fact, just lately a lot of my favourite shows from when I was a school boy are currently being shown on TV: The Saint, Land of the Giants, The Invaders and many more. (Wish they’d get around to showing the Time Tunnel though!) Some things that rarely, if ever, are repeated, are old TV documentaries and old made for TV movies. Here are three of my favourites, two documentaries and one made for TV movie, preserved for my viewing pleasure on trusty old VHS video tape.

The Peter Sellers Story: As He Filmed It.

The BBC Arena team made this film about Peter Sellers in 1995. It was created largely from cine film shot by Sellers himself, who was a lifelong camera enthusiast. The original documentary was made in 1995 and if I remember correctly, Sellers’ widow, Lynne Frederick had died and left behind a lot of Sellers’ effects, including his home movies which is how the film came to be made.

Normally, I’d say that you have to be interested in movie people and how movies are made to like this documentary but this film is so special I don’t think that rule applies.

The original film was in three parts and began with Sellers’ early days, and his early films. The first cine films we see are black and white movies and as Sellers’ career takes off, his cine equipment also improves and he upgrades to colour and then on to sound. His own images show his young self as a sort of ‘spiv’, a Flash Harry sort of character with his double-breasted and shoulder padded jackets. An uneasy relationship with his mother emerges, as does a rather spoilt and volatile personality. His first wife talks about their early days and their life together and friends like Spike Milligan talk happily about successes like the Goon show and their beginnings in show business. Milligan had a 8mm camera and Sellars a 16mm one. Of course ‘Peter was richer,’ comments Milligan. ‘Richer by 8 millimetres!’

Sellers’ cine film is blended with interviews from various people who played a part in Sellers’ life.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake in Dr Strangelove.

A fascinating section concerned Casino Royale, the spoof James Bond film. Various directors were involved but Joe McGrath shot one segment with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. McGrath was a TV director relishing the move into feature films, that is until Sellers told him he didn’t want to be in the same shot as co-star  Welles. A heated debate ensued which became physical. Sellers said he was going off to calm down. He never returned and if you ever see the completed movie, you’ll understand why Sellers’ character abruptly disappears too!

Sellers claimed to have no personality of his own and ‘borrowed’ them from the characters he impersonated. It’s interesting to watch the TV interviews  included in the film where Sellers seems to mimic the Yorkshire tones of Michael Parkinson and again, in other snippets he is taking on the accents and style of his interviewers.

The film overall has a sort of melancholy feeling which I feel accurately represents Sellers’ persona. He was a sad character, disappointed in his life and loves. He was not happy with his last wife, Lynne Frederick and he even junked many of his cine films prior to his death as they didn’t seem to match his expectations. The mood of the film is further enhanced by a wonderful soundtrack full of sad saxophones and jazz tones.

There are some that put down documentaries that are full of so-called ‘talking heads’ but personally, if the talking head has something interesting to say, I like to hear them. However, in 2002 the BBC re edited the film by taking the soundtracks from the ‘talking heads’ and combined them with Sellers’ self filmed visuals. The result is now available as a BBC DVD. The original is much better though.

Barry Sheene. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Barry Sheene. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Barry Sheene. Daytona 1975.

This is a film about the late motorcycle racer Barry Sheene. He was a star of the 1970’s motorcycle racing scene. A long-haired, chain-smoking racer who had Donald Duck on his crash helmet and who famously gave the V sign to one of his opponents, I think it was Kenny Roberts, at a race at Silverstone in 1979. In this film Sheene goes to Daytona and is flat-out testing his bike when the engine locks up. He yanks in the clutch but is still sent hurtling along the track breaking several bones in the process. The film follows him to hospital where he joked with colleagues, even saying to his team manager, ‘the staff really hurt me. I’m glad I didn’t tell them about that pain I’ve got in my shoulder.’ His manager looks confused for a moment and says, ‘well, don’t you think you should tell them?’

Sheene is pinned back together with various metal rods and is later seen hobbling away from the hospital but even so, later in the film, we see him back on his motorbike once again.

The film was produced and directed by Canadian documentary maker Frank Cvitanovich and is a fascinating insight into the world of Barry Sheene. It is clear he lived and breathed motorcycles. In later life he retired and became a sports commentator in Australia. He died of cancer at the age of only 52

Across the Lake.

Across the Lake was a BBC film made in 1988. It starred Anthony Hopkins as speed king Donald Campbell in the final days of his life as he tried to raise the water speed record to over 300 miles per hour. Hopkins gives a lovely performance as Donald Campbell, a man who believed himself to be living in the shadow of his father, record breaker Sir Malcolm Campbell. He decided to take his old Bluebird boat, update her and try to break the 300 mph mark on Coniston water in the lake district. The jet boat flipped over and Campbell was killed. His body was not found until 2001.

The film shows the unglamorous side to record-breaking. Waiting in poor weather, the endless delays, the mechanical issues, the press waiting for something to happen. Something drove Campbell onwards in his pursuit of records. He was short of money and had sold all sorts of rights to his name, his films of record-breaking and so on. This was all before the days of big time sponsorship in the speed and motor racing industry and Hopkins shows us a Donald Campbell undefeated, perhaps even a little desperate but still with considerable style.

The record-breaking team disperse for Christmas and then return after the holidays. They begin their preparations again until a fine January morning appeared. Campbell powered up his speedboat and did a run of 297 mph but lost his life on his second run.

Having written this post about three old films I watch now and again on my old TV with the built-in VHS cassette player, it was interesting to find, during research, that all three can be seen online.

The original three-part version of The Peter Sellers Story: As he filmed it can be see on vimeo. Click here to watch it.

Frank Cvitanovich’s Barry Sheene Daytona 1975 documentary is on you tube. Watch it here.

Across the Lake is also on youtube. Watch it here.

Perhaps those old films are not as unseen as I thought!


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Floating in Space