If you sat down to watch a night of lost pop music TV shows from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, what would you expect to find? Fun, nostalgia, eye popping colour and experimentation, some great music. What I didn’t expect to find was that technical brilliance was reached in 1958 and never equalled since. Or that a modern purging of archive would result in shows being screened with an attempt to edit out the presence of abusers who thrived in the sexual predatory culture that was such a prominent part of TV production till the 1990s. So here goes with my account of last Saturday’s Missing Believed Wiped session at the British Film Institute Southbank, organised with the archive rescue production house, Kaleidoscope:
The highlight of the evening was the unmatched technical and innovative magnificence of Oh Boy! Mostly lost, as the live shows were rarely kept on tape, the pioneering British TV music show was a remarkable achievement of slick rehearsal and theatrical staging that made decades of Top Of The Pops look amateur and lazy. Brought up only on TOTP and its equivalents, Oh Boy!, broadcast live before an audience from the Hackney Empire, was a revelation to me. The rediscovered and earliest complete show from November 1958 used shadows, spotlights and careful direction that I’ve never seen bettered. I had assumed Oh Boy! was carefully edited for its seamless, Hollywood feel. Weirdly the easiest way to get a sense of its style is in watching the show sequence that Cliff Richard and his chums put on in an old abandoned theatre to save their youth club in The Young Ones.
There was also a palpable sense of the real range of popular music that British teens might be consuming at the time with their families, and the social change afoot as Caribbean and African American acts took equal stage presence with home grown stars such as Richards, Lord Rockingham’s 11 and the John Barry 7. The single stand out moment of the episode was the exuberant Blue Danube Cha Cha performed by a lady who seemed to be a cross between Audrey Hepburn, Fanny Craddock and Margarita Pracatan.
As veteral Radio 1 DJ Pete Murray said at the event: “Jack Good was the greatest TV director of all time. No one could touch that today.” I have to agree.
Everything else suffered in comparison. It was impossible to watch the old Top of The Pops episodes from 1969 and 1975, without cringing even more than before at the poor direction and lame literalness in props and Pan’s People choreography. Cameras too low or too high; fumbling, unflattering shots that only started to move after the director had cut to them, an obsession with closing in on scaffolding-based glittery sets to peep through the bars; huge spaces left in the audience for the cameras to lumber through. The worst of these, was the recording of Adam Ant singing Strip for Supersonic in December 1983. He was fine, in his prime and never less than game, but the director seemed to think the way to use the giant tin foil set, huge and empty, like a copy of Starlight Express, was to peer like a peeping tom from its periphery as if held there by centrifugal-forces. Twice a camera assistant in a blouson jacket appeared prominently to jerk a giant cable around. It still got broadcast.
The 1967 Border TV clip “Cock O’ The Border” offered Diana Dors wielding both a whip and a knife against a grinning hirsute man she seemed to be hunting in some riverside shrubbery. It was enough to confirm every London child’s fear of The Borders.
The whole evening was expertly compered by the genial David Hamilton looking delightful youthful, with a little help from fellow good guy Pete Murray – proof that the Radio 1 DJs have divided into the Dark Side and the nice ones. For early on as they discussed the transition from shows like Oh Boy! to TOTP came the mention of Jimmy Savile – “if I may use that word”. It was a legitimate question. The DJ presenter links had been edited out of many of the episodes on show because they featured Dave Lee Travis. Chris Perry from Kaleidoscope, which runs Missing Believed Wiped confirmed that it was the BBC’s decision. My understanding is that it’s the criminal conviction for sexual assault and DLT’s lost appeal against it that the BBC has used to determine whether such presenters should be shown in BBC archive material. But it gave the whole evening a strange sense of artifice. Here we were watching entire programmes with certain people exorcised from them. In terms of continuity links we were left with little but Ed Stewpot Stewart (another of the good guys, I assumed) getting a gift from a sailor off HMS Fife. Although a BBC colleague has, since I first wrote this blogpost, reminded me of some of the questionable attitudes in Stewart’s autobiography.
You had to listen out for the snippets of reality. Like The Who got to sing about “girls of 15, sexually knowing” in that 4/1/73 TOTP, to appreciate what was no big deal at the time. Unease came in odd juxtapositions: In another TOTP of that era the Bay City Rollers (who we now know, were horribly exploited and some were sexually abused by their notorious manager Tam Paton – the so-called Jimmy Savile of Scotland) were bizarrely draped on a line of Rolls Royces while the drummer was raised up and down on a hydraulic lift. I can’t get away from the appalling direction.
Interestingly with the whole audience all too aware of the underlying culture of sexual creepiness in the entertainment business at the time, the Screaming Lord Sutch 1969 Jack The Ripper pop video, contained a certain kind of innocent charm. This clip, incidentally was a gem recovered from the huge mass of tapes kept by the late Bob Monkhouse.
Rod the Mod – a black and white 1965 documentary about the young Rod Stewart – was a helpful reminder of how unimaginatively filmmakers aped the highbrow Monitor and Face To Face style of acclaimed TV formats. The topic was fascinating – young Rod living above his parents’ shop, talking clothes, music and his brief engagement with politics in CND: “We used to go down to Trafalgar Square to see Bertrand Russell… but it’s played out. Nothing in it. It’s just had it now.” Plus a delightful sense of how early he’d transitioned to the essential state of mind of the great 70s rock star: “There’s a lot of apathy now. I used to worry a lot, but now I don’t care”. But it was shot with ludicrous pretentiousness, closeups so tight on bits of his face – half a lip a bit of his forehead -that it was impossible to focus or concentrate on what he was saying. John Schlesinger’s Darling was parodying this sort of guff in the same year. And by 1967 Peter Watkin was drawing out the sinister in pop in his documentary style dystopia Privilege. Oh for a sensible head and shoulders shot. Still it was fun hearing Rod’s dad observe of his son’s slavish dedication to pointy shoes/Cuban boots: “He had to go into hospital with a septic toe”.
Vision mixer turned director Steve Turner brought some welcome visual originality as he discussed his BBC2 series, Colour Me Pop. The show was commissioned in 1968 when the BBC decided to introduce colour, and while it hasn’t all dated well, his shows experimented with wonderful sweetness with the idea of what a pop band, a rural location and some pretty, rainbow-coloured, floaty materials might do to showcase the “power” of colour tv; like Help! crossed with Witchfinder General.
Even more intriguingly ex pirate DJ Keith Martin, revealed that as a continuity announcer on BBC TV he would, on early shift, be required to turn on the Crystal Palace transmitter with a special key which then set off the relay of transmitters around the country. Essentially the turned on TV all over the nation. It was the sweet sense of trust that we marvelled at. No thought that anyone might swear or abuse the power. That sense of honest loyalty to the Corporation comes through talking with so many veteran BBC workers I’ve met over the years. The abuses of the likes of Savile stand out all the more for their reliance on his entitled position with those in power, running institutions, not serving them.
Martin and Hamilton both mused on the rule-breaking selective promotion of powerful BBC stars. Most mocked screening of the night: Bruce Forsyth singing a bizarre maudlin ballad, most sincerely, folks, about an alcoholic suicidal housewife with post natal depression on TOTP. Sample lyrics: “She’s a good little housewife, but sometimes she talks like a fool.” It wasn’t in the charts, which was against the rules for getting on the show. “But it WAS produced by BBC records,” they pointed out.
One of the joys of the watching entire episodes and bits of continuity of 60s ad 70s TV is that sense of dipping your head into the water of a sustained chunk of archive and find yourself in a land that time forgot. A fawning lovestruck male presenter on Granada Reports (Tony Wilson) couldn’t hide his infatuation as he realised he was actually getting to interview Debbie Harry before a performance by Blondie. It was somehow fresh, in a way that modern jaded pop presenters and celebrity news anchors can never achieve.
But again and again it was the horror of poor directing that you noticed – staging a Hot Gossip number in a narrow corridor facing out on the grass– on a 1984 Pebble Mill At One. There’s an act that hasn’t dated well with its solemn mission to be naughty. That dance move when you pretended to gripped someone’s hair and yank it. They did it a lot. Though thanks to Arlene Phillips for finding and donating the footage.
An episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1973 managed to film keyboard Merlin, Rick Wakeman, entirely from behind.
In conclusion Chris Perry emphasised their unease with the exorcising of certain presenters from footage. “We try to unearth the past, we don’t try to make judgements about the past.”
Missing Believed Wiped always challenges my assumptions in some way. It continues to offer a valuable insight into the way we lived till just before now, and a nation’s shared escape and fun through the ravenous eye of the TV screen, in the days of mass communal viewing. I’m not sure I disagree with the BBC’s decision about footage at this stage in time; criminal and official public inquiries are ongoing. But that can’t be a longterm policy.
Nice stuff I learned: Jethro Tull, despite all my prejudices, looked like a lot of mad Wombling fun. Julie Driscoll was damned sexy and charismatic. They even found someone good to direct her. But the most powerful impression I took away was the realization that no one has ever made a pop show more exciting and original than Oh Boy!