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Sunday, 18 November 2018

Jokers Wild

Jokers Wild 1970

Leeds 1970. Mondays. Back to work. Accountancy 8.45 to 5.30. I’d better get used to it because it could be for the next forty years. One of the older guys could find his own handwriting in ledgers from the nineteen-thirties: like in Cat Steven’s Matthew and Son.

But there was one good thing about Mondays: Jokers Wild. The show had returned for a second series just after we moved into the first of our shared houses in March, 1970. I could be home for 6.15 when it went out on Yorkshire Television.

Jokers Wild was a classic comedy show in which two teams of comedians competed by telling jokes on topics from cards drawn by Barry Cryer. Bonus points could be scored by interrupting a joke part-way through and completing the punchline. It was pretty much the first British example of many similar show formats: the Mock the Week of fifty years ago.

Old copies of that wonderful provincial newspaper The Yorkshire Post, which at parochial odds with almost every other newspaper and magazine in the country, listed Yorkshire Television ahead of the B.B.C., named the regular team captains as Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, with team members Les Dawson and Ray Martine. On the 6th April, 1970, the day my wild joking accountant boss had wished me a happy new fiscal year, they were joined by guests Clive Dunn and Stubby Kaye.

Ray Cameron (father of the present day comedian Michael McIntire), who invented the show, appeared in some episodes. Other regulars and guests read like a who’s-who of British comedy from the last days of music hall to the nineteen-seventies. Many of them smoked cigarettes overtly on-screen. Some are now so gone and forgotten they don’t even have Wikipedia pages.

Jokers Wild Trophy
Barry Cryer with the Jokers Wild Trophy (click to play)
A YouTube clip advertising a DVD of some of the shows has guests Joe Baker and Lance Percival, probably from the 13th or 20th April, 1970. In subsequent weeks the Yorkshire Post lists Jack Douglas, Ray Fell, Ted Rogers, Graham Stark, Kenneth Connor and Arthur Worsley. Other online clips include Michael Aspel, Warren Mitchell, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Sid James. Wikipedia and IMDb also mention that over its five-year, nine-series run, others on the show included Eric Sykes, Jimmy Edwards, Roy Hudd, Alfred Marks, Professor Stanley Unwin, Norman Collier, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Goodwright, Jack Smethurst, Lennie Bennett, David Nixon, Roy Kinnear, John Cleese, Charlie Chester, Freddie Starr, Michael Bentine, Paul Andrews, Lonnie Donegan, Milo O’Shea, Kenneth Earle, Kenny Cantor, Clement Freud, Mike Hope, Albie Keen, Tony Brandon, John Junkin, Mike Burton, Don Maclean, Bobby Pattinson, Tony Stewart, Dick Bentley, Deryck Guyler, Laurence Harvey, Dickie Henderson, Bernard Bresslaw, Rolf Harris, John Pertwee and Fred Emney. As was the spirit of the time, few women appeared on the show, the only ones listed (including hostesses) being Isabella Rye, Diana Dors, Audrey Jeans, ‘the lovely’Aimi MacDonald and June Whitfield. I can remember most on the list, but by no means all. Some were actually singers, actors or presenters rather than comedians.

They told a lot of sexist, racist, men-in-pub, wife and mother-in-law jokes. I remember Tim-Brooke Taylor being allowed almost to complete a joke about a town in Devon before being interrupted and reminded that the subject was supposed to be painting. “Oh,” he said sounding surprised. “I thought you said Paignton.” Ray Martine, a Polari-speaking, camp Jewish comedian with a reputation for witty and effective put-downs, became more and more ill-at-ease and hesitant as the series progressed. He seemed unable to cope with constant teasing and interruptions, especially from Les Dawson. On one program he looked so fed up he launched into a stream of jokes about Barry Cryer’s wife, which was taking things a bit too far. Barry Cryer took it with good grace and said that after the break they would be back with more jokes and a letter from his solicitor. And it was all done without a single swear word.

One might also reflect on prominent comedians of the time who were not on the show: no Morecambe and Wise; no Ronnies; no Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Dick Emery, Harry Worth, Charlie Drake, Benny Hill or Jimmy Tarbuck; only a minority of Carry-Ons, Pythons, Goodies and Goons; and so many, many others. Perhaps they were too busy, or under exclusive contract to the B.B.C., or maybe it was just not their format.

It was at least a last chance to see some of the older generation: the wartime generation and earlier. Arthur Askey and Fred Emney were over 70 when they appeared, with Ted Ray not much younger. From all of these lists it is astonishing to realise just how many brilliant comedians there have been over the years.

It looks terribly dated now and was probably more scripted than improvised, but it still raises a laugh. The DVDs for Series 1 and 2 are tempting. A positive review of the first appears here.

Jokers Wild Series 1 Jokers Wild Series 2

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Ram

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were especially irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? She was even accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed.

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, I had more sophisticated tastes. I was a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung. How could the McCartneys’ frivolous and inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that even to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I mentioned this recently in commenting on another blog about post-Beatles Paul McCartney. I looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up recently getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

Another reviewer describes it as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable lifestyle, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Review - Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods?

Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (2*)

In 1965, through the Top Deck Shandy promotion mentioned in a previous post, I acquired a book by Frank Edwards called Stranger than Science, originally published in 1959. It was based upon the author’s American radio series which described things beyond our scientific understanding, such as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), the Loch Ness Monster and a man who suddenly disappeared in full view of several witnesses. I’m not ashamed to admit it was a favourite which I enjoyed enormously and devoured uncritically.

I don’t know what became of my copy, but in 1974, Book Club Associates sent me another of the same genre: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, which was a best seller on first publication in 1968. Although not as satisfying as Edwards’ book, it covers much of the same material and has remained on my bookshelf ever since.

The central proposition is that at one or more points in our pre-history, the earth was visited by aliens with unimaginable powers who influenced early human culture. We may even be descended from them.

I would dearly, dearly like to be able to believe this but, well, let’s not kid ourselves, most of it is complete bollocks. Much of our most popular fiction, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws upon similar ideas. It might excite your imagination but no one else claims it to be true.

To support his proposition, von Daniken argues that ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids demonstrate higher technical skills than were available at the time they were built, and that prehistoric texts such as the bible contain descriptions of aircraft and advanced technology. They could therefore only have been created by extra terrestrials or by lessons learned from them.  

To give just a few examples:

He claims that the Sarcophagus of Palenque in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Mexico, as drawn above on the dust jacket, shows a spaceman sitting in a rocket;

He contends that the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert are the remains of spaceship landing sites built to alien instructions;

He suggests that the biblical account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom is actually a description of a nuclear explosion.

He believes that the Tungusta event in Siberia in 1908 was another nuclear explosion.

The book is packed with this sort of stuff. The trouble is that a little googling reveals that most of these things can be accounted for by more plausible, more mundane explanations. For example, evidence strongly suggests that the Tungusta event was actually caused by an asteroid bursting around five miles above the earth’s surface, and there are now more plausible scientific theories of how the pyramids were built.

There are however some things in the book which seem to defy explanation. It seems unbelievable that during the first or second century B.C. the Greeks were able to construct a complex clock-like machine, now known as the Antikythera mechanism, which followed and predicted the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac over decades. It incorporated 37 bronze gear wheels of a complexity not seen again until the fourteenth century.

Similarly, some of the supposed UFO sightings are a mystery: such as the incident at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1965 when a considerable number of witnesses – von Daniken states 58 – saw a large, glowing red flying object. Although it has since been suggested that it may have been an in-flight refuelling aircraft and boom, a quick online search reveals later incidents that remain harder to explain.

What I really disliked about the book, though, is that it is appallingly written and organised. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the original German, but online cross-checking of events and phenomena reveals numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in details, names and dates, suggesting sloppy scholarship. Chapters supposedly on one topic jump across other topics, times and locations. Descriptions and interpretations are blatantly embellished, one-sided and tendentious with little attempt at balance. Some part of the book are entertaining, but much is tedious. I have marked and supervised several Ph.D. theses in my time, and believe me, von Daniken’s stuff would fail outright.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose I must have enjoyed it in 1974. Not any longer. It’s going to the charioty shop of the gods. I wish I had re-read Stranger Than Science instead.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Mists: a tale for Halloween

Vintage Coca Cola drawing Ending a family walk through the sun-dappled woods of the Sussex countryside, we headed to the village shop for an ice cream, a reward for our exertions on the hottest day of the year. My son chose a bottle of Coke, the real thing, cold and misty from the fridge, thirst-quenchingly irresistible. I decided to have one too. 

“Do you know what it is?” He sounded worried. “Are you sure you can handle it? It won’t send you hyper will it?”

I had never seen him look so concerned. You would have thought it was still the original recipe with coca leaves. I felt like a child asking for a glass of absinthe or some other inappropriate, drug-infused concoction.

“How old do you think I am?” was all I could say.

It must have been forty years since I’d last had Coca-Cola. We got through crates of the stuff in the local coffee-bar when “Happy Days” culture ruled the world, even in Yorkshire. We sat there through the autumn and winter months when we should have been working for our ‘O’ levels, making each bottle last an hour in the hope of being allowed to stay without buying another. The owner’s patience extended only so far as the table space.

“We used to drink loads of it,” I remembered.

My son frowned as I finished most of the bottle in one go. The distinctive spicy taste brought back memories of another walk, all those years ago, on Halloween, at the dead of night through the eerie gloom of the cemetery.

Cemetery in mist

Halloween was not for tricks and treats in those days. If noted at all, it was as a rarely-observed remnant of pagan, pre-Christian myths and legends: a night you might just dare mention ghosts and ghouls in jest.

“All Hallows Eve!” someone said in the coffee bar. “You wouldn’t want to walk through the graveyard tonight.” Was it my idea, or Ron’s, or Neville’s? I am no longer sure, but none of us noticed Bill and Frank sniggering at the next table.

The cemetery lay beside the river on a quiet stretch of road out of town. Neville, Ron and I made our way through the deserted winter streets, shoulders hunched, misty breath thickened by cigarette smoke, eyes firmly ahead, not seeing Bill and Frank surreptitiously following behind and then turning off.

The iron gate opened with a heavy groan. We hesitated, then stepped into the blackness. Icy moisture dripped from trees. Footsteps echoed through the chapel arch. There were vague silhouettes, high gravestones, angels whispering omens of destiny, bent and broken wings, limbs writhing and twisting, stiff from decades of decay, grasping for us, reaching for our ankles, dragging us to their cold graves.

The fog thickened as we neared the end of the cemetery. River mist. On top of the bank was a muddy track back to town. As we climbed, two floating spectral figures emerged above us and a chill voice spoke out in incantation.

“Be ye ready. For in such hour as ye think not the reaper cometh.”

Neville froze like a gravestone effigy. I screamed in terror. Ron turned and fell down the bank. Bill and Frank, unable to keep up the pretence, broke down laughing, almost falling after Ron, their prize for shivering in the bushes. 

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my son said. I did warn you. It’s got caffeine and sugar. You could have a heart attack at your age.”

I looked at the empty bottle in my hands. It was plastic, thin, insubstantial, not thick and heavy like they used to be. The surface cleared as it warmed, and the mist evaporated like the mists of time.


The vintage drawing of a Coca Cola bottle and the cemetery photograph are understood to be in the public domain.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Review - Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice


Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice (3*)

Continuing my interest in campus novels, A Very Peculiar Practice was originally a 1986 BBC television comedy series set in the health centre of a fictitious low-ranking university somewhere in central England. It was written by the prominent television writer Andrew Davies, and starred Peter Davison in the leading role as newly appointed young doctor Stephen Daker. I didn’t watch it at the time, but this book is the ‘novelisation’ of the seven-part series, with each chapter corresponding to an episode.

Everything takes place to the background of short-sighted opportunism I recognise from my own university experiences: funding cuts; redundancies; bullying, the introduction of managerialism and business practices; the push for external funding while short changing the students. In other words, changing the nature of universities from being trusted guardians, creators and communicators of knowledge who provide a public service into dubious commercial outfits who rip-off customers and employees alike in order to maximise profits. If it was not for the values and ethos of the staff these things would have gone much further than they already have. 

The book is very much of its time, with nineteen-eighties sexist humour, predictable sitcom plots and stereotypical characters. The head of the practice is a going-to-seed drunken Scot. Another colleague is a self-seeking ruthless advantage seeker. A third is a bisexual feminist sexpot who sees everything from the women’s point of view. We also come across the high-achieving workaholic professor, the scheming vice chancellor and the impossibly perfect girlfriend. The central character feels completely out of his depth, but turns out of course to be far more up to the challenge than his lack of self-belief leads him to expect. Also, in a surrealist twist, there is a creative writer in residence who in discussing and thinking about his writing is actually discussing and thinking about the plot and characters of A Very Peculiar Practice.

But if you can put up with all of this, then it’s an extremely funny book.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Stair Rail

Soon after moving to our current home more than a quarter of a century ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, unbending backs and aching knees, and eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I remember bringing it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Sadly, my father and mother-in-law no longer need it. I fitted it for them. Even in my darkest moments, I never thought it would be for me.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
Haeckel’s 1874 drawing of stages of development in the embryos of
fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, calf, rabbit and human.

Professor Clarke stood at the blackboard with assured elegance. It was not just the beauty of his layout and lettering, it was the poise of his whole demeanor. Arm outstretched, extending exactly the right proportions of wrist and cuff beyond suit sleeve, he grasped the chalk delicately between thumb and forefinger, and with an economy of effort, calmly progressed through his lecture. What a privilege to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed international reputation.

He was talking about pre-natal and neo-natal human development: physical and mental growth before and around birth. He concluded with a short quotation. None of us quite caught it. He said something like: “Antigen capital file genre.”

In those days students weren’t given all the slides and notes on the internet to learn and parrot back in examinations. We used to read around lectures. We went to the library and made notes from text books and academic journals. We even owned quite a lot of expensive text books ourselves. So before long I worked out that what he had actually said was: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Furthermore, I understood what it meant: a chunk of lecture succinctly summarised in three words.

The point is, as became clear when we later learned about how we acquire the power of speech and language, if we don’t understand something, if we cannot make sense of how the words fit together, we find it difficult to say. Think of the novelty song Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey.

Twenty years later the children were laughing.

“I bet you can’t say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns,” said my wife, and recited the full verse, faultlessly. She followed it with “She sells sea shells …” as an encore.

“The British soldiers’ shoulders,” I added, not to be outdone. “The Leith police dismisseth us,” and then out of nowhere, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

Within a few days my eight year old son had got it. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” he would tell anyone who would listen. At school, he was in Mr. Price’s class.

“Hello Mr. Price,” he said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Aunty Jenny was late for what?” queried Mr. Price.

“It means when a baby grows in its mummy’s tummy, it starts off like a little tadpole, and then looks like a little frog, and then like a little bird, and then a little horse, and then a little monkey, and then a little baby.”

That guy recently passed all his law exams.

What a pity that Meckel and Serres’ theory of embryological parallelism, perfectly encapsulated in Ernst Haeckel’s catchy phrase, illustrated by his somewhat dishonest drawing and so urbanely recapitulated by Professor Clarke, has been discredited as biological mythology.


Haeckel's 1874 illustration of embryos is out of copyright.