Thursday 6 May 2021

'Trusted news since 1874' - the new News Post Leader and its ancestors

Local newspapers depend on being able to report on and advertise to distinct communities. They attempt to play a part in defining that community, and their commercial success is bound in with the way they present their area. They usually include a town or county in their title. One oddity in that regard is the News Post Leader, currently published by JPIMedia, which relaunched on Friday 30 April 2021 as a paid-for title after nearly thirty-nine years as a freesheet, and whose coverage area is south-east Northumberland.

The change complements a refreshing of some of JPI's other north-east titles. The Berwick Advertiser and the Morpeth Herald have updated their mastheads to make more use of white space, and are using Abril Display in a larger point than before for the front page main story, in part following the example of JPI's principal Northumberland title, the Alnwick-centred Northumberland Gazette. As from 22 April 2021 the Morpeth Herald abandoned the subtitle 'incorporating the Ponteland Observer' and seems now to be concentrating on Morpeth town stories, an understandable strategy in rebuilding the title after the depredations of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ponteland Observer subtitle had been carried for thirty-five years, nearly twelve times longer than the lifespan of the Ponteland Observer as a newspaper.

Most JPI papers carry a variant of the strapline 'Trusted News Since [foundation date]' and the News Post Leader appeals to origins in 1874. The dates advertise deep roots in the communities served, and the relaunched paper is a model community newspaper for straitened times. Leaving aside the eight pages of puzzles which seem ubiquitous nowadays, there are specific business and schools news sections as well as photo pages and an enhanced sports section anchored by a new column from football journalist Jordan Cronin, covering local non-league team Blyth Spartans as well as Newcastle United 'from a Northumberland perspective'. Cronin's style is accessible even for those not particularly engaged by football and has evident applications for the digital wars where JPI, Reach and Newsquest all have offerings in North-East England increasingly focused on the same wider regional market rather than on the coverage areas of their newspapers.

The News Post Leader's front page follows several of its sister titles in going for a large lead picture as a hook, pointing to a story on the inside pages. In this case the headline serves as a greeting to readers from the new-look paper, 'We're Ready, Over to You!' in bold Tablet Gothic, as well as representing BritishVolt's anticipation of the go-ahead from Northumberland County Council for their '£2.6bn gigaplant' making batteries for electric cars. The site pictured is picturesquely bare - an eroding concrete floor framed by encroaching foliage, sky and distant green-tinged hills. Elsewhere the page promotes a competition to win a meal for four at the Commissioners' Quay Inn - whose owners expansion is covered within - the school news section - with children playing pirates on a purpose-built ship play frame - and Jordan Cronin's column. Editor Paul Larkin introduces the new paper on page 13, connecting the arrival of BritishVolt to a new era for the area's economy, and explaining the change from freesheet to paid-for title as a result of 'changing social habits and reader demands' and the opportunity a move to newsstands gives to invest in and improve the title's content.

Paul Larkin says that the News Post Leader has been distributed free 'in recent years', but it seems to have been a freesheet for most of the last four decades. He also mentions that the paper is affectionately known locally as 'the Leader'. This is a clue to the News Post Leader's convoluted origins, to which the 1874 foundation date doesn't do justice. The Leader was a freesheet launched in the late 1970s, which covered south-east Northumberland. The paper's antiquity lies in the first part of its title.

The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News was founded in 1874 by William Alder, a printer and dealer in charts and nautical instruments in Blyth. Early numbers ran to ten pages - two folded sheets and an insert - and were subtitled 'A Family Journal of News, Tales, History, Art, &c.' The interior gave its full title as The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News, with which is incorporated The Blyth Monthly Advertiser - the latter part perhaps an earlier, less frequent enterprise of Alder. From the issue of Saturday 16 May 1874, it seems that most of the content was not local, mixing fiction with tales of ghastly experiences abroad and imperial derring-do, and anecdotes of great figures in art and literature. The placing of the local content suggests that the entire publication was put together by Alder in Blyth, rather than mostly bought in on pre-printed sheets from a London publisher with the local printer adding his own title and local news and advertising on the blank pages. 

The Blyth Illustrated Weekly News was an impressive effort to appeal to a wide readership with a mix of local news and advertising, and serials and clippings from other publications which were presumably bought in from sources elsewhere. At one penny in price, it was probably too expensive a proposition for its proprietor, and with too general and artistic an appeal for advertisers. By January 1875 it had metamorphosed into a four-page newspaper, The Blyth Weekly News and Northumberland Advertiser. The short items of humour, gossip and sensational news around an engraving had been replaced by the conventional front page of advertising, surmounted in this case by the injunction 'The only way to gain business, is publicity; to gain publicity-advertise. (Blackwood.)' William Alder remained the proprietor, but the inner pages were entirely made up of international and national news beginning with a column 'From our London Correspondent', perhaps entirely printed in London. Local news appeared on the back page only. The price remained one penny. 

The revised paper prospered. By 14 May 1881 the entire paper was being printed in Blyth by William Alder, who was advertising enhanced printing facilties in his office in Ridley Street. A 'Lokil letter' was a regular feature in this period, commenting on local affairs in the Pitmatic dialect. Alder died on 10 August 1883, aged fifty-four. The paper included an elegy to his friend by the poet Matthew Tate. William was succeeded by his brother Cuthbert Gibson Alder, who took on William Watts Smith as a partner. Following Alder's retirement in 1889 Smith and Lancelot Watson continued in business as Alder & Co., while a new company, led by Smith as secretary but with a widder shareholding, was formed to own the News.

C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian would later emphasise the moral role of the regional newspaper in its community, and the Blyth Weekly News was viewed as a conduit for good works. A donor, John Thompson of Blyth, bestowed £30 on the directors of the Blyth Weekly News Company in 1889 to spend on the education of twelve boys for two years within Cowpen School Board district. The company passed the responsibility of choosing the Blyth Weekly News scholars on to readers, who could collect coupons between August and Christmas in order to maximise their chances of nominating their preferred children. The scheme continued in 1890, by which time it was opened to girls as well as boys, the places being reduced to six.

Since the 1880s the News had been a affluent-looking eight page paper, but there were challenges to its place in the Blyth newspaper market. The Blyth Examiner and Echo, founded by William Alder's former apprentice John Tweedy in 1888, survived until February 1894, shortly before a move was made on the area by the owners of the Shields Daily Gazette, the Northern Press and Engineering Company. As Alders made and sold nautical instruments, the Gazette's owners made newspaper presses as well as printing newspapers. They launched the Blyth and Wansbeck Telegraph in March, a twice-weekly, four-page paper, which was aggressively promoted as the 'best advertising medium' for Blyth and district. The News could not compete, and its owners went into receivership on 28 August 1894. 

The next day's Shields Daily Gazette announced the purchase of the Blyth Weekly News, which would be amalgamted with the Blyth and Wansbeck Telegraph under the lengthy title of The Blyth Bi-Weekly News and Wansbeck Telegraph, with which is incorporated the Blyth Weekly News. The first issue appeared on Friday 31 August 1894, taking over the Telegraph's publication days of Tuesday and Friday, the News having previously appeared on Saturdays. The merged paper, under Northern Press ownership, had a more professional air. In a time when business relied on daily and weekly newspaper journalism for communications and public relations, there must have been several papers represented in Blyth as well as the News, and one feels for the Blyth journalists whose dinner scheduled for 30 January 1901 was postponed until after Queen Victoria's funeral, as reported in the Blyth News and Wansbeck Telegraph of 25 January 1901.

The Blyth News had become the main title of the paper on 23 January 1900, which allowed two box display advertisements to be sold on the masthead. News began to displace advertisements on the front page during the first decade of the twentieth century, though it was a long time before headlines were placed across columns. The Wansbeck Telegraph subtitle disappeared from 26 February 1920. The most influential change of title came on Thursday 29 October 1925, when the paper appeared with a two level masthead with both elements given equal weight - Blyth News Ashington Post.

This wasn't a merger, but an expansion of the Blyth News's business. At some point thereafter it began to publish in two editions. The front page layout was modernised in the early 1930s, with an emphasis on presenting news stories invitingly, photographs and display advertising. In 1934, following the death of its proprietor, Ronald C. Stevenson, the Northern Press was acquired by a larger group, Westminster Press, whose roots were also in the north-east, having grown from The Northern Echo and a cluster of neighbouring papers acquired by Charles Starmer. From 9 May 1940 the Blyth edition minimised the 'Ashington Post' on its masthead, and the Ashington edition presumably reciprocated, as seen in the graphic to the right from the Blyth News Ashington Post of 1949. In that anniversary article, it's clear that the short name of the paper is established locally as the News Post.

The News Post had competition in Ashington from the early 1930s in the form of the Ashington Advertiser, owned by a local printer much as the original News had been, and indeed as another neighbouring paper the Morpeth Herald remained until 1983. The Advertiser was bought by Northern Press and merged with the News Post from 27 March 1969. For the following five years the Ashington paper was called the Advertiser and Post, the remaining editions remaining the Blyth News. The News Post title was revived in 1974 with geographical labelling in masthead straplines.

Free newspapers were one of the growth areas of the 1970s. Northern Press launched The Leader no later than 1979. Its name was perhaps drawn from company history - the Northern Weekly Leader, founded in 1884 by editor James Annand, brother of the company's managing director Robert Cumming Annand, blazed a trail for north-east Liberalism at the close of the nineteenth century - but the purpose of the Leader, like many other free papers, was to sell advertising at volume and get it into homes which might not otherwise see a local paper. This trend encouraged proprietors to shut down some paid-for weeklies even if they seemed to be performing fairly creditably. 

As reproduced in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, 29 June 1982 
Coal and shipping might have been in decline, but With economic prospects for the north-east unpredictable, and a loss reported for the year of £467,300 for its regional weeklies, Northern Press announced in June 1982 that they would close the News Post and its Blyth office. Its editor, Ronnie Cross, retired aged 63. The closure seemed to ignore the News Post's sales of 20,800 weekly, the highest in the group as a single title, though the combined circulations of titles with close relationships, like the Northumberland Gazette and its Morpeth and Ponteland change page editions (13,134 combined), and the Shields Weekly News and Wallsend News (16,316) and Whitley Bay Guardian (13,735) probably had more of what would later be celebrated as synergy. (The two Newses and the Guardian were merged as the News Guardian in 1985, after a period of integration.) The announcement explained that the Leader would be enhanced with more editorial in compensation for the loss of the News Post.

Somewhere between the announcement of the closure of the News Post and the event itself, the decision was taken to preserve the old paper's name in the expanded Leader. Thus on 4 August 1982 the News Post Leader dropped through letterboxes for the first time, and would remain a free paper for the next thirty-eight years and eight months. Its editorial base was in Whitley Bay for much of its history. Northern Press was sold by Westminster Press in March 1986 to John Barrons and Peter Fowler. In turn, Northern Press was acquired by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers in June 1991, who merged it with their subsidiary Sunderland and Hartlepool Publishing and Printing to create Northeast Press. 

After Northeast Press acquired the Morpeth Herald from the Tweeddale Press Group in 1992, the News Post Leader name was added to the fascia of the Herald's office in Newgate Street, Morpeth, until that office was closed in 2014 by Johnston Press, who had acquired Northeast Press in 1999. The News Post Leader then moved with the Herald to Telford Court on the outskirts of Morpeth, but that office had closed by 2020 as part of the cuts imposed by JPIMedia, who bought the liquidated Johnston Press's assets. The postal address of the News Post Leader is now in Sunderland, but its reporters and principal advertising staff work from mobile phone numbers and e-mail. It remains to be seen whether the JPIMedia localisation policy will restore an office to south-east Northumberland. 

The new News Post Leader's appeal to the arrival of BritishVolt as the renewal of industry and employment in the area echoes the old News Post's projection of communities drawn together by coal and the sea. It is impossible not to wish it and the area well.

Sources for this post include several editions of the Blyth News Ashington Post and its predecessors held on the British Newspaper Archive, reports on the fate of Northern Press and its newspapers in The Journal and the Evening Chronicle, both of Newcastle upon Tyne, also via the British Newspaper Archive, Metal Type's post on the centenary of the Shields Gazette, and Maurice Milne's Newspapers of Northumberland and Durham (Newcastle: Frank Graham, 1969).

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Cold supper at the launch of the Wellington administration?

Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, third marquess of Lansdowne.
  Illustrated London News, 14 February 1863.
As British politics lurches into an alarmist general election campaign already high on accusations of conspiracy siege mentalities, it might be as well to be reminded that sometimes governments can be more gently subverted.

At the end of January 1828, George IV succeeded in persuading Arthur Wellesley, first duke of Wellington, to form a government. The previous administration, led by Frederick Robinson, Viscount Goderich, had been weak domestically and incompetent overseas. The king judged correctly that Wellington, whom most of the population at all social levels regarded with awe if with differing quantities of respect for his political views, would be better at managing a coalition of fractious personalities. His new government had to hold back as far as possible demands for political reform, quelling allegations of corruption among office-holders, and restoring Britain's reputation as an arbiter of Europe after Goderich had nearly drifted into war with the Ottoman Empire.

Inviting new colleagues to dinner, would, one would think, be one of the easiest tasks for a new prime minister of imperial Britain. However, The Examiner of 27 January 1828 reported:

The new Ministers were on Tuesday in attendance at the Royal Lodge, to receive their appointments. They remained till near eight o'clock in the evening, expecting a Clerk of the Council to arrive, to enable them to hold a Privy Council, but the orders for summoning a Council had, through some omission, not been issued. The Ministers did not arrive in London till ten o'clock at night, when the dinner given by the Duke of Wellington had been kept waiting for three hours. The omission to summon a Council rests, it is understood, with the Home office. - Court Circular.

Wellington had been among the new ministers at the Royal Lodge, Windsor, expecting to be able to begin the formal business of government immediately. Several of the departing ministers had been at Royal Lodge immediately before Wellington, including the outgoing Home Secretary, Lord Lansdowne (Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, third marquess). Lansdowne was one of the leading whigs who had been willing to serve under George Canning and then under Goderich in the two short-lived ministries of 1827, but was no admirer of Wellington's conservatism. Perhaps failing to arrange for a privy council to be held immediately on the appointment of the new ministry was a deliberate snub. In a time well before microwaves, when a nobleman was judged by the quality of the food served on his table, there was perhaps no better revenge than letting food either go cold or be overdone.

Monday 10 April 2017

The Oxford Dictionary of Ponteland Biography

In the past few days I visited Ponteland Methodist Church to give a talk to their Men's Forum entitled The Oxford Dictionary of Ponteland Biography. This was an exploration of how the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a major reference work covering over 60,000 lives from Britain, Ireland, colonies and other associated territories, can illustrate the history of localities including Ponteland. I've been associated with the dictionary for nearly twenty years, including seven years on the research staff and over ten now as a consultant. I grew up in Ponteland and return regulary.

A search for Ponteland under the 'People' tab revealed a limited sample. Only six subjects had life events located in Ponteland, all concentrated at the end of the period. The earliest was the Newcastle banker Ralph Carr, who was buried in Ponteland in 1806, and the most recent the paediatrician Hugh Jackson, who died in 2013; his final address was Ponteland Manor residential care home.

Searching for Ponteland in full text was more helpful. Although this query still only revealed eleven subjects, the first four of these were all connected with Merton College, Oxford, whose church Ponteland was and is. These included Walter of Merton himself, but also John Ashenden (d. in or before 1368?), who probably came from Ashington in Northumberland, but spent most of his life in Oxford as a fellow of Merton College and a member of Oxford's circle of astrologers and astronomers. William Heytesbury (d. 1372/3) was another Merton fellow, whose journey from Oxford to Ponteland in 1337 or 1338 was accounted for in a document which survives: Heytesbury and his colleague covered 246 miles in seven or eight days, and the cost of their food and drink, the fodder for their horses, and of crossing major rivers can all still be examined.

Other articles suggest questions which deserve further exploration, such as Sir Nathanael Brent's (1573/4-1652) tenure of Ponteland rectory as a private leaseholder (though holding it on another's behalf) during the Commonwealth, revealed in his will at his death. While Brent had been no admirer of the politics and churchmanship of Charles I and William Laud, and at first complied with the demands of the Puritan regime, he was eventually forced from his wardenship of Merton by the parliamentary visitors, and one wonders whether he held property from Merton that might have actually benefited others out of favour with the regime. The engineer Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879), grandfather of the aeronautical pioneer, laid out a route for the Ponteland Turnpike in 1830, still largely the line the modern A696/A68 road from Prestwick Road Ends to Carter Bar, but later became an agent for the lead mines owned by the Beaumont family in Allendale, His clashes with striking and (of specific interest to the audience) largely Primitive Methodist miners led to large-scale emigration from the dale in 1849.

I also looked slightly further afield to Stamfordham. Results are skewed by the decision of the royal private secretary Arthur Bigge to take Stamfordham as his peerage title; but of the eight articles which concern the village and not the lord, there are many hints about early modern Northumberland's make-up, such as the Presbyterian Widdringtons of Cheeseburn Grange, just east of Stamfordham, one of whom (Thomas) was speaker of the House of Commons under the Cromwellian Protectorate, and another the scholar Ralph Widdrington, who rode out the Civil Wars and Interregnum at Christ's, Cambridge, despite gaps in his tenure, with appoitments under Cromwell and then Charles II. Nearby Bitchfield was the home of a branch of the Fenwick family who produced John Fenwick, a Covenanter prominent in the Scottish administration of Newcastle in 1640-1, and subseqently a parliamentary army officer, though his career in the 1640s and 1650s seems to have been that of a distinguished elder statesman.

Where in the seventeenth century tensions between episcopalian and Presbyterian in Northumberland might break out into armed conflict relating to disputes within England and Scotland, in the Stamfordham of nineteenth-century Britain matters were more measured. Two Presbyterian ministers from nineteenth-century Stamfordham are in the dictionary, Robert Gillan and William Fisken. Both came from Scotland and while Gillan returned, eventually holding a professorship at the University of Glasgow, Fisken remained, inventing a steam plough and also serving as secretary to Stamfordham Endowed School. What precisely happened to that, one of the endowed grammar schools of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reformed in the nineteenth, I have yet to find out. 

Friendliness and curiosity from an audience are always welcome and the enthusiasm of those present for the dictionary's live search facility and the capacity for expansion of the online dictionary was palpable. A tour of popular culture figures, Methodist laymen and businesspeople not only reminded me to show the only article to mention Darras Hall, that on Sir Lawrie Barratt, whose company built many of the homes in the area - there were cries of 'Greensitt and Barratt' from the audience who remember the company before it was Barratt Developments - but also draw attention to the portraits used in articles which are often not straightforward headshots, as seen in Mike Owen's progression of rectangles within which Barratt, arms themselves suggesting a right angle, is incorporated.

Other topics of discussion involved prominent Methodist laymen, with one candidate for future inclusion receiving wide support, the leading Methodist preacher of the early nineteenth century, Mary Porteous, and Methodist churchmen whose careers took them through the north-east such as Gordon Wakefield. We could all happily have continued, I suspect. This was one of the last hurrahs for the old search mechanism, as a new public interface for the Dictionary should be online later in 2017. It was good to put the present one through its paces again - it's still very effective in its thirteenth year.

Revised 1703 to include more text and links to ODNB articles (if logged in) or the Oxford Index (if not).

Revised 12 April 2017 to include details of my personal connections with Ponteland and with the ODNB.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Woodstock and Bladon News: cafes and buses

Woodstock and Bladon News,
February 2017
About 500 of those who read my irregular posts here have visited for my history of Ponteland newspapers (of which the printed version in Pont Island News for 2012 adds more context ), but in these ages of regionalised news hubs an increasing amount of local journalism is voluntary. The Woodstock and Bladon News has been published for several years, but has recently acquired a new editor and publisher, Peter Jay, former mayor of Woodstock and sometime British ambassador to the United States, but whose first public role in my memory was as presenter of London Weekend Television's Sunday lunchtime current affairs programme for ITV, Weekend World, although my memory doesn't stretch quite as far back as this interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It's encouraging to see the Woodstock and Bladon News evolve over the two months Peter Jay has conducted it - the publication is now printed rather than photocopied, has colour on the front and back pages, and has attracted several new correspondents. Rachel Phipps of The Woodstock Bookshop has written on new retail arrivals, particularly cafés - I had no idea Woodstock now has a vegan café next to the church, for example, and will try it.

An issue which makes a subtle mark on the front cover is the current competition for bus passengers in Woodstock. This is not as major a conflict as the series of intermittent commercial skirmishes between the Oxford Bus Company (since 1994 part of Go-Ahead) and Thames Transit (since 1997 owned by Stagecoach and trading under local variants of its parent company's name) which lasted between 1987 and the establishment of joint ticketing on major city routes under the Oxford Bus Partnership in 2011. Nevertheless, the decision of Oxford Bus Company to extend their Park and Ride 500 service (which never seemed to me as well-supported as their other Park and Ride routes) north from Oxford Parkway railway station through Kidlington and Yarnton, and the response by Stagecoach in Oxfordshire, who for several years have had a monopoly on Woodstock to Oxford bus transport on a lone route via Begbroke and Yarnton, to defend it by launching their own route 7 largely duplicating the extended 500 route, risked disruption. As the cover shows, Oxford Bus Company have chosen to turn their buses around at the Town Hall rather than proceed further north to the quieter and less congested Vermont Drive; this has caused traffic problems, including issues with disabled drivers parking in extremis on yellow lines at times when there is no on-street parking available, as is the case for much of the day. The 7 timetable shadows the 500 closely and the two buses often reach the Marlborough Arms stop at the same time.

Oxford Bus Company Park and Ride 500
 behind Stagecoach in Oxfordshire Gold 7,
outside the Marlborough Arms, Oxford Street, Woodstock,
 pictured by Matthew Kilburn on 6 February 2017
In the case pictured here the 7 was able to park first, but most waiting passengers seemed to want the longer-established route, now numbered S3. So far neither the county council nor the bus operators show signs of sorting this out; at the moment a useful connection to Kidlington and Oxford Parkway, which will surely be busier in spring and summer as tourists find a new public transport route to Blenheim Palace without having to navigate central Oxford, seems endangered by the splitting of a small clientele between two firms. A further advantage is the increased connectivity between Woodstock and Oxford in evenings which will surely help the literary and poetry festivals and other events.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Missing Believed Wiped 2016: Whack-O! 7.5 - Jim's Better Self

Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!
The first in a series of observations from Missing Believed Wiped 2016, held at BFI Southbank on Sunday 4 December 2016.

I’ve never understood entirely the ascendancy of Frank Muir and Denis Norden as comedy gurus in British broadcasting in the 1950s and 1960s, though it’s doubtful that I’ve really heard or seen enough of their work to judge it. This recently recovered penultimate episode of the original run of Whack-O! broadcast on 20 December 1960 at first seemed that it wouldn’t really help. The first half of the episode was ho-hum. Jimmy Edwards stars as a development of a schoolmaster persona he developed as a student performer in the Cambridge Footlights. It’s surprising to someone who watched him as a prematurely aged figure in the 1970s and 1980s to see Edwards (aged forty in 1960) with dark moustache and unlined face and with a more vital performance to match.

In this episode, ‘Jim’s Better Self’, Professor James Edwards, headmaster of Chiselbury School, finds his plan to spend the Christmas holiday abroad skiing frustrated by an outbreak of measles forcing him and his fellow schoolmasters – principally his cringing sidekick Pettigrew, an audience-eyeing Arthur Howard – to remain at Chiselbury for the Christmas holiday looking after the confined boarders. Edwards refuses to spend his holiday fund – the proceeds of his rigged one-armed bandit, to which he has successfully addicted and used to subject teachers and boys alike – to pay for the boys’ Christmas dinner, and banishes Pettigrew for the suggestion that he might have a ‘better self’. Come night-time, the better self appears as a ghost of Christmas or at least careers past, played in on film as an Edwards attired in a white version of his mortarboarded headmaster costume, and mixed with nightshirted Jimmy Edwards as live in the studio. The ghost reminds Edwards of the origins of his association with Pettigrew. The audience learns that one Wing-Commander Pettigrew, running the RAF’s education division a few months after the end of the Second World War, forgave a deserter – one Aircraftman Edwards, with Jimmy looking even weightier than usual probably because he was wearing the RAF uniform over part of his night costume. Pettigrew entrusted a letter to Edwards to post, only for Edwards to open the letter, copy the job application within, and duly become headmaster of Chiselbury School himself. He then appointed the well-meaning but humiliated Pettigrew boilerman and so began the cycle of appeasement and exploitation which results in the sapping of Pettigrew’s strength and decency and in the abusively co-dependent relationship at the centre of this episode at least of Whack-O!

The above summary might make the episode seem more profound than it is. It was pointed out to me that the writers were probably more pleased with a structure which built up to the scene of a dejected Pettigrew in the snow, with Howard declaiming theatrically that his tiny hamster was frozen as a pun for Puccini lovers, than they were bothered with exploring the Edwards-Pettigrew nexus. There is, though, a lot about the expectations Muir and Norden had of their audience’s taste which makes ‘Jim’s Better Self’ a period piece worth some consideration. Whack-O!’s title implies corporal punishment and a satisfaction taken in doling it out. A film version was even called Bottoms Up! The staff (we see little indeed of the boys in this episode) are irresponsible, impoverished but reconciled to their dependency on the monstrous Jim who lives off them as much as he does the parents who send him their sons for education. This was after all comedy for an institutionalized world, where the school with its hierarchies and petty disciplines and (lest we forget) single sex environment perhaps resembled many people’s workplaces and (as the episode as good as makes explicit) the peculiar security of wartime service in the armed forces. Pettigrew’s unexpected former persona as a wing-commander is something of an in-joke given that (though of a lower rank than the exalted wartime Pettigrew) Arthur Howard had been Frank Muir’s superior in the RAF during the war, while far from being a deserter Jimmy Edwards had been awarded the DFC for an act of life-saving heroism as a pilot at Arnhem. The schoolteachers are all of an age to have served (elderly Mr Dinwiddie perhaps in the Great War) and all cling to Chiselbury out of evident desperation. Conventions were comforts in a world that might not forgive if you offended. These included Edwards’s barrack-room insistence that he was going skiing to enjoy the company of women; one doesn’t have to import awareness of the sexuality of actors Edwards and Howard to remark that the character Edwards seems more anxious to ensure that Pettigrew comes with him on holiday to continue to act as dogsbody and willing dupe. Likewise, it’s taken for granted that a private boarding school, however run down and venal its regime, will have parents willing to send their sons there and help Edwards inflate his begowned academic pretensions.

‘Jim’s Better Self’ ends with Pettigrew finding the Christmas pudding sixpence and Edwards confiscating it for his slot machine, only for the machine to get into the Christmas spirit and pay out. Even though this wasn’t the final episode – there was one more episode of the original run before, according to Muir’s A Kentish Lad, I gather, Arthur Howard’s arrest and imprisonment for importuning in a public toilet in 1961 ended the series – it might have made a satisfying end, with harmony restored in the interest of all the characters and Edwards losing his monopoly on wealth and power in his closed world for the time being. Comparisons have been made between Professor Edwards and Sergeant Bilko, and while Edwards does owe something to Bilko he seems much less charming and much more brutal in his willingness to exploit everybody else with little or no reward for his closest associates. He’s a reminder that for all the nostalgia for social solidarity in the Britain of the 1950s, what solidarity there was rested on tolerance for a good deal of institutional and individual cruelty and acceptance of petty injustices; and that to no doubt varying degrees Frank Muir and Denis Norden and their viewers knew this and laughed with and at their own accommodations with a flawed world.

Edited 11 December 2016 to resolve the author's confusion of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto to Puccini's La bohème.

Saturday 29 October 2016

The Avengers: Season Six, Disc Six - The Rotters, The Interrogators, The Morning After

Occupations and preoccupations preclude many updates here, but circumstances (well, a slow and annoying cold of the type that wreak havoc in university towns at the start of the academic year) have allowed me to catch up on one of my viewing programmes,  The Avengers - The Complete Collection, acquired in 2015 in the wake of Patrick Macnee's death.  I'm now in the latter part of season six, on disc six of that season in this set. It's difficult to write a review without acknowledging the lore and reportage which have accumulated over the years. Producers Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens had not cast Linda Thorson as Tara King, and reportedly found her an unenthusing screen partner for Patrick Macnee's Steed. By this stage the two stars were given few opportunities to attempt to spark off each other in the way Macnee did with Diana Rigg in seasons four and five or (with a touch more acid) with Honor Blackman in seasons two and three. Season six was made between eighteen and thirty-six months before I was born, and there are details, more so than in the earlier seasons, which remind me of the world of my early childhood: Thorson, as Tara King, wears a short green dress in The Rotters I could imagine scaled down for the little girls of a few years later, while the payphones seen (including that in the as-good-as dimensionally transcendental call box of The Interrogators) have become the grey-painted buttonless type, with notices reminding customers that subscribers in the main conurbations now have 'all-figure numbers', a reminder of a service change still making ripples in the 1970s. It's this detail which grounds most of the Thorson-era Avengers in their time and place more prosaically than the fantasias seen in many of the Diana Rigg episodes.

The three episodes on this disc began with the most outlandish, Dave Freeman's The Rotters which involves a lot of fast cutting and sound effects to achieve the (deliberately semi-serious) illusion of a fast-acting dry rot spray getting to work. The main villain isn't that compelling, but the emphasis instead is placed on two supposedly upper-crust assassins, played by Jerome Willis and Gerald Sim; while they don't entirely convince, they are more memorable and performed with more deliberation than the main villain unmasked towards the end of the episode. It's worth being reminded that Gerald Sim could be sinister rather than officious or clerical as he was more often seen, the latter coming most to mind in the wake of the recent afternoon repeat run on BBC Two of To the Manor Born, where he played the Rector. There's some apposite juxtaposition in design choices. Mother, Steed's boss for this season played by Patrick Newell, works in this episode (coincidentally, from the point of view of the plot) from an office of inflatable plastic furniture and one withered-looking plant upon which, had they burst in, the dry rot-spraying assassins could have had little effect.  Pity poor Rhonda, though; Mother's silent assistant, played by Rhonda Parker, is the only human dressed in plastic - as if to show she is part of the furniture - and has to spend all her time inflating Mother's chair. 

The Interrogators followed, with Christopher Lee's Colonel Mannering being a more substantial and subtle part than the ghoulish Professor Frank N. Stone and his robot double he played in the previous season's Never, Never Say Die. The central gag in the story from Richard Harris and Brian Clemens has enemy agents using espionage bureaucracy to hide in plain sight, Chinese Red Army uniforms and all, conducting often brutal interrogations interspersed with upper-class chit-chat and cups of tea. This is carried off, though the tone is slightly miscalculated, with the cast perhaps not all resonating at the same theatrical frequency, something which happened before but which is more noticeable once The Avengers has lost the arched and arch eyebrows of Diana Rigg. Linda Thorson manages reasonably well; being separated from Patrick Macnee more frequently than were Diana Rigg and Honor Blackman was probably the best move, enabling her to interact on screen with actors she better complemented than Patrick Macnee, or playing in her delivery on Tara's frustration with being a dogsbody for her superiors, sent out to establish facts and rarely to take action. Tara King is often nonplussed among eccentrics but Linda Thorson learned to do something with these scenes, here with Cardew Robinson as the balloon-selling informant Mr Puffin. Though an ingenue in comparison to her predecessors, and more easily presented as a damsel in distress, it's Tara's exclusion from masculine clubbability which renders her less prey to manipulation by the smoothly charming and seemingly sporting Mannering, whose skill as recipient of confidences in his 'training centre' bar after proving his victims' resistance to a spot of torture in and out of the dentist's chair has left many agents dead. By this time in the season, Steed is re-established as more of an authority figure, evidently senior to the uniformed military intelligence officers from whom he tears strips; the ironic deflater of deluded megalomaniacs of the Rigg era is subsumed beneath a more literal interpretation of the power conveyed by bowler hat and Savile Row suit.

The most consistent of the three episodes is probably The Morning After. Knocked unconscious for twenty-four hours, Steed and his adversary, quadruple agent Jimmy Merlin (Peter Barkworth, suave and chippy by turns) find themselves in an almost totally deserted town, which is mostly St Albans, including the abbey, but which also (so Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots by Michael Richardson, tells me) includes parts of Old Hatfield and Watford, combining conventional if misplaced impressions of half-timbered or gothic Avengerland with a grimier world of run-down factories and working-class terraces. There's also some stock footage from the film Seven Days to Noon (1950) which throws Western Avenue in London into the mix as well as establishing the episode in a genealogy of deserted urban landscapes. Terry Nation was script editor of the series by this point and it's tempting to think that he suggested Seven Days to Noon's use, as he'd already proposed it as a source for stock footage in his Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964. The plot recalls several earlier Avengers episodes, including The Town of No Return, The Hour That Never Was, Esprit de Corps and The Danger Makers, but takes everything a little further and plays with images such as the abandoned milk float, the symbol of the upturning of the nurturing society used in a comparable situation by Doctor Who in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), though it's as now as redundant an image as a sack of coal which also appears.

The Morning After is the only episode on this disc where Mother does not appear; his role as problem-maker and bowler of drolleries for Steed to bat back with added spin is filled by Merlin instead. Given the town's desertion and isolation from communications it would be too convenient for Steed to have phoned Mother for some plot information. Meanwhile Brian Blessed plays an sergeant in the military force which occupies the town: Blessed's bellow is managed on a tight rein here, implying his Sergeant Hearn is a man who enjoys violence for its own sake almost before we learn that he enjoys executing civilians without trial for looting. Tara, meanwhile, misses most of the episode by not recovering from Merlin's gas capsule as quickly as the hapless crook and Steed do, allowing writer-producer Brian Clemens to substitute her with Penelope Horner as Jenny Furstin, an initially assertive leather-clad television reporter with distant but fading echoes of Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale, which contrast with the 'vulnerable' Tara. While competent Horner's is by no means as dominant a character or performance and so doesn't outclass the largely absent or dozing Thorson, who manages a short fight scene nevertheless. All the performances in this episode are well-pitched: while perhaps Brigadier Hansing (Joss Ackland) is one of the more lightweight 'diabolical masterminds' of the series, that makes him seem all the more deranged when he orders summary execution as preferable to capture and interrogation. Hansing's scheme, though, has some resonance for our times, with a population being scared into believing the 'Eastern Hemisphere Trade Commission' left a primed atomic bomb in their building before they vacated it, leaving the town where the commission was based en masse, allowing Hansing and his international troop of mercenaries to instal their bomb and blackmail the country into acceeding to their demands. There are at least two doses of xenophobia here, but the tale of the communal interest of a specific place being manipulated by a group of rootless chancers for their own ends could be claimed for both sides of the Brexit debate. Aptly and knowingly, Tara naps in an outfit patterned after the uniform of the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London, as if unaware the ravens are running amok. Perhaps Britain has barely moved on from the anxieties about Britain's post-imperial state which The Avengers often used as fuel for its whimsies.

The Avengers - The Complete Collection is released by StudioCanal and is available at Amazon UK and other retailers.

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Newspaper history notes from Northumberland

A footnote now to my earlier posts on the Ponteland Observer and the Morpeth Herald, particularly Ponteland Observed - Part Three and Goodbye to the Gothic at the Morpeth Herald. When I wrote in the second of those posts that the Morpeth Herald had been published under mastheads based upon an 1892 cast of the Morpeth Herald title from that date until the redesign of 2014, I was unaware of a variant which appeared on only two issues, those of 5 July 1984 and 12 July 1984. It's pictured here. It was clearly a companion to the masthead of the Ponteland Observer introduced on the same day, as seen on the front page reproduced in my third Ponteland Observed post, which featured a line drawing of St Mary's Church, Ponteland, Ponteland Bridge and the Diamond Inn. The equivalent Morpeth Herald drawing shows St James's Church, Morpeth, and Morpeth Bridge. It's not difficult to guess why this sketch was short-lived; unlike the Ponteland drawing this view is an artificial juxtaposition of elements which aren't found together in the environs of Morpeth; and like the Ponteland drawing the style is less detailed than the quality and identity of the paper really deserves, though it is at a level with which the photopolymer-on-letterpress technology can easily cope.

The 5 July 1984 issue of the Herald, like that of the Ponteland Observer, carried an editorial by Tweeddale Press Group chairman Jim Smail on its front page. As with the Observer, Smail anticipated reader resistance to the changes, though he struck a different tone, explaining that it seemed more sensible to move the Herald away from association with the Alnwick Advertiser and the middle of the county and turn it and the Observer into a 'traditional weekly newspaper' for the Castle Morpeth local authority. The Observer would retain its own masthead and editor but would contain 'certain common pages' with the Herald - becoming a slip edition, in press terminology.

As explained in my earlier series, the personalities of the two papers were very different and they seem to have pulled apart even in the weeks following their mutual 'incorporation'. Three weeks into the arrangement the Herald had returned to the previous version of its masthead, dropping the church-and-bridge drawing and the 'Incorporated with the Ponteland Observer' strapline, replacing the latter with the earlier 'Incorporated with the Alnwick and Morpeth Advertiser' carried since the Tweeddale Press had relaunched the newly-acquired Morpeth Herald in 1983. This was replaced a week later with the return of 'Incorporated with the Ponteland Observer', which endured until the reorganisation of the Tweeddale Press series in September 1984 and the decision to emphasise the papers' individual identities. That the association with the Ponteland Observer might not have been popular with traditional Herald readers was indicated in Jim Smail's front page editorial of 23 August 1984 which assured them that 'the recently acquired Ponteland Observer... will, from now on consider the Morpeth Herald nothing other than a sister paper'. Meanwhile in Ponteland Observer readers were being cautioned that the new group policy would not affect the Ponteland Observer in the same way as other titles, and until the end of the Observer in 1986 it continued to share a considerable amount of editorial with the Herald.