Sunday, 18 December 2011

Notes from Missing Believed Wiped 2011: 2 - The Mumford Puppets

One of the many attractions of an event such as Missing Believed Wiped is the likelihood that it will draw the viewers' attention to a career and a genre or sub-genre of which they were previously unaware. The first such case this year was that of Frank Mumford. Now 94, he and his late wife Maisie were in great demand as marionette designers and performers during the 1950s and 1960s. Documentary-maker Richard Butchins is currently raising funding for a film about the Mumfords, their puppets, and Frank Mumford's collection of archive film, often from the puppets' television appearances: more details of the project and the archive can be found at An Attic Full of Puppets.

The BFI screening included four short pieces, the first two being advertisements and the second two sequences shot to accompany Burl Ives songs. The two adverts were the most striking: the first, a reminder of a time not so long ago when the British were most likely to consume the exotic alcohol that was wine if its foreignness was mediated through the importer's brand, so a glamorous puppet (Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward's aspirational  middle-class first cousin, three or four times removed) extols the virtues of 'VP wines'. Much of the film can be seen in the video embedded in this post; I make a brief appearance at the front of the BFI audience, a minute and a second in. The second advert showed an elderly male pianist marionette being revived during a performance by the placing of an Empire brand cigarette in his mouth. So near in time to the audience, and (as with Emergency - Ward 9) so far from what is currently socially acceptable.

The remaining two pieces were devised to accompany the playing of Burl Ives records on television. The Doughnut Song, in which the 'old man' puppet becomes a doughnut seller, is the one which lingered longest in the mind, and in the absence of a video of the Mumford Doughnut Song sequence to embed, it is best to leave it to the imagination.

Notes from Missing Believed Wiped 2011: 1 - Emergency - Ward 9

Written by Dennis Potter
Directed by Gareth Davies
BBC 1,  tx 11 April 1966
BFI Southbank, NFT 1, 11 December 2011

It was difficult not to approach Thirty-Minute Theatre: Emergency - Ward 9 without crossing off the Dennis Potter checklist. Hospitals? Nostalgia for and revulsion from a lost social order? Old popular music? Fascinated disgust with physical frailty? All present and correct; and the Potter experts will no doubt be able to both qualify and extend that list.

Dennis Potter's script was placed in the directorial hands of Gareth Davies, who had brought the two Nigel Barton plays to screen; but Emergency - Ward 9 lacked their claustrophobic sense of personal apocalypse. For a play broadcast 'Live from Studio 7', as the narration over the Thirty-Minute Theatre title sequence said, it managed several changes of tone which were reminders that the path to great work doesn't necessarily lie through the editing suite. The path of the Free Church lay preacher Padstow takes him from professedly openhearted Christian to a man hiding behind closed eyes and folded hands, frantically praying as his ears are assailed by profanities issuing from Hell. The audience is left unsettled - having been introduced to them as a figure of reassurance, Padstow ends up unanchored and adrift amidst bored medical personnel of varying levels of enthusiasm, devotion to duty, competence and humanity, his belief in his own skills at navigating the oceans of sociability and society undermined. The title tilts at the romantic heroism of ATV's soap opera Emergency - Ward Ten; in Potter's world the best we can do is to fall a whole number short of our ideals.

Kenith Trodd, story editor of Thirty-Minute Theatre at the time and producer of much of Potter's later television work, introduced the BFI screening with the warning that the audience might experience 'psychic shock', and recalled that at the time the play was broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show was considered unexceptionable family entertainment for viewers of BBC1, the same channel which broadcast Thirty-Minute Theatre. There were gasps and nervous laughter at the racist opinions, assumptions and language of the overtalkative and undereducated Flanders, performed with appallingly compelling pathos by Terence de Marnay, and at the use of recordings of old popular songs supposedly representing the lives of African-Americans - 'nigger music'. These emphasised the way the presence of prosperous black businessman Adzola (Dan Jackson) disturbed the ward; this is interpreted primarily through the colour prejudice which the play depicts as endemic among the majority population.

Potter is interested in a broad spectrum of postwar social anxiety. The elements of Padstow could probably be found among the preachers of Potter's Forest of Dean childhood, as could Flanders; but in that context Adzola would only be understood as the beneficiary of missionary charity and evangelism. Flanders's belief that Adzola, an immigrant, is stealing the National Health Service which he fought for is depressingly familiar to the viewers of forty-five years later. The aftermath of the scalding of Flanders by Adzola, in response to Flanders addressing him as Sambo ("I thought all niggers was called Sambo..." Flanders weeps, recalling the reassuring picture books about children of the world he was shown at school), sees Padstow attempt to apologise on behalf of Flanders, but this expression of compassion is itself based upon social assumptions which are outdated - Adzola is a successful businessman, proud of his achievements, and utterly contemptuous of the ignorant 'working man' epitomised for him by Flanders. Padstow's faith has survived a death on the ward - the nearest the 'Old Man' gets to last rites are impertinent comments from Flanders, and routine bodywash from a disinterested nurse - but it is visibly rocked here. Tenniel Evans's Padstow was lost and confused in the face of this rejection of his compassion; in the end Padstow and Flanders might not be reconciled, but they recognise each other as familiar types in a changed world.

Thanks to The Television Plays and Serials of Dennis Potter.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Another Jimmy Savile post

Though only to draw attention to someone else's reminiscences of Jimmy Savile's role in the Manchester club scene of the early 1960s.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Sir James Savile OBE KCSG 1926-2011

Born into a television-watching household of the 1970s, I was aware of Jimmy Savile from a very early age, presenting (I think) Clunk-Click, but have clearer memories of Jim'll Fix It. I never particularly warmed to Jimmy Savile as a presenter - there was something too obviously artificial about his persona, an aggressively flamboyant projection of celebrity, self-confident almost to the point of indifference to how he was received, but also gripped by a dangerous nervous excitement. There was something oddly Victorian about Jim'll Fix It. Its treatment of children having their wishes granted had a sentimental edge reminiscent of those nineteenth-century novels about childhood innocence and hardship, which might have presented themseles as addressed to children, but which found their real audience in adults. There was something Victorian about Jimmy Savile's life story too, though it took turns which could only have happened in the mid-twentieth century, in the twin explosions of music-led youth culture and broadcasting.

Beneath what one of his former Radio 1 colleagues called his 'carapace' were glimpses of someone who had overcome early vulnerabilities by finding that the right mode of attack was the best form of defence. Poverty and disability were eliminated through the deployment of apparently unselfconscious self-caricature, from the palm-kissing with which women who caught his eye at dance halls were greeted, to the display of malnourished legs seen recently on a repeat of a 1976 Top of the Pops. Savile draped himself langourously across the set, his orange T-shirt, unnaturally brown hair and white shorts dressing him as the incarnation of that memorably hot summer through which Abba's 'Dancing Queen' celebrated the bittersweet vigour of teenage disco, but Savile dared the audience to think that he had been shrivelled in the heat. He conveyed this through the wild stare of a man who had overcome the would-be toughs in northern ballrooms and tied them up where they could cause no harm, while the music played on from his double turntable and the night's booked bands, of no interest to the hit parade-focused teenagers, no doubt spent the cash Savile had placed in their pockets in some corner far away where they couldn't spoil the party.

Rolling news outlets, focused on the immediate, seemed to have trouble placing Savile. Early reports of his death described him as an 'actor' - but the only part he played was Jimmy Savile. Savile's enjoyment of his wealth and the ostentation of his charity work attracted the mockery of the succeeding generation in particular, but there was no great insight offered into Savile by the sneers of the Smashy and Nicey era. Just over a decade after he had broken out of the dance halls (though being senior presenter across the Mecca chain was hardly obscurity), Savile's persona had already become bound up with public service. His Clunk-Click entertainment series took its title from the campaign Savile fronted to promote seatbelt use in cars, in the days before it was compulsory. His next major advertising campaign was for British Rail, impressing upon ITV viewers that this was the age... 'of the train!' In the 1980s scarcely a month seemed to go by without Jimmy Savile running another marathon, speaking about the work of Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire or St James's in Leeds. A self-promoter's charity involves annexing the objects of his concern to his own public image, but there seems to have been much that Savile did for his hospitals which passed below the media radar, and his leadership of the taskforce which reformed Broadmoor was praised this evening by a former chief executive of the secure mental hospital.

Venerable as a disc jockey he was. In being invited back to Top of the Pops to close the programme down in 2006, the BBC acknowledged that in 1964 they had been nowhere near the heart of what was hip and trend, and needed a star of Radio Luxembourg, with added northern authenticity, to present their new television chart show and lend the corporation some credibility. Radio 1, three years later, relied heavily on newer talent from the silenced pirate ships, but Savile was still there, well into the 1980s; in some undefined, unexplorable way he had shaped the course of the British pop music scene.
Venerable in another way he may become. Jimmy Savile's devout Catholicism has been commented upon. Despite wild speculation, his celibacy may well have been more consistent and pursued more wholeheartedly than that of many ordained priests. It would not be at all surprising if at some stage there were reports of miracles attributed to him. It would be somehow appropriate if a gold track suit, a gimmick-laden chair, and the remains of cigars were to become holy relics.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - seven years on

Last week saw the seventh anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and also the publication of a further online update featuring entries on 106 individuals new to the dictionary and three new reference groups which help readers navigate between subjects who were members of groups or involved in particular historical junctures. Lawrence Goldman, editor of the ODNB, has as usual added a new preface highlighting some of the new entries. Despite my credit as associate research editor I've not been involved with this release beyond a few minor corrections to older articles. Early favourites among the new entries (and currently available free online) include the architect Warren Chalk (1927-1987) whose proposals included a plan for an underwater city in 1964 and who with his colleagues published one issue of their magazine Archigram in comic strip form; James Maxwell (1838-1893) and Charles Tuke (1843-1893), whose firm designed the Blackpool Tower; actors Sabu (1924-1963) and Nina McKinney (1912-1967); Joseph Barnes (1549/50-1618), printer to the University of Oxford (and thus a leading subject of another research project with which I'm connected, The History of Oxford University Press); and two mediaeval women of high status and dynastic influence, though five centuries apart: Eadgyth (c.911-946), daughter of Edward the Elder and queen of the East Franks; and Jacquetta de Luxembourg (c.1416-1472), a French noblewoman who became aunt by marriage to Henry VI of England, and then mother-in-law to Edward IV.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has participated in and influenced the growing interest in using the personalities of individuals or groups to illuminate the history of locations or pivotal incidents and through those individual lives place them in wider social contexts. Friends who recently visited Belsay Hall and Castle in Northumberland spoke enthusiastically of the personality of Sir Charles Monck (1779-1867) [ODNB article available to subscribers only, including most public libraries in the UK and Ireland], who designed and built the present hall, which pleased me given that Monck was one of my own additions to the dictionary, and his profile has increased at Belsay in recent years. Likewise archaeological investigations at Wallington Hall, a National Trust property a short distance from Belsay, established the connection between the present house and the home of the Fenwick family, the last of whom to live there was the Restoration courtier Sir John Fenwick (c.1644-1697) [ODNB article available to subscribers only, as above], beheaded for his role in the Assassination plot against William III. Fenwick's career in the service of the House of Stuart and the ultimately overwhelming encroachments made on his inherited property by the mercantile Blackett dynasty illustrate the dynamics of national politics and regional economics in seventeenth-century north-east England.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Living still

It's been a very long time since I posted here. I am still busy writing two chapters for the History of Oxford University Press, as well as having other assignments, but intend to return with book reviews shortly.

In the meantime, I have written something about the actress Elisabeth Sladen (1946-2011) for the Doctor Who fanzine Panic Moon, which can be ordered from its site.