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SWITCHING-ON TO THE FIFTIES
Although, by 1951, I was quite old (a very mature 12-year-old, paper-boy, butcher's delivery boy, and burgeoning ATC cadet !), I DID worship, HLs (Humphrey Lestoq's) antics, and those of his timber top 'partner': the string-borne, shrill-voiced, Mr. Turnip ! On alternative Saturdays, I was an equally avid viewer of 'Saturday Special', the counterpoint programme, which was hosted by the memorable, dear character actor, and World War II hero, Peter Butterworth, with 'Porty', the parrot.
It was thanks to Whirligig that I learned how to make models, with Papier- Mache: masks, puppets etc., and - most memorable - was the Mr. Turnip head, which the programme showed children how to model, using a discarded electric light bulb, as a mould, on which to apply layer-upon-layer, of sodden newspaper, and paste.
Mr. Lestoq - himself an ex-RAF type, I feel sure - fired within me, a desire to join the Royal Air Force, and it was when I was doing my three years, in the late Fifties, that I used Lestoq's 'Flying Officer Kyte' image, to good effect, as a basis for a comedy character that I donned, to keep my fellow National Servicemen from going barmy, while incarcerated in the billets, for nights on end, polishing window sills, blackleading cast-iron combustion stoves, and bumpering lino-covered floors, with gouts of stubborn Ronuk polish.
It was Whirligig, also, that gave me my first introduction to the magic of that brilliant musician, Steve Race. He was a truly marvellous, and professional, performer...and was wonderful, at keeping kids, like us, happy; in addition to teaching us, how to appreciate music, and giving us a broad understanding of rudimentary theory, etc.
Most of all, during those early days of Children's Television - from the dear, dear BBC - I greatly admired the announcers: delightful personalities, such as MacDonald Hobley, Mary Malcolm, and Sylvia Peters. They were my mentors, and role-models; a television template, for just how 'nice, decent, respectable ladies and gentlemen' OUGHT TO appear, and be.
But pride of place, in my book of memories - then, and now - still goes to the disarming, and lovely band-leader's daughter, Jennifer Gay. She was OUR OWN children's television announcer, and - to me, anyway - she was all that I ever hoped for, in my romantic aspirations. She, really WAS, that, elusive 'girl next door'; abounding with poise, unaffected charm, and true femininity ! I'll never forget Jennifer Gay.
Those Whirligig days, were well thought-out vehicles, carefully designed, and crafted, to keep children, happy, fulfilled...and affording them a tremendous opportunity to enjoy their right to a childhood existence. Something which appears to have been lost sight of, in today's cyber-dominated, MTV world: where children are, seemingly, denied that right, and instead, thrust, albeit prematurely, into adulthood, by the dubious, and oft-times, sinister, brain-washing propaganda-merchants, working on behalf of the sometimes, equally-questionable, pop-practitioners.
My undying gratitude goes, therefore, to those, very different, caring, and sensitive stalwarts, who brought Whirligig to us, and who first conceived of it: I was certainly, a better, and happier person, for the experience; the memory of which, I shall treasure, for always.
Thanks, Mr. Lestoq, Mr. Turnip...and, especially, thanks to you, dear, dear Whirligig!
And, oh: a special thankyou, to my dear adopted 'Auntie', at Langham Place, who made it all possible ! You will NEVER be forgotten.
Gerry George (Actor)
Remember the children's serial: 'Man In Armour', (circa 1951), and his adversary Sapho, the magician...and his dreaded itching powder ?
Well, the BBC's grand excursion, all started for me, in the Autumn of 1951, when Northern viewers no longer had to rely on foggy, sometimes barely visible, snow-storm reception, from a transmitter in Birmingham, and rejoiced at the unveiling of their own mast and transmitter, lodged high in the Yorkshire hills, overlooking Holmfirth.
October 12, 1951, saw the opening of this, the BBC's third major transmitter: Holme Moss, on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border.
The first programme, to celebrate the opening (if I remember, correctly), was 'Hello Up There', and it was hosted by special guest star, Gracie Fields.
Holme Moss, meant that we - in Ashton-Under-Lyne, Lancashire (seven miles from Manchester) - no longer had to rely on the dreadful pictures which we got from the Midlands mast, at Sutton Coldfield, outside Birmingham.
Before Sutton Coldfield, the only transmitting mast was at Alexandra Palace, the site of the former film, and later television studios, of BBC TV's pioneering pre-war transmissions. By 195O, I think I am right in saying that London was also transmitting from Crystal Palace, too, with shows still coming from their Lime Grove Studios, formerly the home of some memorable early 'talkies'.
So, our 'H'-shaped Television aerial was mounted, proudly on our chimney - identifying us, immediately, as 'a cut above the rest', of everybody else who had the misfortune NOT to have one - and all we had to do, was sit, in the darkened dining room, and wait for the folks at the BBC to turn on the magic.
Shortly before 8pm, on October 12, my parents, along with my brother and I, sat around our tiny Bakelite Bush 9inch table model, receiver; eagerly waiting for programmes to begin. You could switch on, but had to wait, until the set 'warmed up', before any picture came on, subsequent to the sound.
Ten minutes before the appointed hour, the first thing to appear was the test card. Then came the BBC heraldic crest, followed by a shot of the House of Commons - very similar to that featured, in later years, on the HP sauce bottle - and then came the BBC TV newsreel, with it's familiar mast, logo, surrounded by spiraling air-waves, as the accompanying infectious theme music went out.
Mary Malcolm, Sylvia Peters, and MacDonald Hobley - clad in chic evening wear - were star announcers, and, immediately after 'Hello Up There', I am fairly certain we got an episode of 'Fabian of the Yard', with the actor Bruce Seaton, in the title role. It was based on the true stories collected by Inspector Fabian, during his detective career, at New Scotland Yard.
At around 1Opm, there was The Epilogue, when a clergyman would give some sacred reading, and comment briefly on it.
Of course, interspersed with all this, we were obliged to watch at least two, or even three, of the BBC's memorable 'interlude' shorts, of which, the most famous was 'The Potter's Wheel'. These usually followed a polite, card-borne, 'technical hitch' apology, which was headed with the assurance: 'Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible'.
And, I am bound to tell you: before a few months had elapsed, we all got to know those words by heart...and no doubt many a subsequently successful potter, cut his teeth on viewing the BBC's frequently-shown short. The same could be said for aspiring plough-boys, stimulated by 'Auntie's' traditional team of Shire-Horses, which were to be seen, regularly, wending their way through the furrows, in the rustic, field-ploughing interlude.
I think that was the extent of our first exposure to Television, from Holme Moss, on that murky, October evening....but we were absolutely thrilled, and couldn't get enough of television viewing for ever after.
Muffin The Mule, with the lovely Annette Mills, was (I thought) much too childish for my 'adult' palate - after all I WAS 12 - so I feigned disinterest, when that programme came on. In any event, we had been told, in the credits, that: 'Anne Hogarth Pulls The Strings'...and, for that matter, you could see them glistening - and sagging - in the Klieg lights, anyway !
On the other hand (no pun intended), Annette's glove-puppet, Prudence Kitten, was one feline marionette, who - along with her serene and elegant manipulator - won an instant place in my heart.
I did, however, also enjoy Andy Pandy (I can't think why: it was really for tiny tots), and I also acquired a taste for those Flower Pot Men...whose curious language included the frequently used verbal ejaculation: "Slobaloff" ! And one must not forget their spindly girl friend: Weed.
Adult viewing included Joan Gilbert's 'Picture Page': a lively magazine, highlighting people and events that were then 'in the news', mainly in London Town.
Joan, incidentally, had hosted the same programme, during BBC Television's brief pre-war reign, but this all disappeared with WWII, Hitler, gas masks, and the dreaded 'black-out'.
Her reappearance was a sheer delight - Joan was the epitome of a real upper-class English lady - and she was ably assisted by another charming presenter, and Gaumont British Newsreel commentator, Leslie Mitchell.
In 1952, she interviewed the magnificent classical actor Robert Newton (Long John Silver, of Disney's 'Treasure Island' fame; along with a veritable litany of films like 'Night Boat To Dublin'; 'The Green Cockatoo'; David Lean's, 'Oliver Twist'; 'Gaslight',and ultimately, Dr. Arnold, in 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' ), as, in his rich 'copperplate' English, he talked of his days, at Oxford, followed by war years at sea - as a stoker- before returning to films, and classical acting, where his name had, by then, become a household word.
Brian Rix, and the late Basil Lord, teamed up with Elspeth Gray (later to become Mrs. Brian Rix), Leo Franklyn, Ronnie Shiner, and the legendary Robertson Hare, to bring us 'Laughter From The Whitehall', when we saw all the classic farces, including 'Thark', 'Cuckoo In The Nest', 'In The Soup'...and many other pre-war blockbusters, that had previously been staged in the West End, with Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn.
I had the pleasure of meeting, and interviewing Basil Lord, in 1978 - about four years before his untimely death - and he told me how happy he was, when the BBC Outside Broadcast vans, visited The Whitehall, to transmit these 'live' performances, in true proscenium format.
In the news, in 1952, we saw Kurt Karlsen's epic escape from his stricken ship, the 'Flying Enterprise', in the North Sea.
On Lake Windemere, (or was it Loch Ness ?), we witnessed the tragic death of John Cobb, when - attempting to break the World Water Speed record - his craft hit a ripple, and catapulted him into the water, at lethal speed.
I will never forget the shot of his life-jacket, as it bobbed along - mockingly ominous - in the current.
Beatty - Private Detective, Philip O'Dell, to millions of
BBC Home Service listeners - suddenly appeared in a new
Perhaps the most thrilling treat, in those far-off days, for a young and dream-filled lad, such as me, was to switch-on at 8pm, every other Saturday, for 'Cafe Continental' , which was hosted by the lovely Helen Cordet, assisted by Pierre Auguste, who announced, in a suitably upstage, French guttural accent: "Your table is reserved, as always".
There was a novel touch to the opening credits: A commissionaire walked up to your TV screen, released the blind on your taxi window, saluted you, and gestured as though he were opening the door of your taxi, before another liveried attendant beckoned you through the cordially-opened doors.
There followed a five-star cabaret, with fittingly sensational, top continental acts, punctuated by the regular emergence of scintillating troupes of gorgeous, plumed, and satin-sheathed lovelies, whose glamour, dexterity and terpsichory was good enough to equal, and surpass, anything on the menu, at Paris's Moulin Rouge.
At the end of the show, the welcoming procedure was reversed, and down came the taxi blind...and on it - surprise, surprise - were the credits, annotating the names of those who had performed in the evening's cabaret.
So realistic was 'Cafe Continental', that I insisted on having in front of me, a mahogany coffee table - that I had made myself, at school woodwork - on which I stood a large bottle of Tizer, and a long-stemmed Champagne glass, thereby achieving the 'feel', of actually being 'there', in this fascinating nightclub atmosphere...at aged only 12 !
Vic Oliver's Show, 'This Is Showbusiness', had a similar novel touch: At the end, each performer, bade 'goodnight' to the old stage door keeper...and, of course, to the late, great, Viennese Jewish comedian.
Plays 'on the box' covered the entire spectrum, and I received my first introduction to classical theatre, through watching BBC Television. I owe them a debt of gratitude, for this alone.
George Bernard Shaw's 'Back To Metheusula', really impressed me: this was 'heady stuff' , for a 12-year-old, but I loved it, because it was so well-adapted and professionally performed.
Remember, I had to beg for permission to stay up late, to watch such programmes, so I valued every minute, and every subsequent five-minute extension, until the credits began to roll, and I was scurried off to bed, or else. !
I once saw a marvellous comedy, starring the brilliant Jewish comedy actor, Harry Green, assisted by Bill Fraser, and Michael Balfour.
Balfour was an American gangster, proud of the diamond buttons on his blazer. He was 'Bugsy'. Harry Green was 'Hi' - a US theatrical agent, and Fraser (later to attain fame as Snudge, in ITV's 'The Army Game'), was his number two.
Another unforgettable classic was 'The MatchMaker', starring Lee Montague. Mr. Montague, yet another brilliant archetypal Jewish classical actor, ably weaved the story-teller's magic, in this production, which, of course, was subsequently turned into at least two Hollywood musicals: Can you name them, I wonder ?
Victor Rietti, and his son Robert, also starred in another wonderfully amusing comedy/drama, the title of which, I am ashamed to say, I cannot remember.
Victor, by then an 'elder statesman' of the theatre, was fantastic in the closing stages of the play, when, surrounded on his death-bed, by relatives, eager to hear what the old man had bequeathed to them, Rietti gasped out: "To my relatives I leave".... Visitors: (impatiently) "Yes-yes...what do you leave ?" Rietti: "I leave - I leave...." Visitors: "Yes, go-on - yes"... Rietti: (wearily)..."I leave....another glass of water !"
Of course the old boy recovers, much to the disappointment of his relatives, and this provides for a really funny, and happy ending.
The well-loved comedian Terry Thomas had a very successful television show, entitled 'How Do You View ?', parodying his famous "How Do You Do ?, and in it, he had several sketches - presented in proscenium format, a la Comedie Burlesque, of the 'Number Twos' Variety Theatre, of the day.
In one sketch, he even included the beloved veteran actor, A E Matthews (Matty, to his friends), who took the role of his manservant, and deferred to the gap-toothed comic, as 'Master Terry, Sir'.
Talking about manservants, we did get that wonderful American product - The Jack Benny Hour - and it starred the endearing Afro/American actor, Rochester, who played Benny's long-suffering butler/valet.
Other unforgettable American gems, included 'The Amos 'n' Andy Show', and 'The Burns & Allen Show', starring George Burns, and his wacky spouse, otherwise the lovely - and, in reality, extremely CLEVER & TALENTED - Gracie Burns.
By the time we reached the mid-5Os, 'I Love Lucy' was coming over, and also, we started to get episodes of Phil Silvers, as Sergeant Ernie Bilko, of the US Motor Pool, in the 'Phil Silvers Show'.
Without question, the saddest event - for me, anyway - occurred on February 6, 1952, when our dear monarch, King George VI, was found dead in bed, by Sparks, his manservant, at Sandringham.
Only days before, BBC TV Newsreel, had followed the King onto the tarmac, at London Airport, as he saw-off the then Princess Elizabeth, as, accompanied by Prince Philip, she boarded a jet plane for a state visit to Kenya, and a short holiday, at the famous Tree Tops Hotel.
Only the most insensitive of viewers could have neglected to observe the sadness that was mirrored in King George's desperately sad eyes, as his dark, Crombie overcoat blowing in the crosswind, and his tousled hair blown aloft - he feebly waved 'bye-bye' to his beloved eldest daughter.
The cameras followed the King's forlorn gaze, for several anguished moments: It was as if he knew, that he would never see her again, in his lifetime.
Days later, on that Wednesday morning, of February 6, the king's body was taken to lie in state, in the abbey, and the BBC cameras were there, again, to give the public a last glance of their king, and former emperor, whom they knew and loved, and who had been with them, with his queen, throughout the Blitz, and throughout all the troubled days of the war, and its aftermath.
The pageant and the spectacle that was apparent, at King George's funeral, was a harbinger of BBC Outside Broadcast coverage, to come. Sad as it was, the BBC carried out their essential duties, with dignity, reverence and professionalism. It had a marked effect upon me...and I shall never forget the muffled and sombre tones of those, now legendary, commentators, such as Richard Dimbleby, Godfrey Talbot, and Raymond Glendenning - all icons of broadcasting history - as they narrated each moment of the unfolding panorama.
After months of 'limbo', and mourning, the sadness was replaced - the following year - by 'Coronation Fever'; for June 2, 1953, was the date set for the Coronation of the new monarch, when Princess Elizabeth, the young lady who had returned from The Tree Tops Hotel, wreathed in such a pall of sadness, was to be crowned 'Queen Elizabeth II', in Westminster Abbey.
Needless to say, this was a massive project to cover, from a news and magazine reportage point of view: but, as with a very competent Press, the BBC did a sterling job...of which more, in future recollections.
It should be noted, that our new Elizabethan era, brought with it, a revived interest in Good Queen Bess, of Tudor times. So it was not surprising that the BBC would allocate a whole day's viewing to that far-flung era, when they whisked us back in time, to the castles and kitchens, of Elizabeth I's reign.
Even the announcers, Malcolm, Peters and Hobley, were attired in Tudor costumes. Mary Malcolm read 'Ye News', which had been heralded by a dozen or so, appropriately costumed, village lasses, seen, clinging to floral garlands, and prancing around a decorated maypole, to the strains of the BBC TV Newsreel theme.
Pride of place, in one grand kitchen, was taken by the BBC's own television chef: Philip Harben, who - taking time off from his non-stick frying pan factory, in Ashton-Under-Lyne; and from his regular weekly TV cook's slot, on BBC - he donned cross-gartered tights, and knickerbockers, and talked us through the routine, that would have prevailed in a kitchen of Shakespeare's vintage.
He was assisted by another lovely, 'top drawer' lady: Jeane Heale, who - at the time - had taken over from Joan Gilbert, to present a similar magazine programme, to Picture Page.
|'Current Release' - a
superb programme, dedicated to the latest movies - gave
viewers an insight into what was new in Hollywood, and
what was coming out of the major studios, both there, and
In 1952, I remember watching clips from Gary Cooper's new release 'High Noon' (co-starring a young Grace Kelly), and I also saw excerpts from the latest Bing Crosby and Bob Hope 'Road' film: 'Road To Bali', and Rancho Notorious, with Marlene Dietrich.
Panel games were making great strides, almost from the very re-emergence of television, in England. None was better, or more avidly awaited, than 'What's My Line', chaired by a zestful Irish ex-boxer, and former sports commentator, Eamonn Andrews, with four celebrity panellists, among whom were a balding, bespectacled, florid-faced, irascible schoolmaster, turned policeman, turned broadcaster, Gilbert Harding; a beautiful lady doctor-turned-broadcaster, Lady Isobel Barnett; a TV illusionist-supreme, David Nixon, and the female half of a comedy double act, the dynamic, and effervescent Canadian comedienne and actress, Barbara Kelly.
The idea was for the panel to guess the occupations of ordinary members of the public, when they paraded before them, after standing alongside chairman Eamonn, and giving a clue to what their occupation was, in the shape of a short mime.
If, in answer to the panellists' questions, 1O answers of 'No' were returned, then the contender was deemed to have 'Beaten The Panel', and that earned them congratulations from a beaming Andrews, who presented them with a parchment scroll, for their pains.
Unfortunately, on occasions, Gilbert Harding - in particular - was not prepared to let things go, at that: In brief, he played-up !
On at least one occasion, he was so insistent, and so utterly rude, to a simple, and barely articulate contender, that the poor woman fled the set in tears.
Telephone calls flooded the BBC's switchboards, and the Press had a field-day on the following morning. However, it was all put right, the following week, when - at the outset of the show's Sunday slot - a suitably contrite Harding mumbled a few well-intentioned words of apology...and carried on with the nation's most popular panel game.
On another occasion, Harding - who was mistakenly thought, by some, to have been over-indulging in the amber liquid, before taking his place on-set - was heard audibly bludgeoning back-stage staff, for what he described as the 'disgusting state' of the masks, which they, the panellists, were required to don, before guessing the identity of the mystery celebrity: "They are covered in grease-paint", he fumed, "this is absolutely disgraceful".
However, for all his faults, and sometimes, intimidatingly ferocious outbursts, poor Gilbert was, in reality, nothing more than 'a grumpy old Teddy Bear'; but, in truth, millions of expectant viewers switched-on, their only available channel, at 8.3Opm every Sunday evening, for the express purpose of witnessing his wrathful outpourings...hanging on to his every over-reaction, as he was, sometimes, baited - like a bear - by panellists and chairman, alike.
Only after his sudden death, after collapsing in the street - gasping for breath, during a severe asthmatic attack, on his way to the studio - did viewers find out that Gilbert, 54, had really been a very sick man, all along.
How many of us, I wonder, felt personal pangs of guilt, when news of his death broke; for, in truth, we all did our share of gloating, when Gilbert the gladiator, was confronted, and often, very sadistically so, in the 'What's My Line ?' arena.
But the show did have its lighter side; and one of the funniest, and oddest, occupations, that ever provoked interest on 'What's My Line ?', was the calling: "A Sagger-Maker's Bottom-Knocker"....now, does that jog any sagging memories, out there, I wonder ?
On a quite separate note, one of my childhood heroes: namely, Britain's well-loved, uke-playing movie mega-star, and Variety-king, George Formby - who I later met, several times - died the death, in a painfully unsuccessful try-out as a 'What's My Line ?' panellist. Backstage gossip told how this lovely man - who was 'manipulated' on stage, by his dynamic wife, Beryl - appeared utterly clueless, when he was plunged into a show that, apparently, he didn't understand, and couldn't get to grips with.
Despite Beryl's energetic and audible off-stage prompting, poor George just couldn't 'cut-the-mustard', when contrasted with the efforts of his fellow-panellists, who were sophisticated, well-read, and highly articulate...so he wasn't seen again, at least, not on 'What's My Line ?'
He did however, beat the panel, when - disguising his voice, very well, as the mystery-celebrity - he pulled the wool over the eyes of his blindfolded fellow-celebrities, and earned himself Eamonn's much-coveted parchment.
Other popular panel games, of the day, included 'Animal, Vegetable Or Mineral' - where panellists had to define objects, within a set time - and 'Down You Go', which was, more or less, a word game. Glynn Daniel, as I recollect, was chairman, in both of these productions. Correct me, if I'm wrong...please !
'Victory At Sea' - an epic, multi-episodic, wartime film newsreel documentary - provided compelling viewing, from its producers in the United States. Noteworthy, was the fact that the start of each episode was prompted by the monotone, ship-board style mandate: 'And, Now !'
I've yet to tell you the story of how BBC cameras recorded British post-war naval efforts, to rescue the stricken Royal Navy submarines 'Truculent' and Affray, which were facing a watery doom, hundreds of fathoms below the raging sea...oh, and of course, there was also that horrific train-smash - at Harrow and Wealdstone, remember - and, can you recall the 1952 floods, that caused so much havoc at Lynton and Lynmouth ?
Well, the BBC was there at all those events...and that was how I learned about them, from that 9-inch cathode ray tube, set in its Bush, Art Deco, fluted, burr-walnut effect, bakelite cabinet.
Tune-in, again, some time; and I'll turn the knob...and switch you back to those far-off times, which, strangely enough, seem, to me, just as if they were yesterday.
Gerry George (Actor)
STOP PRESS: Next Week: Those oh-so-happy, and yet 'naturally unaffected' BBC TV Christmas Parties, when all the stars 'let their hair down', yet still managed to retain their dignity- and decency - and, simultaneously, give millions of viewers, a feast of family fun, into the bargain !
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