Crown Court, A Handful of Songs and Nancy Kominski - who wouldn't want to skip school for that?
'Hello, this is my mam speaking. I'm sorry but young Andrew won't be in school today as I'm not feeling very well. Must go now, she has to go to work.' Damn but I could never get the hang of switching from the first to the third person when making bogus phone calls, and to tell the truth, I still can't.
It is unlikely that the telephone monologue quoted above ever took place because, for one thing we didn't have a phone and, for two things, mam didn't have a job but it's a handy way to introduce this reflection of taking a day off school. I am well into middle age now so my school years happened during the mid to late 1970s.
I had convinced my mam that I was ill and she'd let me stay at home to recuperate. I felt like the malingering Private Hook from Zulu but, whereas he made himself a hero by seeing off dozens of the eponymous fighting warriors, I made myself sick by polishing off half a dozen Viscounts, three Bandits and a Texan. I was a malingerer but I wasn't a fool so I made sure no one saw me idling by taking the precaution of not going over the step.
This meant that a whole day's telly watching stretched itself before me. In reality, it was the afternoon rather than the whole day because I would ignore the Programmes for Schools and Colleges, as they rather grandly referred to themselves on that blue screen with the clock that ticked off the seconds (if you have to ask you'll never know). Our school was currently watching How We Used to Live which was based around different families occupying one house over the course of the 20th century. The programme offered extremely worthwhile viewing but it lost something when the Ackerleys moved out just after World War One.
So my TV watching would start at 12 o'clock and, as I run through the schedule, you will note that it is all ITV for I grew up a Tyne Tees child. The BBC offered some brief competition with Pebble Mill at One but if you've heard one swinging number from the Stutz Bear Cats you've heard them all so I didn't bother much with that. Another reason for sticking to Tyne Tees is that we were at least ten years away from getting a telly with a remote and I wasn't going to waste valuable viewing time getting up to change channels. Telly remotes in those days were only seen on exotic American imports like The Rockford Files – and I'm sure I even saw one in Happy Days. I tried to fashion a remote control from a ruler taped to a plastic golf club taped to a brush handle but it wasn't the same. Heath Robinson would have been proud of my contraption but kindly old Jim Rockford would have asked me what the hell I was doing and why didn't I just get off my lazy backside and change channels. He had a point, of course, so I met him halfway and dismantled the ruler-plastic- golf-club-brush-handle combo but made sure my backside was glued to the settee for the rest of the day.
My favourite 12 o'clock programme was A Handful of Songs in which the lovely Cathy Jones, ably assisted by a bloke called Keith on the guitar, sang children's songs as requested by members of the pre-school viewing public. They also sometimes sent in drawings to illustrate the song being requested and if I saw one picture of Puff the Magic Bloody Dragon I must have seen a hundred and don't get me started on the Grand Old Duke of Bloody York. The show just wasn't the same when Cathy was ousted by Maria Morgan although I noticed, and resented the fact, that Keith had somehow managed to survive the purge. Also filling the noon slot was Paperplay in which Susan Stranks, against a black background (remember that, it's important) created paper objects while trying to avoid the attentions of red and yellow spiders Itsy and Bitsy. At least, I am reliably informed they were red and yellow because, if we were ten years away from getting a remote for the telly, we were about five years away from a colour TV set. Itsy and Bitsy were hand puppets manipulated by someone called Norman Beardsley who was dressed in black so that he couldn't be seen. That was the intention, anyway, but eagle eyed viewers could usually spot Norman's arms in the murk. It didn't take particularly eagle eyes to see that Susan Stranks was a fine looking woman and it's a shame that she didn't feature more often in the TV listings.
I'll skip over Rainbow because I was terrified of Bungle (not to mention Rod, Jane and Freddie) so I'll move on to Pipkins. I liked Pipkins. It briefly starred Jolly George Woodbridge as toy shop owner Inigo Pipkin but it wasn't long before he succumbed to the inevitable and was replaced by a character called Johnny, or as the brummie Pig would say, Johnnoy. If there's one thing I have learned from Hartley Hare it's that no one likes a smart alec and this is something I have carried with me and tried to apply, sometimes unsuccessfully, ever since.
At 12.30, Nancy Kominsky would appear in Paint Along with Nancy. This was aimed at the artistic viewer and featured Nancy, an American in a blue smock, giving advice on how to paint. For reasons unexplained, and I don't think I really want them explained, Nancy always had a toilet roll at the ready, hanging menacingly beside the canvas. As part of her instruction she would divide the canvas up into squares, do an outline in umber and then daub layers of paint on it with a knife. I don't ever remember her painting with a brush but I liked watching Nancy. The producers were obviously mistrustful of her maverick talent because, in the same way that Malcolm Allison needed solid, reliable Joe Mercer to keep his feet on the ground, Alan Taylor was drafted in as a sensible, calming presence, ever ready to rein in Nancy's artistic temperament by asking stupid questions. Unfortunately, Alan didn't ask the questions that really mattered like 'Why do you keep a toilet roll by the side of the canvas? Kitchen roll is cheap enough, I would have thought.' and 'Why do you always end up painting a bowl of fruit when the picture you're copying from shows a nice view of the Seine?' Alan had probably considered asking these questions but had had second thoughts when he saw how handy Nancy was with a palette knife. Nancy disappeared from TV land sometime in the late 1980s but I am reliably informed that she lived to the grand old age of 95 and good for her.
Alan Taylor was an HTV man through and through and, sure enough, he also hosted the HTV version of Mr and Mrs, another programme which sometimes filled the 12.30 slot. He had his hands full on this, swapping unfunny jokes with American usherette Linda Lou Allen, based mainly on Ms Allen's misunderstanding of British idioms.
The Border TV version of Mr and Mrs was hosted by the reliable Derek Batey with assistance from former Miss Great Britain Susan Cuff. Cuff is married to ex-BBC sports commentator and FA supremo David Davies. Now there's two people I would never have put together but I said the same when they paired Bing Crosby with David Bowie for that song they sing round the piano that always gets played at Christmas.
Derek Batey was my favourite host of Mr and Mrs. He was always well dressed, had a way of putting viewer and participant alike at their ease and wasn't above slipping in an obvious answer to help contestants out.
'Well, Mrs Robinson from Haltwhistle,' he would say, 'the second question is about how your husband does up his shirt. Does he button it from the top down, does he button it from the bottom up, does he button it from the middle up and then from the middle down, or does he have no preference whatsoever when it comes to buttoning up his shirt?'
'Well now, Derek' Mrs Robinson would reply, 'since his industrial accident, my husband has lost all feeling in his hands and feet so I have to dress him and I got so sick and tired of buttoning his shirts that I have started to use Velcro.'
'Never you mind,' says Derek kindly, 'I'll slip that one in and I'll see you're alright.'
They didn't win the jackpot but it was the easiest fiver that Mr and Mrs Robinson from Haltwhistle ever earned, courtesy of Mr Derek Batey.
Inspector Google informs me that the great Norman Vaughan hosted an Anglia TV version of Mr and Mrs but I'll have to take his word for it on this. Mr and Mrs has gone the way of Catchphrase in that their previous, venerable hosts have now been replaced by younger models. A television studio is no country for old men nowadays.
One of the things I miss about Tyne Tees is their close relationship with the Border TV. I would have thought that, being based in the North West, Border would have had closer ties with Granada and perhaps it did but I always enjoyed it when the Tyne Tees news nipped over to Carlisle for the latest gossip dispensed by Allan Cartner. That man had a lovely voice. In those days, distinct regional identities were a great part of ITV. Who can forget the cheery ATV ident and jingle at the start of Crossroads or Yorkshire TV's bold and brassy arrangement that heralded Rising Damp? Now it's one homogenous ITV Studios and we're all the worse off for it.
At one of the clock Robert Kee would present the News at One and then it was on to Farmhouse Kitchen. Hosted by everyone's favourite nana, Dorothy Sleightholme, it offered good honest homely fare. 'I baked this steak and kidney pie in 1936,' she said on one programme, 'and it's as good today as it was when I first made it'. Which probably tells you all you need to know about Dorothy's steak and kidney pies.
It was a dark day when I set Inspector Google the task of finding information about Dorothy Sleightholme. He briefly looked pleased with himself when he presented a clip from that there YouTube but he was soon crestfallen when I pointed out that this featured Dorothy's younger, more Scottish, replacement Grace Mulligan. He then tried to wrong-foot me by declaring that Dorothy died in a car accident sometime in the 1980s. It took me a few seconds to compose myself on hearing this because I had always pictured Dorothy fading away gracefully, surrounded by her loving family and half a dozen yorkshires. Inspector Google is not always reliable in his findings but, if Dorothy did perish in this way, then as someone once said about the death of someone else, I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.
The Cedar Tree and Emmerdale Farm were also in the mix somewhere around about the 1.30 mark. I only watched the Farm on the off chance that Dolly Skilbeck would decide to bring in the harvest wearing short, cut-away jeans of the type much favoured by Daisy Duke. Alas those cold Yorkshire mornings meant that she never did and I bitterly regretted the fact that I, and more importantly Dolly, didn't live in sunnier climes. The urbane repartee flowing between Philip Latham and Cyril Luckham was like a foreign language to me so I tended to drift off when The Cedar Tree was on until brought back to consciousness by Money-Go-Round. Fronted by ex-Magpie man Tony Bastable it can rightly be described as the Martin Peters of television programmes because, in its dealings with all things money, it was surely a good ten years ahead of its time.
Vying for the 2 o'clock berth with Money-Go-Round was Good Afternoon, a magazine programme aimed at the unemployed, the stay at home mothers, old age pensioners but definitely not kids who had taken a sly sick day off school. Featuring Judith Chalmers and Mavis Nicholson, it contained conversation with various worthies that wouldn't have been out of place on The Cedar Tree. Thank God Mary Berry was around to offer some light relief by way of a Victoria sponge. Later on, Good Afternoon was replaced by Afternoon Plus. I think its replacement was meant to be leaner and flightier but, to my untrained eye, it seemed to be exactly the same programme only with more cushions.
This would be followed by Crown Court. Famed as much for its haunting theme tune as its dramatic qualities, it featured unknown actors waiting to be famous and throwing themselves on the mercy of the court as presided over by Judge William Mervyn, John Barron or some such actor of gravitas who had a week long gap in their schedules. A jury made up of members of the public would discuss the case, give it considerable thought, weigh up all the options, pronounce the accused guilty as sin and request that they be taken from this place and hanged by the neck until their body is dead and may God have mercy on their soul (and this even though the death penalty had been abolished for a good ten years). If there's one thing I've learned about watching telly, it's never to trust the general public because they're a bloodthirsty lot.
Another regular in the afternoon schedules was Out of Town. This was interchangeable with About Britain except that Out of Town was hosted by Jack Hargreaves, the distinguished looking one with a beard from How? I can't mention How? without referring to one of Jack's co-hosts, Fred Dinenage. An Anglia TV version of Alan Taylor, Fred could regularly be seen hosting Gambit, a sort of pre-cursor of Play Your Cards Right, and filling in on whenever Dickie Davies was busy painting the ceiling. He probably had his eyes on Sale of the Century as well but Fred was fighting a losing battle here because there was no way that the venerable Nicholas Parsons was going to give up that gig. I'm all for bigging oneself up, as I believe the youngsters would say, but the Sale of the Century the quiz of the week? I'm sorry but not while Winner Takes All was on the telly it wasn't. Fred Dinenage was last seen in the early part of this century adopting a sombre expression while discussing historic murders on the Historic Murders channel.
Anyway, back to Jack. A son of the soil, he looked uncomfortable in the studio and was never happier than when interviewing a Shire horse in a field somewhere near Ipswich. Jack may have been the most gregarious person ever to walk the earth, I don’t know, but I always think of him as a bit of a curmudgeon. I can still see him now, pipe in mouth, hat on head (sometimes it would be hat in mouth and pipe on head if he was feeling frisky, as he often was after Bunty James had been replaced by the younger Marian Davies on How?), looking meditatively across a ploughed field and wondering why other people had to exist. And who can honestly say they have never done this? I know I have.
Blink and the whole afternoon has gone but don't blink too much because you'll be a memory soon enough. There's only Andy Stewart standing between the afternoon schedule and the school bell. What a singer Mr Stewart was. Clad in a fetching kilt of grey (damn you, black and white telly) he would gaily sing traditional Scottish tunes, sometimes in tandem with Moira Anderson, sometimes in tandem with Sydney Devine, sometimes in tandem with neither, and he would make you feel great to be alive. He was also a canny Scot and he made sure his be-kilted nether regions were well out of the way of Chris Kelly's Clapperboard which would elbow its way in around twenty past four.
The News at 5.45, hosted by Alistair Burnett, would usher in the evening schedule and that would be the end of my illicit viewing. I was always a bit wary of Alistair Burnett. He had a thoughtful, earnest way of delivering the news and he gave the impression that he knew exactly what I'd been up to throughout the day and disapproved of it. I wouldn't be prepared to swear to it in the Crown Court but I am convinced that he ended more than one bulletin with the words, 'And that's all we have time for tonight. Except to say that for those of you who have passed the day swinging the lead and watching telly, and especially those who spent the half hour between one thirty and two in lustful thoughts of Dolly Skilbeck, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you go back to school'. Old Alistair was more omniscient than anyone ever knew.
Published on February 17th, 2019. Written by Andrew Cobby (2017) for Television Heaven.