Monday, 24 October 2011

All characters small, furry and funny...

Children's television has always been the domain of weekdays filling in the bit between afternoon programmes and the news, the regulars like Blue Peter, varying children's dramas and also comedy are contained within these confines or were in ITV's case. But they ruled the roost for many years, though apart from Saturday mornings where Noel Edmonds, Mike Read, Chris Tarrant or even Tommy Boyd were to be found, there was one spot on a weekend which would see the programmes for younger people become a key part of the schedule.

After an afternoon of sport and viewers have been updated on the day's even from the newsroom, a slot was available for these shows at the start of the evening's viewing. Maybe later on with the showpiece light entertainment programme forming part of the evening's viewing for both BBC and ITV, there was a need to bring young people to the schedule but also to provide enough entertainment for adult viewers to keep with which ever channel they were watching at that point. Children's programme were as important as anything even at the weekend, so the usual children's hour would be shown on a Saturday. The BBC would be offering programmes such as 'Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School' and Jimmy Edwards in 'Whack-o!' which did later was revived in colour during 1971 and put the Saturday teatime slot, references to Top of the Pops couldn't help the revival and the programme took its place in history and allowed 'Headmaster Professor' James Edward to take off his mortar board for the final time in a series.

"Hello, my name is Michael Cane..."

Throughout the 60's this was the common practice but by the end of the decade this changed with the launch of the new ITV franchises. Supermarionation was called for in the shape of Joe 90 and his BIGRAT, though this wasn't the first time a rat was called upon on in this slot. With the emergence of Dr. Who on the BBC, ITV decided to first counter with adventures of Tarzan starring Ron Ely as the vine-swinging king of the jungle. Though by 1968 the BBC called on a character who had made appearances on other shows but had never had one of his own, laughing onto the slot came Basil Brush. Basil had started out as part of the Three Scampies which Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin gave life to Basil, but the notoriously publicity-shy Ivor Owen gave the distinctive voice to Brush. The character appeared with magician David Nixon in 'The Nixon Line' helping or maybe hindering Nixon during tricks, but these slots gave Bill Cotton an idea, why not give Basil his own show, but just like working with Nixon, give him a helper or a straight man to bounce off with his jokes and puns.

The first of which was Rodney Bewes who came from 'The Likely Lads' to assist Basil with the usual mix of guests and stories but when he left after a year Mr Derek came along. Derek Fowlds later of Yes, Minister and Heartbeat filled the role ably until 1973 when he gave up the role allowing someone else to enter Basil's world of puns and being the stooge for them. That man was Roy North, North before that had been appearing on the West End stage in a production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat when he was asked to work with Basil. Of all Basil's Misters, Roy North was the one people remember the most. Not to say that Bewes, Fowlds or latterly either Howard Williams or Billy Boyle were no less as good. But North seemed at home in the role and loving it, though a person can only take enough puns, gags and stories for a lifetime and he left Basil in 1976 after three years good service. Basil himself occupied in that Saturday teatime slot for another four years after North had left the show. It had come to the end and Basil moved onto new projects.

"Oh Basil!"

On ITV to counteract the doctor, they called up another time traveller but this time rather then a police box he found himself in a new time looking to get back to his own time. That time-traveller was Catweazle, who was a wizard from the 11th century. First premiering on Sunday 15th February 1970, saw the out of his time wizard arrive and is befriended by 'Carrot' or otherwise know as Edward Bennet, a farmer's son who found Catweazle and through the first series he tried to get back to the 11th century through magic and wizardry. Leading to many slapstick situations as the confusion of this new age, to what some people would say today as 'New Age' person provided the humour, but it was not without good plots including an episode where Catweazle a fraud of a fortune teller who would give odds on tips to the punters at her husband's betting shop. Though creator Richard Carpenter thought that the programme should be able to reflect feelings as well with the time traveller whistfully saying "I belong nowhere." By grabbing the younger viewers making Catweazle a more rounded character like The Doctor, allowed the programme to have good writing and was rewarded as such in 1971 with a Writer's Guild award for best Children's drama script.

Geoffrey Bayldon was not the original choice to play the wizard, the heads of the London Weekend children's department when Carpenter first took his script to them, they wanted Jon Pertwee to play the part. But for them Pertwee had become The Doctor on BBC1, so Carpenter suggested Bayldon who himself had been turned down for the part of the first doctor in favour of William Hartnell. Though many years later they would come together for another show where both Pertwee and Bayldon share key parts together.

After a second series where Catweazle looked for the signs of the magic zodiac, hoping to get back to home to his home time the series' last episode was broadcast at 5.35pm on April 4th 1971 and Catweazle went into the pantheon of these shows.
"If thou can turneth thine electrickery heater on please, thou would be most pleased thanketh you!"

As the 70's turned into the 80's, amongst all the heroes plying their trade on Saturday night, there was a hero of sort who was very British in his make-up. Well his head was grown in Britain anyway! Southern Television was a prolific producer of children's drama throughout its history, though most of it such as Noah's Castle, The Flockton Flyer and Brendan Chase were to be found on a weekday. For a while they experimented with 'Dick Barton - Special Agent', running at fifteen minutes an episode taking on the format of the radio serial. It touched base, but wasn't a huge hit although around the same time there was another series which caught the public's imagination as well. By using the same technique of looking back at children's serials they found a character who he not appeared on the television in a drama since 1953. When the author of the Worzel Gummage books Barbara Euphan Todd died in 1976, screenwriters Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall acquired the rights to Worzel looking to make a film with Jon Pertwee as the lead.

When this idea didn't happen they took it Southern Television who like the idea and decided to produce the series, by using the south's landscape it seemed like a perfect fit for the series with the countyside, small market towns and the seaside provided a background for the stories to placed around.

On 25th February 1979 was the first time when people learned to speak Worzelese in an episode called "Worzel's Washing Day". Supported by Geoffrey Bayldon who's previous experience playing Catweazle came in handy as The Crowman allowed Pertwee and Bayldon to play off each other, backed up with Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally, a very young Charlotte Coleman and Mike Berry later to play Mr Spooner in 'Are You Being Served?' as well. Throughout its run with guest stars such as Barbara Windsor, Joan Sims, Bernard Cribbins and Mike Reid to to name but a few kept the pace up. Its zenith has to be the Christmas episode called 'A Cup o' Tea and a Slice o' Cake' broadcast on 27th December 1980 at 5.20pm including the obligatory appearance for Santa Claus but also Billy Connolly appearing as a Scottish scarecrow. Though in most newspaper at that time decided just to call the episode 'Worzel's Christmas Special' which doesn't quite as the same ring as the episode's name.

"Aunt Sally, have you got a Cup o' Tea and a Slice o' Cake for old Worzel?"

Through Worzel's hi-jinks, scrapes and slapstick over two years and four series. The series finished on the 12th December in the LWT region and on the 31st July in the Southern region, with TVS not renewing the show after taking over the franchise and also when a deal with HTV fell through to keep the programme on air despite a campaign by the Daily Star to do so. Alike most of the other series in this blog, Worzel went his own way. There was revival in the late 80's taking the series to New Zealand and a move onto Channel 4, this time on Sunday mornings. By then time had moved on and from the rudimentary of Worzel, there came another character who had started on Southern as well about the same time but he was now to be found in the big city lights with LWT after assisting Bill Oddie on his Saturday Banana.

Metal Mickey started off as the creation of musician and pirate DJ Johnny Edward who changed his name from John Flux when he joined Radio London in 1965 and staying there for a year. Later on he brought Renee and Renato together for their 1982 number one "Save Your Love". But Metal Mickey was a huge part of his life and Mickey was brought to The Saturday Banana and had made an appearance on a technology based edition of Runaround. It was Mickey's appearance on 'Jim'll Fix' It' talking to children in a marketplace for the programme alerted LWT producer Humphrey Barclay that there might be an idea in using Metal Mickey for something. A pilot was recorded within the month and thus was the start of an early 80's cult.

"I don't know about R2-D2, more like WD-40.."

Set within a family, Mickey had been 'invented' to help out around the home. Very like Worzel and Catweazle there was a fair amount of slapstick to the show, but also with Mickey's misunderstandings and willingness to help plus also adventures as well as pop star in one episode. It was a pop star who helped Metal Mickey as well as Johnny Edward and that was Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees who had found way over to the UK and now was producing the show for LWT with Nic Phillips and David Crossman directing the shows.

Dolenz gave the show what it needed, having been part of the Monkees during the sixties, he knew that there needed to be a zaniness to the show and kept it barrelling along apace. For those three years he was top of the pile, but eventually he was banished to the garage of television history. Though for a price you can still hire him for corporate and special appearances.

In the end the BBC brought Roland Rat across to be in the Basil Brush slot, there was nothing wrong with Roland but time has seemingly moved on. Programmes like The Dukes of Hazard, The A-Team and MacGuyer had become the norm by the mid to late 80's and that slot got swallowed up. There have been rumbling about all sorts of characters coming back to that slot, but even the revived Basil Brush stuck to during the week, not even the idea of Monkey from the PG Tips and ITV Digital ads could persuade bosses that it was worth a punt.

All creatures, small, furry and funny ruled the waves for a fair while but much like most of television of that time, it has moved or just dissapeared. From Basil boom-booming with Mr Derek to Roland calling out to his Rat Fans, they came saw and entertained. But here's something interesting, a mechanical hare was seen on Saturday night not so long ago. Maybe the time of creature is coming again?

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