Pavlovian catch phrases. Class and race/ethnicity stereotypical themes. Telegraphed slapstick routines. Sexual innuendo from leering, creepy old goats.
Benny Hill, On the Buses…………….
The odd gem: Reginald Perrin, Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers…. excellent although all fell back on lazy 70s comedy devices on occasion.
I live near a showbiz retirement home in Twickenham… I see odd 70s era characters venturing out to exercise their gums on Werther’s originals.
Mad Frankie Fraser was a resident. Probably the funniest guy there. He must have had an equity card to get in (from appearing in some sycophantic gangster worshipping TV show). My pal, ex mayor of Richmond borough, encountered Frankie during an official visit. Frankie eyed up his mayoral bling.
Contrast to US comedy of the 70s era. The Odd Couple, MASH, Taxi, Mork & Mindy, All in the Family, SOAP……..
US comedy had sharper dialogue, more nuanced themes and juxtapositions of pathos / humour. They had a phalanx of writers on each script and hence 3.5 jokes per iambic pentameter.
One imagines the typical two man UK comedy writing team collaborating, in their diamond Pringle pullovers, eying their watches for their afternoon golf appointment with Tarby, and hence agreeing to pad out a script with a prat fall and an unfunny one liner so they can meet the submission deadline and the tee off time.
A key characteristic of US comedy writing is sharp dialogue, which in turn is probably influenced by the strong Jewish presence in US showbiz. I have noticed it in US literature too.
For example: I can re-read works by Philip Roth, James Elroy, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connolly due to the wit, menace and rich content of the dialogue.
On the music front Steely Dan lyrics are as evocative as the music.
I digress again… On balance there are some British gems. Reginald Perrin hit the spot, genuinely sad and funny, albeit occasionally reverting to the catch phrase and the “catch image” (the hippo mother in-law was actually funny on repetition).
Even Fawlty Towers could not resist the catch phrase and use of the ethnic comedy device, with the Man(uel) from Barcelona as the foil.
The brilliance of Capt Mainwairing and Sgt Wilson’s exchanges, in Dads Army, were often interrupted by irritating repetitions of “we’re doomed” and “don’t panic”.
UK comedy has evolved, in the context of so many great, current comedians. Steve Coogan, Paul Whitehouse and Ricky Gervais are the homo sapiens that have evolved from the primordial swamp that produced Bernard Manning, Mike Reid et al.
The Office is a work of genius, albeit descended from Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap.
Some say there are many funny UK sitcoms. I don’t believe it….
We’re all creatures of habit and I think it starts at an early age.
I remember my after-school routine at Primary School, it consisted of having a snack and watching a bit of tv before attempting to do any homework and waiting for my Dad to get home from work to have my tea.
This was well before my Crossroads days mind, so Miss Diane was just a twinkle in my eye back then.
The after school viewing options were all targeted at primary school children although by this stage (Primary 3) I remember thinking Andy Pandy and The Flowerpot Men were getting a bit stale and hankering for Tom & Jerry which was shown a bit later.
The post-school programmes I remember watching from this era were….
Watch with Mother – Andy Pandy and The Flowerpot Men, entry level stuff that was starting to get a bit tiresome.
Animal Magic– good old Johnny Morris and his hilarious talking animals
Vision On– Tony Hart and his art, we all thought he was a dull version of Rolf Harris, little did we know!
Crackerjack– on every Friday, my favourite! what you wouldn’t do for a Crackerjack pencil back then
This particular day didn’t seem much different to any other, we were learning our times-tables, I’d gagged on the lukewarm school milk as usual, I’d walked home from school with my pals as normal looking for anything we could use as a football. On getting home I’d given my Mum a hug as she served my daily aperitif and snack, orange Creamola Foam and a Lyons chocolate cup cake, and I was ready for some well deserved R & R after another hard day at the coal face.
As I settled down to watch my daily helping of kids tv I didn’t recognise the title on our black & white DER television screen – ‘Tales from Europe’…. maybe Johnny Morris had gone to a zoo in Bavaria or perhaps Tony Hart was going to sketch Caravaggio’s gruesome – ‘Salome with the head of John the Baptist’?
Actually, what followed was a lot more traumatising than the Caravaggio masterpiece.
This is my summary of the anguish that followed, so for any of you that forget the actual storyline of this gruesome fairy-tale, here it is, in all its macabre glory….
It all started off well enough with a fanfare and a handsome Prince on a horse.
He was on his way to a big castle to sweep a beautiful Princess off her feet and to ask for her hand in marriage – a classic start, this looked promising.
The Princess wasn’t for sweeping though, and it turned out she was a bit of a brat, cascading the pearls he had gifted her to the floor she demanded a grand gesture, not expensive trinkets – “The Singing Ringing Tree – Bring it to me!”
The Kings court thought this was hilarious, she was sending the poor guy on a wild goose chase, but undeterred and in true fairy-tale fashion the Prince was determined to win her hand and off he went to fairyland to find the novelty tree.
So far so good, but then 10 minutes in, a dwarf appears, scuttling around, stalking the Prince and looking a bit menacing.
Now you have to remember, any experiences of small people in my young life up till now have been pretty positive, the fun-filled dwarves in Snow White, the playful munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, the vertically challenged Tom Thumb and all the fairytale Elves and Pixies. And not forgetting of course my favourite little fella – Jimmy Clitheroe, a 4ft 2in comic genius.
Charming little guys, the lot of them – so nothing to be scared of here.
But there was something instantly menacing about this little guy, he didn’t appear very friendly, plus he had magical powers which was a bit disconcerting. Jimmy Clitheroe was cool, but he couldn’t turn a horse into a concrete statue by waving his hands.
The Prince being a bit giddy makes a deal with the dwarf – if the dwarf gives him the tree he will ensure the Princess falls in love with him by sunset, enabling the tree to truly sing and ring. If he doesn’t achieve this, he will gladly let the dwarf turn him into a bear, yes you read it correctly – A Bear!
And he actually volunteered this forfeit himself! Not the brightest Prince – too much in-breeding obviously…
Off the Prince trots, back to the castle, tree in hand to present it to his betrothed, only she’s not very impressed, with either the tree (it’s not very special for a magic tree to be fair) or the fact that it’s not singing or ringing. When Princey says it’s up to her to make the tree perform by showing the love, she goes full-blown Mariah Carey on his ass and kicks him out of the castle for a second time, in a tumultuous diva meltdown.
Being the fickle sort however she decides a few hours later she does want the tree after all and manipulates her father the King to go in search of it. (daughters twisting Dad’s round their little fingers – who’d have thought!)
By this point the handsome Prince has been turned into Yogi Bear and the dwarf is now openly mocking the Prince, suggesting he should try courting the Princess as a bear.
Not best pleased ‘The Bear formerly known as Prince’ confronts the King who’s come to Fairyland to claim the tree for his disgrace of a daughter and makes a deal with him.
The King can take the tree back to the castle as long as the bear takes ownership of the first person the King meets when he gets there (oh I wonder who that will be???). The King agrees.
The impatient Princess waiting for his return sees her father coming back to the castle in the distance, shoves the footmen down the stairs, trips up her maid, kicks the dog out the way and guess what – is first there to greet her father in order to get her tree.
To say she’s not best pleased to hear the deal Daddy made to get the tree is an understatement and she persuades him to send the Captain of the guard instead of her, to kill the bear.
Great plan except this bear is indeed smarter than the average bear, and now he’s really pissed off, so he kidnaps the princess, avec tree, and takes her back to Fairyland (which if you’re wondering is quite close to Anniesland).
Then for no reason other than to demonstrate Eastern Bloc special effects in 1957 a giant goldfish appears in a lake and the Princess true to form acts all diva-like, enabling the dwarf to change her appearance to match her distasteful personality. Bizarrely he gives her green hair, and she now looks like Billie Eilish.
Distraught at her appearance the Bear tells her she’ll need to change her ways to regain her beauty, so, stripped of her privileges and looks, she starts to become a nicer, more gracious person – she’s kind to animals, particularly the goldfish and a random giant reindeer who appears in a snowstorm and she’s even nice to Yogi now.
Through being charitable and thoughtful, the Princess magically regains her beauty and comes back looking a bit like Holly Willoughby.
But just when things are looking up, she encounters the dwarf for the first time who’s a bit pissed off that kindness and compassion are alive and well in his kingdom. He tries to poison her mind against the bear, but to no avail, she professes her love for the bear.
Cue the singing ringing tree which is now singing and ringing to its little hearts content.
The dwarf ain’t having any of this though and duly creates a ring of fire around the tree, (sadly, without the accompanying Johnny Cash soundtrack). Undeterred the Princess channels her inner Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains and walks through the tinfoil, ahem flames, to embrace the tree, and by doing so, expels the Dwarves powers, which sends him plummeting underground (we’re assuming to the big fire).
All smiley and in love she duly jumps onto the back of the horse with the Prince who’s cast aside his bearish charms and now looks like Phillip Schofield and they ride off into the sunset together to host This Morning (except for Fridays).
Now as crazy as this all sounds, unless Mum sneakily infused some magic mushrooms into my cupcake (and I wouldn’t rule it out, I used to be given whisky for toothache!) then that’s what went down, I know this to be true, because I have YouTube and Google.
It all sounds very silly so why did it traumatise so many of us?
Well like I said we were used to little people being charming and friendly so the fact that this little imp was so nasty, and evil was kind of a game changer.
Also, he had no ulterior motives, he was just f*cking with everyone for the sake of it and the irrationality of this was bemusing to an 8-year-old in a world where everything kind of happened for a reason.
The show lasted for 72 minutes but was serialised in 3 episodes to ensure that children everywhere had three sleepless weeks instead of just the one.
I can vividly remember being freaked out by the little guy, had he really been killed off like the Wicked Witch of the West, who had evaporated into a kale smoothie at the touch of water, or could he come back to torment us?
That’s what kept me awake, that’s what made me continually check my cupboards and under the bed, and up in the loft – that’s what gave me the frickin’ heebie-jeebies!
Like most of us I’ve watched thousands of hours of tv (the average in a lifetime is 78,000 hours apparently) and there are certain things you never forget –
Bowie’s first appearance on TOTP
The ending in The Sopranos
Basil thrashing the car in Fawlty Towers
Archie Gemmill’s goal v Holland in 1978
And I would have to add this show and the evil dwarf to the list as it’s been burned into my psyche since I saw it. 55 years ago.
As Rita Cruikshank rightly says – “you never forget trauma”
There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of TV cop shows around in the Seventies – and by my reckoning there could be only three reasons for that.
One: I’ve somehow blocked out all the tat from that era so that any good stuff gets more prominence in my memory.
Two: My dad must have liked the genre because he had full control of the telly scheduling in our house.
Three: Erm, there WAS a disproportionate amount of TV cop shows around back then.
Whatever the reason, it worked out well for me. There were more cop shows on in our house than you could shake a police baton at.
Like a lot of people in the late 60s and early 70s, I was introduced to police dramas via Dixon of Dock Green and Z-Cars. Well, when I say dramas…there didn’t seem to be anything dramatic going on.
Nonetheless, I remember being fairly excited to be sitting down to watch the programmes. Well, when I say sit down…I had to get up and change the channel first as my dad issued instructions from his chair which, incidentally, was slap-bang in front of the telly and the nearest to it.
Peering up from the telly pages of his paper, he’d say: “Z-Cars is coming on, son. Turn it over to BBC1.” Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the word “please” missing from that sentence. Welcome to my world as a human remote.
I plodded along (see what I did there?) with Dixon and Z-Cars, but the tame, procedural stuff was beginning to lose its appeal for a 16-year-old looking for a TV adrenaline rush.
Whoosh! Along came The Sweeney in the mid-70s and blew me away, along with any villains who dared stand in the way of Inspector Jack Regan and Sergeant George Carter.
There were dramatic car chases, shoot-outs, sex scenes, punch-ups and dawn raids. One of which spawned the classic line: “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked.”
This was more like it – you never saw this sort of stuff on Dixon or Z-Cars. The bar had been raised and, for a while, I was content to follow Regan and Carter as they took a battering ram to London’s underworld on ITV every week.
But I was hankering for something else, something different. So I turned my attention to some of the Seventies American cop shows which were flooding in to Britain at the time.
There was so much to choose from. Using my human doofer skills, I was soon turning through the channels to check out episodes of Ironside, Hawaii Five-0, Cannon, Police Woman, The Streets of San Francisco, Shaft, Charlie’s Angels, McCloud, Starsky and Hutch, The Rockford Files, Columbo and Kojak.
Using my own detective prowess, I quickly sussed there were different templates being used to make these shows successful.
First you had solo maverick cops – with a gimmick – who paid little or no attention to their superiors but still managed to catch the bad guys (McCloud, Shaft, Columbo and Kojak).
The double-act maverick cops who would go above and beyond to catch the bad guys (Hawaii Five-0, Starsky and Hutch, Police Woman and The Streets of San Francisco)
Then the former cops who still love to catch the bad guys (Charlie’s Angels and Ironside) and finally the former cops/cons-turned-private-investigators who always seemed to get a right doing before they managed to – you’ve guessed it – catch the bad guys (Cannon and The Rockford Files).
It took me a while, but I eventually whittled down my favourites to The Rockford Files, Columbo and Kojak. So props to James Garner, Peter Falk and Telly Savalas for bringing the characters to life.
It only took a few bars of the Mike Post-Pete Carpenter theme tune for the Rockford Files to draw you in, but you were hooked a few seconds later when the answer-machine kicked into life with the words: “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”
It was the same for every episode, a neat gimmick to grab your attention right from the start.
And Columbo wasn’t short of a gimmick or two himself. Apart from his crumpled raincoat, his cigar and his dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards demeanour, the show went the opposite way from most conventional cop programmes.
There was no “whodunnit” value because it started off by showing you the crime and the perpetrator – so the value came from watching Columbo piece the crime together.
And you knew, you just knew, he was about to catch his killer when he turned on his heels as he was leaving a room to say: “Oh, just one more thing…” Busted!
If Columbo looked like something the cat dragged in, then Kojak was top dog in the sharp-dressing stakes. The bald detective was always suited and booted and sucking on a lollipop as he tracked down the baddies on New York’s mean streets.
Sometimes bending the rules – but ALWAYS using his wisecrack one-liner “Who loves ya, baby?” – Kojak would invariably ferret out the perps and bring them to justice.
Rockford, Columbo, Kojak…these guys were certainly top of the cops. The telly detectives of the Seventies were held in high esteem and even featured in novelty records.
Whodunit by R&B band Tavares is a song about a guy searching for the love-rat who nicked his girl and name-checks McCloud, Ironside, Baretta and Kojak amongst others.
Then there’s King of the Cops by comedy impersonator Billy Howard. It’s a load of tosh, but it still reached number 6 in the charts back in 1975.
Howard’s song, which features impressions of McCloud, Columbo, Frank Cannon, Ironside and Steve McGarrett, ends with his Kojak character busting them all and, with tongue in cheek, saying: “How do you like that.. police officers making records.”