Missing Believed Wiped 2017, BFI Southbank

Roll up, roll up for the annual parade of newly recovered archive TV treats.

Session 1

Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies: an entire career in entertainment based around and a lisp and an oversized hat. I’m still thinking that through. We’ll come back to him…

The first session of this year’s Missing Believed Wiped, traditionally covering light entertainment, hit the ground running with a recovered edition of BBC1’s Cilla from 1968. Starring the endearingly gawky, quick witted and toothy Priscilla White under her stage name Cilla Black (can you see what she did there?), Cilla was the beginning of the nation’s love affair with the singer who, legend has it, was discovered by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein working in the cloakroom at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.

Cilla is typically 1960s as it’s such a collision of different pop cultural styles. Epstein represented Cilla and persuaded no less an iconic musician than Paul McCartney to write Step Inside Love, the theme song for her first TV show. It’s tailor-made for Cilla’s bluesy voice, and is so dramatically orchestral, that it sits somewhere between Burt Bacharach and James Bond.

The cultural variety continues with guest stars Roy Hudd (effectively a variety turn, playing off the audience Max Miller-style), the ever-popular cuddly Dudley Moore (with his eponymous Trio, pleasingly performing the slinky jazz theme from his and Peter Cook’s 1967 film Bedazzled) and… Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies.

You can see why Cilla caught on as a national treasure, Roy Hudd is still with us and Dudley Moore is remembered as one half of a revolutionary comic duo. But Freddie Davies? I’ll swear you could almost see the metaphorical tumbleweed blowing across the auditorium of NFT1 as, with the aforementioned lisp and hat, he performed a very unfunny routine that referenced budgerigars and Napoleon.

Davies was so busy at the time that Cilla had been trying to get him to appear on her show for the whole series, only managing to secure him for the last instalment. I remember my Mum and Dad being so taken with this guy that they went and saw him during a 1960s’ summer season in Great Yarmouth, which was a rarity for them. Yet Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies is pretty much forgotten today. He’s one of those acts who, for whatever reason, caught a mood, had a moment in the sun then were forgotten by popular history. In one way, a window on to these neglected stars – regardless of their lasting quality – is what Missing Believed Wiped is all about.

Next up was a short clip from Hugh and I (1962-67), a comedy vehicle for friends Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott, very much along the lines of the Hancock’s Half Hour set-up of two mates lodging together, even down to the actors using their own first names for their characters. In a sketch set in a model agency, Lloyd was agreeably naïve and Scott agreeably exasperated, but it was hard to gauge the quality of the whole.

An episode of Whack-O!, the BBC sitcom about Jimmy Edwards’ on-the-make Headmaster, was a popular feature of last year’s MBW and we were treated to another helping this time around in The Empty Cash Box. This time, the plot revolved around an insurance scam based around the caning of all the boys in the school, whose young posteriors were inserted into an apparatus called SMACS – Squeamish Masters’ Anonymous Caning Screen. The pay-off was that Jimmy’s stooge Mr Oliver Pettigrew (the wonderfully wobbly Arthur Howard) had effectively taken one for the team – or rather the Head – by standing in for all the boys.

The Empty Cash Box highlighted another important aspect of Missing Believed Wiped: changing social attitudes. What was acceptable family viewing in 1959 – i.e. youngsters being ritualistically caned, then a weak man willingly taking a beating for the bully of a Headmaster he was devoted to – wouldn’t be permissible today. The same goes for Roy Hudd and Dudley Moore’s banter with Cilla Black in Cilla: ‘When I make love to a woman, she screams for more!’ Hudd enthusiastically if (now) inappropriately announced. ‘That’s when I’m in like a shot!’ Dudley punned in the equally (now) inappropriate punch line. The way things have gone in the wider world in 2017, that’s enough for this whole instalment of Cilla to be put on trial.

Another returnee this year was Till Death Us Do Part, featuring Warren Mitchell’s legendarily bigoted East Londoner Alf Garnett. It’s another side to the Politically Correct debate, as Johnny Speight’s series was set up to ridicule an ignorant man with racist and anti-socialist views, even though Garnett presented those opinions vigorously and unapologetically. Would that be allowed on television now? Probably not, but there’s great intelligence in Till Death Us Do Part as the young, enlightened generation, personified by Garnett’s daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and her husband Mike (Tony Booth) cheerfully and earthily exposed the contradictions in Alf’s views.

This year’s find, Sex Before Marriage, was largely confined to the Garnett’s front room, highlighting some excellent comedy business from Garnett during Alf’s incompetent attempt to do the wallpapering. Not vintage, perhaps, but still worth seeing.

Session 2

Another good reason to go to MBW is a healthy dose of nostalgia. This was supplied this year by the talented Ed Stradling’s YouTube channel, The TV Museum. First up was a clip from the interactive children’s show Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, that successfully fought off ITV’s more anarchic, live marathon Tiswas between 1976 and 1982. This was a time when a BBC visual effects designer was considered interesting enough to be wheeled out on childrens’ TV for an interview, and Mat Irvine was a natural, enthusing about the newly-launched Blake’s 7. He also skilfully countered Noel Edmonds’ sometimes unintentionally funny questions like “What exactly is that model meant to be?”

ITV’s film programme for children Clapperboard offered an entertaining insight into the making of the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Some of host Chris Kelly’s questions were surprisingly mature and thought-provoking, such as when he asked Roger Moore how he approached playing Bond, as he’s “a bit of a rotter… and doesn’t care too much about other people.” “Very like me!” the effortlessly droll Moore responded. This charming piece ended with Bond skiing into space in the film’s famous opening sequence, followed by a cut back to the sardonic Kelly, who got the biggest laugh of the day with his comment, “For the half dozen or so who haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil the next bit for you, but it’s been a big year for parachutes.” Not a Bond fan, Mr Kelly?

A third wage of nostalgia was triggered by the next clip, from the BBC’s magazine programme Pebble Mill at One, a childhood memory for me from weekday lunchtimes. The perennial MBW favourite Doctor Who got an outing here; hailing from 1982, the interview with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison was essentially a plug for his Book of Alien Monsters, but was conducted so good naturedly and intelligently by Donny MacLeod that it took in a consideration of if – even in 1982 – Doctor Who was too scary for children. Insightfully, Davison argued that “children are far more aware than we give them credit for.”

The Doctor Who connection continued with a clip from Two Blind Mice, an episode of the long-running police drama No Hiding Place (1959-1967). Instead of featuring the lead actors Raymond Francis (DCI Tom Lockhart) and Eric Lander (DS Harry Baxter), it focused on a performance by Second Doctor actor Patrick Troughton. His distinctive mop of black hair aside, it showed what a magnificent character actor he was, delivering a nasty piece of work in the unlikely named criminal Percy, who was as far from his genial Doctor as it was possible to get. Confined to a single prison cell set, the clip highlighted the theatrical strength of videotaped drama, particularly when Troughton was joined by Alfred Burke, another great from that era.

The centrepiece of this year’s MBW was the screening of Mike Stott’s play Thwum (1975) from Pebble Mill’s Second City Firsts anthology series, which showcased the work of new writers and directors. Interviewed by Dick Fiddy, the play’s director Pedr James explained that Thwum’s rediscovery was thanks to the BFI, as its technical department was able to retrieve a recording from a damaged Phillips video cassette. Despite the technicians voicing their reservations about the technical quality of the transfer to Fiddy, he decided it was eminently watchable, wryly commenting “I [must] have lower standards than them.”

Also in attendance for the screening were members of the actor Pete Postlethwaite’s family. Thwum was a significant entry on the actor’s CV, as it was his first TV role: at this point in his career he was still credited as ‘Peter’, and James suspected that Stott wrote the part of “all purpose” journalist Duffy with him in mind. You can see why – in a tale of the local scribe being invited to attend the landing of an alien craft by intense UFO spotters Bernard (Paul Moriarty) and Joy (Rosalind Elliot), Postlethwaite inhabits his role authentically, moving impressively between cynicism, sympathy and, in the final reel, a completely unexpected change of dramatic gear. This is another strength of MBW: the opportunity to see the formative performances of people who went on to become leading lights of the acting profession.

Courtesy of the Kaleidoscope Archive, this year’s MBW closed with Late Night Horror: The Corpse Can’t Play (1968), a tribute to the respected director Paddy Russell, who died earlier this year. A bona fide television pioneer, apart from her work as a production assistant with Rudolph Cartier on the legendary Quatermass serials and Cartier’s ground-breaking adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, she was the first female director to work for the BBC. After 1961’s innovative Return and Answer series, she went on to a distinguished and varied career, helming, among others, episodes of the sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown (1965), police drama Z Cars (1967-1976), childrens’ series Quick Before They Catch Us (1966), the first episode of the paranormal thriller The Omega Factor (1979) and, between 1966 and 1977, three highly regarded Doctor Who stories.

The Corpse Can’t Play was part of another anthology series and for a lot of its length it resembled a rather pedestrian soap opera, centring around a children’s party at which the bereaved Simon Potter (Michael Newport) was treated spitefully by party host Ronnie (Frank Barry). This was all intentional, as in the final moments Russell fielded a grand guignol, Tales of the Unexpected-style twist when Simon rebels and murders Ronnie’s father. Even if the ending was rather predictable, you could admire Russell’s skilful handling of the shifting tone and atmosphere.

So that was Missing Believed Wiped 2017: forgotten comedians, a look at changing social attitudes, nostalgia, early performances of future stars and a tribute to a real television innovator. In short, this year’s Missing Believed Wiped ticked all the boxes for the dedicated enthusiast of vintage TV. Dick Fiddy and his team are to be congratulated for their continued commitment – since 1993 – to plugging the gaps in the archives.

And yes, even the finds which feature old Parrot Face have their value.

❉ Visit Ed Stradling’s TV Museum YouTube channel here

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

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1 Comment

  1. Great review! Given that Paddy Russell directed four Whos, your use of “highly regarded” must be significant. 😉

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