‘Taste and Decency: The Swizzlewick Story’ reviewed

❉ This is as complete a history as we are ever likely to get of a series that did things that no other show had done before it.

“Not so much cult television as forgotten television – only one of its 26 (or 27 – it’s complicated) episodes is still known to exist as anything other than written words. And it’s fallen to that intrepid archivist of the overlooked and the ignored in British television, Michael Seely, to unearth the truth.”

Funny thing about soap operas: even if you’re not a fan, you’ll somehow absorb basic information about them by osmosis. This doesn’t just hold for the acknowledged giants such as Coronation Street, EastEnders, or Hollyoaks: I can probably bullshit you for at least a minute or two on such long-gone examples as Compact or Market On Honey Lane, even though I was at best a mewling infant when both shows came to an end. Through the ephemera that they left behind – ancient annuals at school fairs, or erudite footnotes in reference books – I knew of them.

But today’s subject? Until now, if you’d just given me its name, I’d have drawn a blank. I could have imagined anything from some particularly airy-fairy early science fantasy tale, to an exuberant revue show for children (in fact, one extra on the series was one Don McLean – certainly of the right age and in the right place to be the same fellow as the long-running funny man of Crackerjack). The one thing that I probably wouldn’t have guessed would be…a soap opera. But a very odd one.

Welcome to… Swizzlewick.

Not so much cult television as forgotten television – only one of its 26 (or 27 – it’s complicated) episodes is still known to exist as anything other than written words. And it’s fallen to that intrepid archivist of the overlooked and the ignored in British television, Michael Seely, to unearth the truth.

Swizzlewick, a short-lived soap from the BBC which lasted a mere half a year in 1964, was the work of many talented individuals – behind the cameras, such figures as Sydney Newman, Donald Baverstock, Douglas Camfield, Brian Hayles, and Fiona Cumming, which makes you wonder why die-hard Doctor Who fans at least haven’t re-discovered it before, and in front of them, a cast including such well-known figures as Patrick Mower, here playing one of the first good-looking but venal bastards that were to define his career, and Ballard Berkeley very much playing a forerunner of Major Gowen from Fawlty Towers – in fact, his character here is an ex-Army Major. Great things weren’t apparently expected of the show, but at least good things were. The BBC clearly intended it to become a stablemate of, and maybe even successor to, the aforementioned Compact, at that time one of the country’s most eagerly-followed soaps.

So, why did it fade into such obscurity?

Oddly, that may have been due to the entirely unintended acts of perhaps the greatest talent of all involved in the series…its creator and key writer, the dramatist and author David Turner. Shortly before creating the show, he had attended the first meeting of the Clean Up TV campaign, headed by one Mary Whitehouse. Turner had planned on speaking from the audience, but was refused that opportunity, and left the meeting angry – but not specifically at Whitehouse herself, so much as at the self-appointed guardians of morality that she came to stand in for as a figurehead.

Shortly afterwards, when he was chosen as Swizzlewick’s head writer, he decided that he wanted to make a soap with a big difference – he also wanted it to be satirical. When asked, he said that he wanted it to have something of the air of a live-action, adult Toytown, the popular children’s show that poked gentle fun at pompous authority and made a small-scale but definite icon of Larry the Lamb (was it coincidence that Berkeley’s Major was named Lamb?).

He wanted characters that weren’t entirely realistic as soaps tried to be, but precisely-turned caricatures. Among these, he included not just blustering military men, genial but corrupt politicians, reptilian businessmen, eager young protesters, attractive dolly birds, and a tramp with an intriguing secret, but…a sanctimonious, prissy, all-too-easily-offended busybody of a harridan, with the ear of the town Mayor and her fellow councillors.

The inclusion of the character was intended clearly as a type, not meant to represent a specific figure, but unfortunately Whitehouse was the kind to bear grudges. She was convinced that Mrs Felicity Smallgood was a deliberate mockery of herself, and, when a character with the same first name as her husband (who’d suffered a nervous breakdown), Ernest, was comically traumatised by dogs in his new job as a postman, and she was sent a copy of the script before transmission, she immediately went on the warpath – and the BBC, unfortunately, folded.

Programmes had been cut before, but a crucial difference occurred in this case: due to the high-pressure production of episodes of Swizzlewick, David Turner was not informed of the cuts until they had been made. This was an enormous betrayal of trust between programme makers and scriptwriters, and Turner promptly withdrew his services from the series. As its prime mover, perhaps unsurprisingly, the show itself was gently but firmly axed soon after.

That’s the true – but brief – story of what happened. What Seely has done here, with his customary laudable thoroughness, is to dig deeper. He spoke with surviving production figures such as Timothy Combe and Michael Imison: he burrowed into the BBC’s Written Archives; he even managed to watch that elusive, one surviving episode. And, in this book, he brings us the fruits of his painstaking labours: as complete a history as we are ever likely to get of a television programme that did things that no other show had done before it, yet, due to the outrage of a moral campaigner and, equally, a production team who expected the series to build a loyal following, but not one so large as to make its survival at all a done deal, was perhaps doomed to a short life from the very start.

In fact, in Seely’s account, an odd effect begins to be felt: a real case of ‘as above, so below’. The BBC staff and Swizzlewick’s councillors and prime movers, more and more, seem to exist in the same world of uncertainty, fudging, compromises, and desperate solutions. Also fascinating is the way in which major subplots suddenly disappear without trace: not definitively concluded, not summarily stopped in a clear way, they just vanish as it becomes apparent that a new plot is being brought in to finish the show – I for one particularly lament the loss of the storyline involving the Indian immigrant community of Swizzlewick, and Major Lamb’s conflicted feelings towards them –  and major characters in the narrative suddenly get written out completely, sometimes in the middle of an episode. Both the story itself and the BBC’s relationship with the programme start moving inexorably towards an ending that can’t be happy. It’s a fascinating parallel of reality and fiction.

Swizzlewick clearly holds real appeal for Seely, but he is far from blind to its faults. As he says, even for the time in which it is made, the ‘near-the-knuckle’ content is surprisingly genteel (indeed, even the early Carry On films are easily a good deal more raunchy than this), and such satire as makes it through is equally mild – a bit more bite might have been nice, but then again, would the show have survived even shorter in its early-evening time slot if it had gone more for the jugular? And, that said, the depiction of Lamb and his colleague Commander Maskew’s Civil Defence committee being largely an excuse for war games straight out of a primary school playground is pretty direct satire, and very funny even just described in a plot outline.

In addition, Seely also provides an affectionate but incisive epilogue essay, in which he considers many of the important socio-political themes underlying the drama of the series, and places many important threads into a clear historical context. His work here, overall, achieves what any good historian should – presenting the past with an unbiased, appraising eye, while also not shying away from providing shrewd, purely human insight. Having shown us what happened behind the scenes, he then presents the tale of Swizzlewick and its inhabitants in painstaking breakdowns of each episode, including credits for everyone and everything down to hired but unused actors and music heard in each instalment (stuff which ranges from Beethoven to John Barry via various popular groups of the day and beyond), before wrapping the whole thing up in fond yet thoughtful manner. Perhaps, most impressively of all, he’s taken the story of a TV series that I’d never heard of before, of a variety that doesn’t really fire my enthusiasm, and told it in a way that makes me wish fervently that all 26 (or 27) episodes still existed for me to watch and enjoy.

To allow myself a small piece of whimsy in closing, Swizzlewick for me in some ways anticipates The Prisoner in its structure (while also, in its ethos, foreshadowing Joe Orton – Erpingham Camp must surely be a few picturesque miles outside of Swizzlewick’s town limits). Both series were created by acclaimed visionaries in their fields, both promptly went on to flounder on the tides of uncomprehending opinion, both were cut well short of their originally-intended runs – and both decided to go out in a manner that whatever viewers remained weren’t going to forget in a hurry.

And now, more importantly, thanks to Seely and all of his marvellous associates at Saturday Morning Press, Swizzlewick is forgotten no more, and I’m grateful. Long may SMP survive, and long may they bring us still more neglected treasures from the forgotten televisual past.

‘Taste and Decency The Swizzlewick Story’ by Michael Seely is available now from Saturday Morning Press, RRP £10.99. 

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 58 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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