Surrealists, storytellers, and the Radio Times @ 90

Spending a Friday evening and an afternoon/evening at the BFI Southbank is always worthwhile.

As part of the Comedy strand, Dick Fiddy put together a programme loosely related to ‘Surrealists and Storytellers’, ranging from a 1935 clip of Robb Wilton (wondering why he missed the end of the Great War, and bemoaning the fact that just as he reached the only pub ‘over the top’ it got blown up leaving the door handle in his hand), through Max Wall (a fun piano duet and his famed funny walk, in a clip which looked as if it was from The Good Old Days), Marty Feldman (a brilliant surrealist playing golf and a henpecked husband who makes interesting trips while he is supposed to be putting the cat out or making cocoa), Spike Milligan (the great, unclassifiable, king of the surreal comedian), and Eddie Izzard (an early clip from the days in which he was a genuinely funny and unassuming performer, with pink nails and blusher, musing on what Star Trek stun guns could accomplish if they had a ‘limp’ or a ‘sudden interest in botany’ setting – I would have included the bird migration being led by a member of the flock who failed to map-read, but all Izzard’s early stuff was good).

On the storytelling side, Ken Dodd hilariously represented the lengthy joke that is just simply there for a laugh.  Ross Noble is less successful at this, and his long story about being ‘sent to the deaf class’ didn’t really work – the same for Julian Barrett’s ‘wind cheater’ and a blond Noel Fielding’s tale of cheating aggressive chavs with the ‘dead monkey’ story.  The greatest storyteller of them all, Dave Allen, was absent from this line-up, perhaps because of the continued unavailability of his material.

Today was the ‘Radio Times at 90’ tribute.  The weekly programme listings magazine first made its debut in 1923, originally just for radio but then in the 1930s moving into television, which came to dominate the magazine by the time of Elizabeth II’s coronation.  The BFI chose to offer two linked programmes to celebrate – one on comedy and one on crime.

The comedy segment benefitted from that consummate writer and entertainer Barry Cryer offering his thoughts and memories of working with the greats, and Alison Graham’s obvious love for Marty Feldman and Porridge (although, OK, she doesn’t like the Goons or Michael Bentine – her loss, I feel).  We enjoyed Bentine and friends including Dick Emery and Frank Thornton paying homage to The Wooden Horse at Television Centre, in a snippet from ‘It’s a Square World’.  I wish this series was more widely known and shown.

The Goons were represented by a piece filming them recording their radio show, where Harry Seagoon is recruited to MI5.  As ever, it is Spike Milligan’s off the cuff remarks and silly voices which brings the charm.  As Cryer pointed out, the team could have got away with presenting their show from scripts on television in the 1950s, had they wished to do so,  More 1969 vintage Marty Feldman showed the speeded up ‘Lightning Coach Tour’ with Feldman’s squeaky ‘Wait for me!’.  A couple of clips from Kenny Everett (an acquired taste, and a bit tedious, IMO) led into a quick discussion about his rehabilitation and whether the same can happen for Feldman, whose work has been largely forgotten except by devotees of his work.

From situation comedy we were treated to some of Steptoe’s ‘The Desperate Hours’, with Leonard Rossiter as a frustrated escaped con, and Porridge’s pseudo father-son relationship between Fletcher and Godber.  Beautiful writing by Galton and Simpson and Clement and Le Frenais respectively.  The session was finished off by a compilation of material directly relating to ‘RT’ including the run of Beryl Reid-Brian Pringle-Timothy Spall ads from the year all TV programmes were included in one magazine.

The second programme, on crime, was less directly related to the Radio Times.  In fact, it wasn’t really related at all.  We got a showing of the Z-Cars episode ‘First Foot’ from 1965, after a rather lengthy introduction by one of its stars, Brian Blessed.  This episode, set on New Year’s Eve, combined a number of storylines and some rather startling plot points (including domestic abuse, mixed race romance, and a burglar with a conscience).  A discussion led by Alison Graham and featuring Blessed alongside writers Erin Kelly and Sophie Hannah quickly moved from what might have been a wide-ranging look at crime throughout the period of time covered by the Radio Times to a rather blatant plug for Hannah’s new Poirot novel.

I’d also point out that the great film ’12 Angry Men’, a crime story with a difference as it is almost wholly set in a jury room, was made in 1957, not 1952 as Hannah said!  Her point that the Z-Cars episode was almost incomprehensible due to the regional accents in its dialogue is frankly bewildering – although the observation that there is a huge difference between this series and The Sweeney ten years later is a good one.

Finally we were pulled back to the topic of the Radio Times by another compilation of clips including a Nationwide piece about the artwork on the covers, a 50th anniversary celebration showing how an issue is produced, and a 1988 Christmas trailer for the double issue.  I just wish this second programme had been more tied in to the magazine, or at least played lip service to what would have been an interesting topic about how the RT has dealt with crime over the years.  Thanks to Steve Arnold’s collection of scans from the magazine’s covers we saw such greats as ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘Bergerac’, ‘The Chinese Detective’ and others.  Wouldn’t it have been nice to see something of them, or have them talked about?