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Agree to Differ - 2. Vivisection

Britain in a Box - The Old Grey Whistle Test

Saturday 12 February 2011, 09:45

Paul Jackson Paul Jackson

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I love television: I love watching it, I love working in it and I love talking about it. We produce hundreds of hours of TV in this country and inevitably much of it passes by largely unnoticed after its first airing. But when it's good it can be very good, it can catch the national imagination in an arresting and powerful way - "social putty" Alan Bennett once called it. I have always been fascinated by the stories of how those moments come about; what little touch of magic suddenly allows a show to capture the public mood or to speak to a particular moment in time; what elevates the good to the special?

So, the chance to work on Britain In A Box is a real thrill for me. I get to talk to people who were there when some special shows were getting started and to hear the how's and why's of what made them click in that comparatively rare way. Jeff Anderson was the last editor of World in Action, Mike Appleton was the first and last producer of Old Grey Whistle Test; both are old colleagues and it was a huge pleasure to get the chance to talk to them about programmes that have been so important in their lives. I've never worked on a series with either Simon Nye or Beryl Vertue, but they are brilliant comedy practitioners whom I know well and greatly admire. I've never worked in the field of documentary at all but I remember very well watching an early episode of Driving School and thinking: this is a different, the game has just ever so slightly changed.

One disadvantage of sitting down with all these experienced and interesting people, is that we always seem to gather too many good stories to fit into the half hour shows. This year I was lucky enough to talk to one of the great figures of our business, Jeremy Isaacs about his very early career working on a predecessor to World in Action, Searchlight. He told me that at the end of the first series of that show, the production team had been called to a meeting with the then regulators, the IBA, and told that virtually every edition had breached the broadcasting rules by pursuing a clear argument one way or the other. It was possible, they heard, the show on cruelty to children had not needed a balancing voice in favour of such activity but the regulator wasn't totally sure. No room for that in a show where we had great difficulty telling the rich history of World in Action itself in 28 minutes.

Mike Appleton is probably responsible for introducing more recording artists to the British public than any other single person, having been the final arbiter of who appeared on OGWT throughout its long life. He told me about finding an unmarked promo copy of a new band on his desk one day (a white label they were called) and being totally unable to find out who had put it there. He loved the music so he played a track on that week's show and asked if anyone knew who it was performing. Quite a few people were happy to inform him it was Queen making their TV debut. That didn't make the cut either.

We also get to access to items I have only previously heard about. In an earlier show working with producer, Paul Kobrak, I had the thrill of visiting the archives at the University of Sussex and opening boxes of files containing Frank Muir's original scripts, marked with his hand written notes and there amongst them was 'Balham: Gateway to the South', a script for Peter Sellers that had, so long ago, helped me fall in love with comedy. This series we were amazed to be allowed to see the infamous pilot episode of Men Behaving Badly. It was never shown, having been remade for the original Thames series but we've managed to get hold of a copy. Listen to that episode on Feb 19th and you will hear a bit.

Sometimes of course we just don't get exactly what we want. This time, I really wanted to talk to Maureen Rees, the star of Driving School and as such one of the very first 'ordinary prople' to become a big celebrity on TV - an instigator of a huge trend in our national life. Ironically, she has pretty much withdrawn from the limelight now.

Paul Jackson is presenter of Britain in a Box

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    Comment number 1.

    One clever trick of the programme was to flash up the credits when the last band were just getting into their stride. Rory Gallagher’s appearance was a good example of this [1]

    Mr. Gallagher loved playing at the now demolished Liverpool Boxing Stadium and there were occasions when it was impossible to stop him playing…….so the police would be called. They would, of course, be mesmerised at the quality of his playing and simply leave him to it. I’d miss the last bus home but wouldn’t notice the 10 mile walk in my drenched duffle coat.

    It would have been nice to have heard a reference to the late Judee Sill’s appearance. She was so full of enthusiasm and optimism for the future in that memorable Johnny Walker interview. RIP Ms. Sill.


    [1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKaiHamPT54

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    'Basketball Jones' by Cheech and Chong - loved those early attempts at 'video'. John Martyn, Alex Harvey - God bless 'em all

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Oh yes, couldn’t agree with you more (message 2) regarding the Alex Harvey appearances, especially when they played ‘Next’ ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqx5j-FuqeI )

    Also agree about the vids (and films). I love this one which I saw for the first time on OGWT ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgReuKYsnG0 .

    Does anyone remember if the programme ever played Barnes and Barnes’ ‘Fisheads’?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx9KjdUjKzc and what vid they used?

    I bet the assistant producer, researcher et al were annoyed that only the cleaner got a mention!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Ian Anderson's comment how OGWT provided those of us with tastes beyond TOTP's and Pans People (not that I had anything against watching PP)was the most accurate. It allowed us a lifeline, some superiority, a sense of musical snobbery over the hordes of Sweet and Slade fans. Consolidated by the front you could achieve when carrying a copy of Aqualung or Machine Head under your arm across the playground.

    Watching film of a young Status Quo performing "Someones Learning" from Dog of Two Head at a tiny club and Vinegar Joe "Proud to be a Honky Woman" in the studio was so fulfilling to someone like me starving to see and expose the music that spoke to me.

    Don't forget BBC 2's excellent Soundstage around the same time. I discovered it quite by accident when my parents were out on a Saturday night and watched transfixed as Chuck Berry duckwalked across the stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and links. What I've found most interesting, digging into the history a bit since the programme, is just how hugely varied the guest list was. I was very much in the camp of kids who switched off once punk came along. And Howard, I don't remember Soundstage at all - was it this one?

    Steve Bowbrick, Editor, Radio 4 blog


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