I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
Children’s television in my youth was an electic collection of styles and genres, maybe more than it is today. I suppose it was a complete television service in miniature. The BBC used to show drama series under the umbrella title of ‘Tales from Europe’ and the one that stood out, possibly because it was so unusual, was ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ from East Germany.
I saw the series in the 60s; it was repeated several times over the years. It was actually made in 1957 by the East German DEFA studio as a film. The rather surreal story of a difficult and spoilt princess who rejects the proposal of a prince and all the gifts he offers has to be seen to be believed. She challenges him to present her with the mythical singing ringing tree of the title.
The series involves a bear, an evil dwarf and a giant fish. The singing, ringing tree will only sing if the prince and princess are in love so the ending is always in sight with no great surprises but a lot of fun on the way.
‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
There should be a law in Britain against using cultural icons from my childhood in adverts on television. It is bad enough when people I admire sell their talents to companies I would rather not support but when cartoon characters turn up in modern form to push profits the anachronism is too much. The latest cultural vandalism is against Top Cat and his gang.
The good news, I suppose, is that it made me think back to the 60s when BBC television broadcast the series ‘Boss Cat’ featuring Top Cat and the lovable rogues who formed his gang. Brain was always my favourite although Benny the Ball came a close second.
It took me years to work out why it was called ‘Boss Cat’ on BBC when the character was Top Cat: there was a British cat food called ‘Top Cat’ and the rules on advertising on BBC television meant that broadcasters considered it safer to change the name. It was a stupid move really since we all talked about Top Cat and never Boss Cat.
The series was American, created by Hanna- Barbera who made so many of our favourite cartoon series. At the heart of each episode a story about the cats outwitting Officer Dibble. Their get- rich- quick schemes rarely worked but were lots of fun. Best of all, I just have to think of the characters to hear their voices across the years.
There were many television programmes in my childhood that I took for granted and only appreciated once they were gone. ‘This is Your Life’ was one example of a show that was simple on format but very enjoyable when the surprised guest was right. Throughout the seventies, I was aware of this programme, presented by Eamonn Andrews. He had actually presented it in its initial British version from the 50s to 1964 and then again from 1969 until he died in 1987. Michael Aspel took over for a time in the late 80s until it finished in 2003. Although I saw some of the Aspel programmes it is Eamonn Andrews I remember well, along with the music of Thames Television’s audio ‘ident’.
Back in the 70s, with a limited number of television channels, each programme was guaranteed a very large audience so television series as this were known to most of the country. Watching a famous person being surprised by Eamonn Andrews was part of the fun; the ‘victims’ were never in the know but they knew what seeing Eamonn Andrews meant, especially when he had a red book in his hands.
The episodes I remember best of all were Frankie Howerd’s when he cried, made especially poignant when it later turned out that his partner in life was discretely placed across the stage; heterosexual couples sat side by side! I also remember Reg Varney from the phenomenally successful sit-com ‘On the Buses’ looking alarmed when his rehearsed spot was interrupted by the red book.
It was classed as popular entertainment but, like much of television from that era, it treated the audience’s intelligence with respect.
This Norwegian television series broadcast by Channel Four in Britain, in the excellent ‘Walter Presents…’ strand, was a superb thriller. Henning and Philip are two school boys who have fallen in love. They intend to keep their relationship a secret so head to a cabin in the woods using Henning’s well-known excursions for motocross rides. Unfortunately, they are interrupted when a gang arrives with a prisoner in the boot of the car. It is obviously an execution situation between rival gangs but it goes wrong when the prisoner gains the advantage and kills the others. He then spots Philip and Henning so heads their way.
This is the scenario that turns into a police investigation; one that would be easier to solve if both Henning and Philip revealed their involvement. Scared of being outed as gay, they continue to keep quiet even though they know that their information would help. To make matters worse, Philip’s foster-mother, Helen, is the chief investigating officer. With her husband, Sven, they look after Philip and presume every sign of odd behaviour has more to do with his concern for his mother than anything else.
Over six episodes, we see the investigation make headway despite some difficulties. When the killer turns up in the most unexpected place, the heat is turned up and the tension increases. Two young men, desperate to keep their relationship secret, and a police investigation stymied by lack of important information makes for a high-class drama.
‘Eyewitness’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved this television comedy series from the 70s, broadcast on BBC television. There were only two series of ‘Whatever…’ but there had been a series before that called ‘The Likely Lads’. I was too young to see that so only knew the characters Terry and Bob through the later version.
Set in Newcastle, the series was about two friends who took different paths in life but maintained a friendship. As was the way with 70s sit-coms, the comedy came from the pretensions of Bob, the aspiring middle class one, and Terry’s down to earth views on his friends new place in the social order. The first series started with Terry returning to Newcastle from the army. Bob is about to marry Thelma, someone who isn’t keen on any continuing friendship with the uncouth Terry.
The series were broadcast between 1973 and 1974. There had been about a six year gap between ‘The Likely Lads’ and the return to see what had happened to Terry and Bob. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were the writers of both versions. I also liked the theme tune called ‘Whatever Happened to You’ which was co- written by La Frenais. James Bolam played Terry and Rodney Bewes played Bob. Brigit Forsyth was Thelma.
The programme had a strong theme of nostalgia for lost youth which appealed to me when I was young. Looking back, that seems odd- and the characters themselves were not that old. They were, though, on the cusp of settling down to mortgage and marriage so perhaps that is the rite of passage that set off the nostalgia.
‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The announcement at the weekend of the death of Barry Norman was another sad passing of someone from my early years who played a significant part in building the person I am today; my interests were formed in my teenage years and have strengthened over the years. Barry Norman was on one of the first experts I came across who talked to me about film.
As I remember it, Film 74 was a fortnightly programme broadcast by BBC television on a Sunday night. Each other week, the book programme ‘Read All About It’ was screened. I liked both!
The format was simple but effective. Norman sat in a studio and talked to the camera about the releases of the week and clips were shown. This was enough for me. His comments were cogent and his tastes were mainstream but the idea of someone, who knew more than I did, telling me about something I wanted to know more about was just the sort of thing I needed.
I read in his obituaries that Barry Norman presented the programme from 1972 until 1998. The title of the series made the small adjustment with each new year. I first became aware of it in 1974 and watched until the late 70s when I left for university. The programme became weekly at some stage and, although I still watched occasionally, my time in front of a television diminished and I found other experts on film to turn to.
However, Film… was part of my growing up. It was one of the first places I realised that ‘foreign films’ were worth finding out and, each New Year, his programme of his favourite films of the year was a must see. In essence, this is what made him the very best of critics: he talked about what he liked and why and was unapologetic about the idea that the list was personal. One person, talking to camera- amazing television. They should do that again.