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.
This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population. Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.
Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X. All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here. Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.
The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.
James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life. The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message. Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.
The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The recent radio dramatisation of Salman Rusdie’s 1981 novel was fantastic. Not having (yet) read the book, I was ambivalent about listening to the drama as it was broadcast over one day in August by BBC Radio. However, once I started I had to see it through to the end.
The drama was split into episodes of varying lengths, a creative touch that made the broadcasting special. The first episode was broadcast before midnight on the day before the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. The rest were broadcast throughout the next day.
The story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight with the creation of two new countries is a brilliant one. Nikesh Patel played the adult Saleem who narrates the story of his life as well as the background story of his grandparents and parents. It is a story that follows the history of the new countries as well as the young man. His life weaves in and out of important moments in the life of India and Pakistan.
There is something satisfying about a radio adaptation, especially as voices coming through the air is a significant idea in the novel. The term magical realism is often applied to this story and this may be a reason why I haven’t read it; or the 600 page length may have put me off. However, when brought to you across the airwaves, the concept of magical realism is less off- putting and in fact works very well.
Themes of identity, belonging, national pride, cultural differences and honour all play a part. As Saleem grows up, so does India.
‘Midnight’s Children’ dramatised by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Emma Harding is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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 is a poem from my youth, read to us as very young children by a teacher in our 1960s classroom. I recall the collection of AA Milne poems ‘When We Were Very Young’ with a blue border in the hands of my teacher as she read to us.
Lines and Squares
Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, “Bears,
Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”
And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”
A A Milne
This film from 1960 was a favourite of mine when I was growing up. I must have seen it many times over the years, always on television and never minding that it was in black and white as the original film was. Growing up in the 60s, one of the big differences between cinema and television was that the ‘pictures’ were always in colour while television was black and white. The films they showed on television back then were nearly all black and white so we didn’t miss out!
This film starred the great Jack Hawkins as a former army officer who hatches a plan to rob a bank. He enlists other former officers, all in difficult circumstances who use their skills to gain entry to an army base in Dorset where they acquire weapons and supplies.
The film is a caper. It was directed by Basil Deardon whose cast included Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick, David Lodge, Bryan Forbes and Roger Livesey. Bryan Forbes also wrote the screenplay.
Such is the fun of the film that I wanted the thieves to get away with it. However, the police are on to them and the ending, when it comes, is very clever. The telephone ringing in the penultimate scene is highly effective.