Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Someone's Being Menaced By An Out-Of-Control Studio Campfire, My Lord, Kum Ba Yah

Well, the previous post has unintentionally inspired something of an online debate, with much 'trending' taking place over whether the closing theme of Blue Peter actually is titled Drum And Fife or not. Wikipedia says yes, 100% Mike Oldfield Super-Best Discography says no, and YouTube says 'blue peter drum and bass', which is hardly exactly helping matters. Can anyone provide the definitive answer? Answers, as ever, on a postcard. Though preferably to here and not to Blue Peter, BBC Television Centre, Wood Lane, London W12 7RJ.

What there can be no debate about, however, is the identity of the piece of music that the Blue Peter theme was bolted onto. As we have seen, it was customary for each track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes to be made up of several shorter tracks segued together. In the absence of Drum And Fife[CITATION NEEDED], which they presumably couldn't agree on the name of even at the time, and with Blue Peter presenters generally discouraged from following the bad example set by Magpie's Mick Robertson and his second division Glam Rock effort Roller Coaster Rock (not a 13th Floor Elevators cover, sadly), there was nothing obvious to pad Barnacle Bill out to track length with and so BBC Records And Tapes had to scour their archives for something tenuously suitable, eventually opting for a version of Kum Ba Yah credited to 'The Girl Guides'.

A bit of background is needed here. BBC Records And Tapes were an eccentric outfit at the best of times, but in their first couple of years of operation they apparently compiled their output by cutting up a copy of the Radio Times, throwing the pieces up in the air and picking the first five words that landed as the basis for an album title. Hence alongside the more expected fare like Jackanory story albums, Marty Feldman sketch collections and BBC Radiophonic Workshop shenanigans, you'd get the likes of Sir Peter Ustinov Says: How To See Jupiter Through A Telescope, Whither Paraguay? A Musical Journey In Speech and Sound Effects No. 874: Steam Train Buffet Cars Of Old Shropshire, none of which are quite as much of an exaggeration as you might be thinking. And yes, there was a Test Card album, but more on that later. Needless to say, they would pile any passing musical ensemble into a recording studio, and so it was that this non-location specific collection of 'Girl Guides', under the supervision of one Hettie Smith, came to record an album's worth of campfire standards (other intriguing-sounding numbers including Hol' Yo' Han', Mr Banjo, the unfortunate psych-alluding juxtaposition of The Brownie Song and Images And Reflections, and Tingalayo, better known to erstwhile viewers of the BBC schools' programme Music Time as that peculiar song about a donkey that eats with a knife and fork), released in 1971 as Singing Along With The Girl Guides with a disturbing cover depicting a terrifying mutant Guide.

And how did it end up on here? Well, presumably as part of the 'improving' remit, Blue Peter was always given to allowing members of the Guiding and Scouting movements to demonstrate their 'gang show' antics in the studio, most infamously resulting in a shower of Guides being menaced live on air by an out-of-control campfire (while, hilariously, singing If You're Happy And You Know It), so the link kind of writes itself. Sadly there's no crackling flame effect (from BBC Sound Effects No. 87663?) to enhance this performance, just a terminally dreary performance of a terminally dreary song, rendered in that 'ghostly' looming-from-out-of-nowhere style much beloved of The Cliff Adams Singers on Sing Something Simple.

Of course, there's a whole subgenre now devoted to the unexpectedly spooky and spectral folky Ghost Box-style sounds of the throwaway background music of yesteryear, which presumably accounts for the otherwise bafflingly inflated sums Singing Along With The Girl Guides now changes hands for. But spooky and spectral folky is not what we're looking for here, let alone jaunty orchestral nauticisms, and the time-honoured Greek Chorus that is Blue Peter has once again succeeded in intrusively disrupting an hallucinogenic vista that should be backward sitars and the shopkeeper from Mr Benn as far as the eye can see. But wait... is that the sound of the cavalry in the distance, galloping up on a 'Tricy-bus'???

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Plus... Tubular... Bells (Made From Cardboard Rolls And 'Double-Sided Sticky Tape')

So, track three of Music From BBC Children's Programmes. The Blue Peter theme. And the original orchestral pre-Mike Oldfield one at that. Much as we might prefer to avoid it, and may have spent the previous two posts trying to find ways of doing just that, it's there on the album and is a hurdle that has to be overcome if we want to get to The Electric Kool-Aid (Made By Windy Miller's Cider Press) Acid Test, so let's just get it out of the way and move on.

The Blue Peter theme, as you may already know, is a jaunty re-arrangement of Barnacle Bill, written by Ashworth Hope and definitely not to be confused with the rather off-colour traditional sea shanty of the same name. And similarly not to be confused with the closing theme Drum And Fife, which is apparently an entirely different tune despite sounding almost identical. This version, as used onscreen from 1958 to 1979, was performed by the New Century Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch, perhaps better known as creator and mainstay of Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night. And, well, it sounds pretty much as you remember it, from the opening drum roll to the shrill sign-off. It's jolly but formal strings and woodwind all the way, and as it had its origins in the world of 'proper' orchestral composition, there isn't even a hastily-written weird-out 'middle bit' to enjoy. No, it's just more of the same with occasional variations in conducting emphasis, the only real 'moment' coming with an unexpected oboe 'breakdown' that sounds as if it more rightly belongs behind an early Disney character falling over.

It's nice enough as far as it goes (and later sounded great on CD, but that's another story), and it would be a brave person who suggested that it was anything less than a pleasant and jaunty light orchestral piece, but it just doesn't belong on Music From BBC Children's Programmes. Well, actually, in a literal sense it probably has more claim to be on there than any of the other inclusions. But in a more esoteric and hypothetical sense it's a real fish out of water, redolent of an earlier age of ration books and Calling All Workers and whistling postmen and, well, children's TV of the late fifties (and let's be honest, Blue Peter had done little in the way of modernising since then). Musically and indeed aesthetically it has little in common with the two preceding tracks, nor indeed what else might potentially be found later on in the tracklisting.

Crucially, had this album come out only a couple of years later, it would have featured Mike Oldfield's far more pleasing progged-up Korgtastic rendition, squealing lead guitar and all. Or if it had been Music From ITV Children's Programmes (and oh for such an album to have existed), it would have boasted The Spencer Davis Group's pseudonymous swirly-Hammond Mod-dancefloor-friendly theme song from Magpie. But no, the original Blue Peter theme it had to be, looming up like that weird post-credits zoom in on the Blue Peter boat to remind us that we couldn't have it our own way all the time, and as long as a Reithian pulse was still detectable in the BBC they'd make sure we got our healthy regular dose of improving programming to balance out all that mind-bending stuff about violin-playing robots. Still, it could have been worse. At least it wasn't the brass band rendition of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at that bookended outward bound Blue Peter spinoff Go With Noakes.

We came looking for something akin to The Walham Green East Wapping Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association appearing on Cheggers Plays Pop. We left, as ever, under the disapproving gaze of those clean-cut youngsters who didn't like that uncouth pop and roll music but knew everything there was to know about getting up at six in the morning to do their bugle practice, recite the Kings and Queens of England in both chronological and dynastic order, and then get to work on the latest Blue Peter 'make'. The effect was somewhat like finding Edwelweiss by Vince Hill in the middle of side one of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (the exact opposite effect, amusingly, to finding (Bring Me) Edelweiss by Edelweiss in the middle of side one of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn), and as we shall find out, this fading of the psychedelic dream would get worse before it would get better.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Bleu, Bleu, L'amour Est Bleu (Surtout En Regardent Pierre Bleu)

Still not convinced? Alright, let's consider this in slightly more pseudo-scientific terms. Many years ago, probably while Music From BBC Children's Programmes was on general release, the BBC used to use a caption slide in a horrid navy/mustard/white colour scheme for unveiling the day's children's TV schedules. On either side of said schedules were a set of illustrations featuring iconography from some of the more popular offerings of the day, complete with two children gazing up at them in awe. On the left were the Play School house and Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout, and on the right were Scooby Doo and - you knew it was on the horizon - the Blue Peter boat.

"So what?", you're probably thinking. "It stands to reason that they'd slap a few random representations of view-enticing shows onto an otherwise bland-looking schedule which probably had bloody God's Wonderful Railway in it on top of everything else, without even considering that in the far and distant future someone would use it as a flimsy springboard for launching into yet more unwarranted Blue Peter-bashing". And yes, in the conventional and indeed literal sense, you'd be exactly right. But consider it more in terms of the cognitive associations of this juxtaposition. The shows on the left, it has to be said, are precisely those that would appeal to the more arty and cerebral sector of the audience, that had 'seen' the jazz influences of Play Away and indulged in pre-school existential rumination on the modern condition and its relation to the pop-art ethics underpinning the Play School toys, and probably grew up to be obsessed with French cinema and lo-fi music and indeed with recapturing the lost 'white void' studio of the mind. Whereas those on the right (yes, alright, this isn't Robin Carmody's Saturday Night Takeaway you know) pointed towards more of a sense of structure and order and academic rigour, with precision and achievement and fresh-faced fun taking precedence over angst-ridden doodling intended to somehow 'take down the government'. In a sense it really is the whole 'Left Brain/Right Brain' theorem writ large, only the wrong way round, and with more Barnaby.

And so it was that if you went through childhood with the imprinted image of a Franco-English stop-motion bear lodged in your subconscious, Blue Peter was merely something that Other Children Liked. Its adherence to formality and achievement and unobtrusive modes of dress, not to mention its obsession with historical facts and figures and ever so slightly patronising exploration of 'foreign' cultures, was sometimes more than the unfocused creative mind could cope with and as such simply rejected it. Others may have had their Bring And Buy Sales and free entry to the Natural History Museum for Blue Peter badgewinners, but this was a world you could not understand and were not invited into anyway, forced instead to stand peering through the window with Mr Davenport from Rentaghost.

It's worth mentioning at this point that there is something of a misconception that those who were barred from entering the Blue Peter party automatically sought solace in Magpie, the ITV counterpart that folk legend would have you believe was something tantamount to a 'roller disco' in comparison. However, that's ignoring the fact that underneath its more modish trappings, Magpie had much the same obsessions as Blue Peter - almost as if Brotherhood Of Man had decided to go 'New Wave' - and the last thing you wanted was to replace something you didn't like with more of the same in trendier jackets. If anything, such disaffected viewers would probably have gravitated towards How!, where the presenters explained how things work but made surreal fun of them at the same time... but that's straying way too far off the central narrative thrust for now. Of course, Magpie did have one very significant thing in its favour, but we'll return to that in due course.

Suffice it to say that no matter how entertaining the archive clips routinely included as extras on 'Classic' Doctor Who DVDs may be, and no matter how legendarily entertaining the bitter rivalry between Blue Peter and Magpie presenters may have been in more recent times, and no matter how enviably classy a complete run of Blue Peter 'books' (never 'annuals'... the whole argument that's taken up two blog posts encapsulated in one word right there) may look on an erstwhile Noakes-decrier's shelves, that's all to do with how vintage Blue Peter seems now, and back when vintage Blue Peter wasn't actually vintage, it was the prim and proper diametric defuser of any theoretical Fingerbobs firework lit by Keith Chegwin. And here it was, slap bang in the middle(ish) of the first side of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, poised to do exactly the same thing again.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Here's One We Made Much More Boringly

Alright, Those Children From The Cover Of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, you can come out from behind the sofa now. Doctor Who and the 'Worlds' thereof has finished, and it's time for the theme music from exactly the sort of programme that appealed to you gentrified Shrivenzale-fearing swots. The sort of programme that has always polluted any attempt at waxing psychedelinostalgic lyrical about children's television of the past with the overwhelming odiferous strength of Pickled Onion Monster Munch. The sort of programme it was always tacitly dictated you ought to be watching, as opposed to the sort that you actually wanted to watch. The sort of programme that was, well, Blue Peter.

Let's get one thing straight from the outset. If we're plotting a star chart rendered in 'Glam Rock' graphology where the constellations form representations of Mr McHenry and Farmer Barleymow inside a larger strobing swirl of cosmic flares, then Blue Peter has no place on it. Yes, it was popular, yes, it was long-running, and yes, it may have to be grudgingly accepted that its live nature sometimes led to watchable moments of cat-goes-berzerk-and-pushes-John-Noakes-backwards-over-couch hilarity, but none of that can do anything to counter the fact that, in this context at least, Blue Peter is to all intents and purposes an Englebert Humperdinck accidentally included on the bill of a 14 Hour Technicolour Dream.

Nowadays, of course, Blue Peter enjoys a very different sort of incongruity, as one of the last remaining outposts of clean-cut improving semi-educational children's television, and is also barely recognisable in that they actually allow the presenters to have something resembling a hairstyle. Back in the era of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, however, you either loved it or hated it. And if you hated it, it was a dull teacherish Reithian exercise in instructing you in what you should be interested in, populated by over-enthusiastic presenters who lacked even the verging-on-surreal-dryness of other close contemporaries like John Craven, presented from a 'white void' studio it barely deserved, and suffering from a worryingly fanatical devotion to retelling the story of The Stone Of Scone.

No doubt many of those who loved it, and TV Cream's Steve Williams in particular, will have stopped reading by now, but please be assured this is no idle and opportunistic exercise in Blue Peter-bashing. For it was a show that had little in common - station of origin aside - with the more absurdist and chronologically adrift shows that it might have been hoped were to be found on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and yet was always the first to get mentioned whenever anyone sought to evoke memories of children's television past, with reminiscences about 'double-sided sticky tape' and 'makes' that nobody ever made and the Time Capsule and That Sodding Elephant and when Princess Anne joined them for something or other as if anyone ever cared about that in the first place anyway just generally getting in the way of rightful Chegger-skewed revelry, leading to no end of Barnaby-fuelled resentment towards Peter Purves and company. It was probably a wrongful scapegoat, but it was a scapegoat all the same, and arms had to be taken up against it. Slim Charles from The Wire would have been proud.

And whereas Doctor Who was a welcome and musically pleasing diversion from the path to Play Away-soundtracked enlightenment, Blue Peter came equipped with formal (if jolly) stiffly orchestral theme music that belonged to another age. All of the hopes that had been pinned on Music From BBC Children's Programmes were, it seemed, rapidly fading. The Day Of Those Children From The Cover was upon us.