Tuesday, 28 June 2011

"I Am Mixing Colours Mixing Colours Mixing Colours, I Am Mixing Colours..."? Well Bloody Well Mix Them And Get On With It, Then!!

Instead of stopping to ponder on the presumably British Psychedelic Trip-related reasons why the last post but one got an inexplicable two thousand plus views yet the most recent one has struggled to achieve even two dozen (should have called it Juste qui est le Sifflet de Six Heures? and waited until the weekend, then), it's time for a welcome, and possibly reader-unanticipated, change of direction. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more on Gordon Murray (Puppets), presumably so named to distinguish themselves from Gordon Murray (Agricultural Fungicides), later. But for now... you may well have noticed that Music From BBC Children's Programmes is a curiously non-commital title, in that it fails to include that presumably all-important selling point 'TV'. And the reason for this is about to become abundantly clear; for the next bit of music from a BBC Children's Programme comes from, believe it or not, radio.

And why's this seemingly innocuous fact apparently so surprising? Well, let's be absolutely merciless about this. Or, if you will, absolutely wireless. Sorry. By the mid-seventies, and indeed by the time that Music From BBC Children's Programmes was released, Children's Radio - even within the Reithian confines of the BBC - was more or less on its last legs. Yes, alright, so they are last legs that have seemingly extended infinitely outwards like Vic Reeves' in that Peter Paul & Mary parody, and chances are that if you flip around the dial for long enough at the right time of day you'll still find somebody with Sophie Aldred speech patterns singing something about "shake those feet/come on and wake those feet" somewhere or other, but it really isn't what it was. And the 'was' in this instance was a very long time ago indeed.

Whenever people start reminiscing about radio programmes for children - and that's actual people doing actual reminiscing, not just Peter Kay being paid to count off an imaginary list on his fingers - they tend t... well, no, they don't really reminisce about radio programmes for children, do they? Very, very occasionally somebody might get all misty-eyed about Listen With Mother, the BBC's midday song and story showcase of yore, and further back in the creakier broadcasting history books there's some impenetrable stuff about 'Uncle Mac', but radio entertainment for the very young was all but done and dusted long before the official Chris Hughes-patrolled parameters of what it's actually considered worthwhile nostalgising about. Even when you do get somebody pining for the long-lost good old days of Listen With Mother, it tends to all be bundled in to one huge memory-splurge of genre-straddling radio recollecting that takes in everything from Dick Barton - Special Agent and Journey Into Space to Calling All Workers (yes, I know, this isn't Friday Night Is Robin Carmody Night, you know) and that one where Jon Pertwee was a postman or something.

Although Listen With Mother would bravely stagger on right up until the early eighties, even those who were of target audience age in the era that Music From BBC Children's Programmes inadvertently defines barely ever listened to it, with at best little more than hazy memories of not really 'getting' it and wondering how long it was until TV 'started' again. For most, defining early memories of radio would doubtless be directly linked to the statutory quasi-religious devotion to 'the charts', and associated willing Sing Something Simple to hurry up and finish. And that's the entire problem nailed in two almost casual pan-cultural reference points; since those supposed glory days, both TV and pop music had happened, and with both increasingly keen to hook in younger and younger audiences, there wasn't really much scope for interesting youngsters in the audio-only exploits of My Naughty Little Sister and Mitten The Kitten. It was all a very long way from Johnny Ball adopting a 'karma' pose at the Interdimensional Barnaby Temple Of The Mind, certainly. The Yompity Yo, a Listen With Mother mainstay who once found himself the target of political ire following a story in which he broke into a house to retrieve his confiscated voice, might have pulled in a few post-Grange Hill listeners though.

So, in short, that's why it's a bit of a surprise to find the theme from a radio show as the fifth track on Music From BBC Children's Programmes. But this was no oridinary radio show. Nor indeed was it any ordinary theme.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Just Who Is The Six O'Clock Whistle?

As we've already established at some considerable length, Lord Belborough was the nominal 'star' of Chigley, not least on account of his ownership of a private steam railway, and - by direct association - singing the song that everybody remembers the show for. When not otherwise occupied in observing how time flies by when you're the driver of a train, he also - as has indeed also been touched on previously (and that's enough uses of the word 'also' for... well, for this paragraph at least) - owned an ornate antique hand-cranked Dutch organ that clattered out - courtesy of a varispeeded Freddie Phillips on guitar, tambourine and reverb-drenched toy trumpet - the calliope-evoking instrumental that played out behind the biscuit factory workers' odd ritual of staging a daily post-work Six O'Clock Dance whilst apparently dressed as medieval Romanian peasants. Which was, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a visual cue that Gordon Murray would later return to... but more on that later. And that's enough uses of the word 'later' for this paragraph too.

Every good star character needs a good sidekick (and how tempting it is to go into an anti-River Song rant at this juncture, tempered only by the fact that Chigley Biscuits factory manager Mr. Creswell would consider it a woeful lack of the 'efficiency' he was always breaking into song about), and Lord Belborough was joined in both his train-driving organ-playing exploits by Brackett, a butler who excelled at all aspects of his job with one very glaring exception. The key narrative cornerstone of each episode of Chigley was that someone would get themselves into a (usually delivery-related) fix that would require, say, a privately-owned steam train to resolve, occasioning a quick phone call to Winkstead Hall. Brackett would duly answer the telephone, and resolve to 'tell his Lordship immediately'. What he didn't tell the train-requiring caller, however, was that Winkstead Hall's telephone was located at the end of a very long corridor, which - in an interesting definition of 'immediately' - he traversed to the accompaniment of a strident Phillips instrumental. What's more, he did so in a truly bizarre violently jerking nose-led fashion, suggesting to the impressionable viewer that he was walking with his out-of-vision legs tied together. This curious mode of perambulation, it later emerged, was the inspiration for the suspiciously accurate tipsyness-evoking line "slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball" in Oasis' Champagne Supernova, thereby exposing Noel Gallagher's one true moment of poetry as just another sham after all.

You may have noticed the use of the word 'instrumental' above. And you're probably thinking it's about time for a 'that's enough uses of the word 'instrumental'' gag. But you'd be wrong, mainly because there's about to be several more utterly unavoidable uses of it. On the album Come To Chigley, a hitherto unheard vocal section of Brackett's hitherto instrumental (yes, I know, but you're getting '...that's enough uses of the word 'hitherto'' for free!) signature tune was revealed, in which he sang about the structural shortcomings of stately homes; something that he blamed squarely on 'beetles'. His proposed beetle-countermanding (and possibly even Beatle-countermanding) solution was to host a fund-raising Open Day, and this where it all gets really confusing. On Come To Chigley, the Six O'Clock Dance music duly appeared in both instrumental and Open Day-fanfaring vocal versions, giving rise to hazy confused 'did I really hear that with words once?' half-memories to rival Little Britain by Dreadzone. The lyrics, as you were no doubt wondering, featured Lord Belborough inviting all and sundry to hand over wodges of cash in exchange for the opportunity to see sideshows, swings, and most bafflingly "old friends from Trumpton and Camberwick Green". Given that Farmer Bell was always dropping by unnanounced at the best of times, it's hardly likely that anyone from Chigley would have forked out good money for the opportunity to see him.

Come To Chigley wasn't a BBC Records release, but the later narration-free All The Music From Trumpton And Chigley certainly was, and it was from there that the compilers of Music From BBC Children's Programmes drew their choice of Chigley-representing track. Except it wasn't quite as straightforward as that. The Six O'Clock Dance music appeared on All The Music From Trumpton And Chigley in both its vocal and instrumental incarnations, and the somewhat adventurous compilers took the opportunity to put together a dextrous turntable-spinnin' extended 'mashup' of the two, coming across as a primitive precursor of the 12" mix of Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go?, only with more Mr Gubbins And Mr Sneed. Needless to say, DJ Kool Herc was soon scouring the bargain bins for a second copy of A Visit To Trumpton with which to extend Mr Munnings' ' printing press breaks'. And that really is enough uses of the word 'instrumental'... for this entry, anyway.

Maybe waltz-time odes to the joys of the Dutch organ aren't exactly going to be shaking any dancefloors in the immediate future (those traversed by Biscuit Factory workers in odd clothes notwithstanding), and maybe in this case 'extended' really only adds up to 'almost two whole minutes', but what we're looking at here is how this fourth track fits into the overall hallucinogenically-skewed Music From BBC Children's Programmes conceit, rather than its potential use to Jam & Spoon or one of those, and as it's drawn from a relatively less-well remembered show, with a few surprises along the way, and comes bolted onto the end of the theme from The Magic Roundabout too, it's fair to say that this is the most powerful fitting of the Barnaby In The Sky With BBC Schools Diamonds template that we've seen thus far. And it's about to get a lot more evocative and a lot more obscure...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

I'll Tell His Lordship Immediately (Actual Immediacy Content May Vary)

Or Mr Dagenham, he can sell anything, anything anything money can buy, he's on a voyage across an ocean, waves of his mind are set in motion etc etcTime Flies By (When You're The Driver Of A Train), or to use its somewhat slightly more perfunctory 'official' title The Little Steam Train, may well be the most well and widely remembered song from Chigley, but surprisingly it's not the one that was chosen to represent it on Music From BBC Children's Programmes. As for what was used instead, well... we'd better get getting on with the over bridges under bridges to our destination type sort of thing, with an optional side order of wheezing pistons smoking funnels and turning wheels going clickety-clack, as that's a rather long and convoluted story, which as you'll have noticed by now forms part of an even longer and even more convoluted story. And, rather pleasingly, involves a butler for whom length and convolution were both pretty much meaningless concepts.

So let's begin at the beginning, then. And at the actual beginning of this particular narrative diversion, rather than at the beginning of an episode of Chigley, which would involve less in the way of talking about this second half of the fourth track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes than it would some rolling folky guitar picking and jaunty interrogation of a rogue road-bound inhabitant of Camberwick Green or Trumpton about their next intended destination (clue: it's never Camberwick Green or Trumpton). Not only would that be straying ridiculously far from whatever passes for a 'point' in all of this, it would also, in fairness, be quite difficult to replicate in 'blog' format. So anyway, as we were saying above, back to the beginning of this business about unexpected tune-selection and a tempora-spatial para-mathematical butler.

Chigley, like all of its Gordon Murray-masterminded stop-motion cohorts (both Trumptonshire-based and otherwise... but more on that later), featured extensive musical accompaniment by one Freddie Phillips. A classical guitarist by profession, he nonetheless took great pleasure in earning a bit of extra pocket money via film and TV soundtrack engagements, ranging from cult British horror film Peeping Tom to the 'Network Openings' that played over the BBC Globe in the days when they used to shut down overnight and for most of the daytime too, which basically involved bluesy riffing over a percussive tape loop. As this proto-Big Beat musical and technical incongruity suggests, he was a keen and early advocate of the use of tape effects. Indeed, this was something that he would put to good use in his work on Gordon Murray's shows, multitracking and varispeeding a lone acoustic guitar and assorted percussion instruments to give the aural impression of, amongst others, a shop full of clocks, a printing press and even a full brass band. No, really.

Some of his contributions to Murray's shows, including the opening theme of Chigley, were purely instrumental. Many more of them, however, were short, catchy, simplistic and yet lyrically dextrous songs about the various Trumptonshire inhabitants and their occupations, with vocal duties handled by series narrator Brian Cant. Many of them, underneath the strident acoustic guitar work (once highlighted, incidentally, by Total Guitar magazine as "an example of how you can find great guitar playing in the unlikeliest of places"), had a musical and lyrical feel that were not entirely out of step with the post-Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band trend for 'psychedelic pop', so much so that a couple of them wouldn't have sounded out of place on a volume of The British Psychedelic Trip (and would have been a more suitable and indeed enjoyable inclusion than that bloody Mrs. Pinkerton thing, frankly). But their main purpose was to entertain children while withstanding constant repetition, and this was a task that they undoubtedly performed admirably. Seriously, come on, how many of you are humming "Windy Miller, Windy Miller, sharper than a thorn..." right now?

Meanwhile, what was included to represent Chigley on Music From BBC Children's Programmes was made up from both a vocal and an instrumental track, although to all intents and purposes they were more or less the same track to begin with. Confused? Don't worry, all will be made clear - ish - in the next instalment. And that butler's on his way too. Eventually.