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Friday, April 25, 2014

Comic Cuts - 25 April 2014

BBC2 have been celebrating their 50th birthday over the past week or two, which raises the spectre of its disastrous first night . . . but what was that first night's connection with British comics? Have a think about it and I'll answer the question below.

It has been a long time coming, so I'm pleased to say that I'm seeing the glimmerings of the light at the end of the tunnel with the Countdown to TV Action index. The introduction stands at around 35,000 words and most of the linking material between notes is written. Trying to compile the history of an old comic is a little like putting a jigsaw together—made all the trickier because you often don't know what the picture will look like when it is complete. To build up the picture often involves writing up chunks of text where information is available whilst researching the bits that aren't known and then slotting that information into the gaps as it becomes available.

I'm very close to having all those little gaps closed and as far as I can tell the whole structure is still holding together. I've managed to weave lots of different threads through the introduction, so that you don't get a huge block of everything about one strip and then a huge block of everything about another strip and then another huge block... the strips are split into smaller, more bite-sized chunks which we return to over the length of the intro. Actually, one strip does get that one-block treatment, namely 'Countdown', which had one storyline across its 69 episodes.

Meanwhile, let's slip back fifty years to the opening night of BBC2. The channel had been promoted heavily by the BBC so that anticipation for the launch of the new channel was high. It was due to go on air at 7:20 on 20 April 1964, screening a preview and a news bulletin before beginning a scheduled evening of viewing that began with comedy from The Alberts' Channel Too, a performance of Kiss Me, Kate starring Howard Keel and Patricia Morison, and comedy from Arkady Raikin, a Russian comedian. The evening was to culminate with a fireworks show from Southend Pier.

Unfortunately, a 6:30 that evening, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, at the same time, a fault developed in a power cable bringing electricity south from the Midlands. The result was that BBC Television Centre lost all power. This was a particular disaster for the BBC's marketing department. They had been marketing the new station using cartoons of a kangaroo, a baby kangaroo (representing the new station) emerging from the older kangaroo's pouch. To capitalise on this clever bit  of branding, a kangaroo had been brought to Television Centre. When the power went down, the kangaroo, stuck in a lift, went berserk.

Presenter Gerald Priestland was in the BBC's original news studio at Alexandra Palace, which still had power but even he wasn't immune to the disaster that was BBC2's opening night. A sound fault meant that the first two minutes of his news bulletin could not be heard by viewers. To add insult to injury, the sound returned just as Priestland was relating a story about a female bus conductor who had been sacked for insulting Pakistani passengers—Priestland repeating the actual phrase used.

But what was the connection with British comics?

Well, that first show, The Alberts' Channel Too, starred two brothers who had been in a hugely popular West End review, An Evening Of British Rubbish. Tony and Dougie Gray were comedians best described as scruffy, eccentric and amateurish, relying on loud, random explosions, shouting and blasts of music to cover up a habit of messing up routines. Their bizarre act left audiences in equal parts bemused and bewildered. They straddled the gap between The Goons and Monty Python, starred in Spike Milligan's A Show Called Fred and Peter Cook's The Establishment and eventually managed to make their BBC2 debut the following day (. . . although the honour of the first full-length broadcast now went to Playschool).

The Alberts' debut on BBC2 was co-written by Denis Gifford. Denis was a screenwriter as well as comics' artist and historian. He wrote scripts for a number of TV shows, as well as creating the format for Sounds Familiar and Looks Familiar. Give yourself a pat on the back if you got the answer right.

Incidentally, Tony Gray died only recently—on 14 April at the age of 86. A very good tribute to him can be found  here.

Random scans for today. First up is a cover from an old Bear Alley favourite, John L. Baker, although we haven't had anything from him for ages. Then we have a couple of books from Modern Fiction and Ben Sarto to add to the half a dozen I've posted recently. The cover artist for both is Ray Theobald and the first is amongst my favourites of his. He was never a fantastic figure artist but this one is at least colourful.

Finally, a hardback, which is something odd from me, but this is Mitch Benn's novel Terra, picked up by Mel when we went to see Mitch's recent tour. He has a second novel due out this year—with Terra coming out in paperback at the same time—and a third that he described as "in note form".

Next week: More Paul Temple. Somewhere along the line I have to squeeze in this month's upcoming releases listing.

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