Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Network DVD Update: Magpie and co...

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, Maaaaaaagpie....” Ahem. Sorry. I’ve just been dragged back nearly forty years in time by Network’s surprisingly-enjoyable new 2 DVD release of random episodes from ITV’s long-running 1970s children’s magazine programme hosted by, across its run, Tony Bastable, Susan Stranks, Douglas Rae, Mick Roberston, Jenny Hanley and Tommy Boyd.

'Magpie’, which ran between 1968 and 1980, broadcasting live twice a week, prided itself on being hipper and more ‘with it’ (man) than its stuffier BBC rival ‘Blue Peter’. Where ‘Blue Peter’ presenters came across like slightly more approachable teachers, the ‘Magpie’ crew were yourtrendy brother and sister, wearing the same sorts of clothes you did (those flares and tank tops!) and they knew about music and fashion and the cool stuff. But watching the twelve episodes included on these discs is like gazing back into time and observing a long-defunct civilisation – youth culture has come a Hell of a long way – and whilst ‘Magpie’s style and tone is looser and more fun than ‘Blue Peter’, the remit to educate its young audience is evident in every edition. ITV has long since abandoned weekday children’s programming, of course (to its shame) and even ‘Blue Peter’, which survives to this day, has been forced to embrace the ‘trivia’ of pop music and young people’s fashions.

Trendier it may be, but ‘Magpie’, despite its more random and ramshackle format (there’s no standing studio set, the presenters are just sort of....there) tackles subjects which would leave today’s streetwise Facebook-obsessed two-second attention span youngsters hooting with derision. But these were simpler, much more innocent times and it’s oddly charming to watch Magpie’s ‘On the Canals’ special with Doug and Jenny struggling to steer a canal barge and sweating and straining over the opening and closing of canal locks. Then there’s Susan and Doug dressed in Puritan and Royalist costumes, Tommy Boyd introducing a group of leotard-clad tap dancers hoofing along to a plinky piano musical accompaniment, a Christmas 1976 episode which is all silly comedy skits and bad jokes (really bad jokes) and, most exciting of all, the 1974 team competing in a ploughing competition. Heady, cutting edge stuff. But that’s the point; in the 1970s the term ‘cutting edge’ didn’t even exist and ‘Magpie’ was all about presenting a wide variety of items for an audience that was happy to be young and wasn’t obsessed with passing fads and fashions and growing up too soon.

Much of the easy-going success of ‘Magpie’ is down to its presenters, all of whom are clearly having a whale of a time. The slightly severe Susan Stranks was replaced by the more accident-prone Jenny Hanley whilst Tony Bastable went on to become series producer, replaced by nervy, curly-haired Marc Bolan look-alike Mick Roberston (Stuff fact...I bought his two 1970s pop singles, ‘The Tango’s Over’ and ‘Then I Changed Hands’...just thought you ought to know) and the cheery, enthusiastic Doug Rae, now a respected TV producer himself. They bring a huge sense of fun and adventure to the show and it’s only when Tommy Boyd joins, towards the end of the show’s run, that we see the first signs of the ‘zany, wacky’ style of presenting which would bedevil so much 1980s and 90s kid’s TV.

‘Magpie’ on DVD is great fun, a reminder of more carefree days. I’m not sure how rewatchable it all is – it could be the sort of DVD brought out at parties when the conversation gets nostalgic – but it’s a fascinating historical document of a cultural sensibility long gone, a time capsule of less manic, simpler times. It’s lovely stuff.

Also on release from Network:

I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert or even a connoisseur of classic kid’s TV but I’ve a pretty good memory of most of the adventure/thriller series of the 1960s and 1970s. But ‘The Jensen Code’ must have passed me by completely. Available exclusively from this thirteen part thriller, written by Rex Harrison’s son Carey, has a grittier, edgier vibe than some of its contemporaries like ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Timeslip’. Broadcast in 1973 it tells of a group of slightly wayward lads at an Outward Bounds centre. Sixteen year-old Terry O’Connor (Dai Bradley) is a bit of a loner and his adventure starts when he finds himself trapped underground during a pot-holing session. Hours later his instructor Alex comes to the rescue and has no recollection of the hours which have elapsed. Nearby there’s a mysterious Ministry of Defence compound and Terry soon finds himself embroiled in kidnapping, espionage and the top-secret Jensen Code itself. Made in colour the episodes exist now only in black-and-white (the only DVD extra is part of one colour episode) and the series, whilst not as compelling as some of its more fantastical contemporaries, is interesting because of its more adult story-telling and rather bleak and foreboding location filming.

In 1971 ITV broadcast ‘The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes’ which, you may not be surprised to learn, recounted the exploits of a group of second-league Victorian detectives who lived (fictionally) in the shadow of the Great Detective himself. Dr Thorndyke? Max Carrados? Horace Dorrington? Simon Carne? Carnaki the occult detective? Dixon Bruce??? No, me neither... These thirteen episodes are slow, moody productions, presented almost like stage plays but the stories are generally interesting and evocative, beautifully realised and full of ‘oh, looks, it’s him...’ character actors like Paul Darrow, John Neville, Bernard Archard, Robert Stephens, Peter Vaughan,Roy Dotrice and even Donald Pleasence in a rare TV role. Good, intelligent drama and the sort of thing today’s celebrity-obsessed ITV would have no interest in making at all.

Finally to a bit of a guilty pleasure. ‘Father Dear Father’ was one of ITV’s better saucy 1970s sitcoms and its fifth six-part series is just out on DVD. If you don’t know the series – and there’s no reason you should, you’re so young – it starred Patrick Cargill as dotty but debonair thriller writer Patrick Glover living in a plush Chelsea home with his naughty permissive ‘dolly bird’ daughters Anna and Karen, his scatty Nanny and a big dog called HG. Drifting in and out of his life are his ex-wife Barbara,his sophisticated agent Georgie and his daffy old Mum who lives in glamourous Herne Bay. 'Father Dear Father’ is sitcom-as-farce, every episode revolving around some misunderstanding, some bit of clever wordplay or mistaken identity. It’s broad, it’s silly, it’s unsubtle and the acting is as arch as you might imagine. But it’s great fun in a nudge-nudge 1970s sort of way and the cast are clearly all having a great time. ITV churned out hit comedy after hit comedy back in the 1970s and while it looks positively prehistoric by today’s standards it’s a naughty-but-nice family comedy defined by its warm performances and, most importantly, its genuinely funny, if corny, scripts. Don’t tell anyone I recommended street cred depends on your silence...

"Well, really..."

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