A Story Of A London Family Adapting To Life In A Country Town

Opening caption from The Newcomers (BBC1, 1967).

Along with the hundreds upon hundreds of hours of lost sixties television, we lost hundreds upon hundreds of hours of invaluable – if accidental – social documentation. Whether it was the first stirrings of feminism in The Flying Swan and Take Three Girls, the conflict between scientific advance and political conservatism in R.3, the establishment-baiting humour of Where Was Spring? and On The Margin or even the professional lives of footballers in the days when they were famous but not necessarily rich in United!, so much of so much value is now only represented by fragments or, more often than not, nothing at all. Obviously none of these are quite as significant a loss to cultural history as knowing why Polly had Doctor Who’s hat on at the end of The Underwater Menace, but between them they captured a time, a mood and an attitude in a way that only throwaway popular entertainment can.

Recently, I had the idea of looking at an episode of one of these largely lost programmes in as much detail as possible; I wanted a entirely random choice so I employed a complicated system involving issues of Radio Times and random numbers suggested by baffled associates. Thankfully, it didn’t end up being something as obvious as the one of Trumpton with the pigeons, or something as obnoxious as The Black And White Minstrel Show, so I didn’t have to ask them to start suggesting random numbers all over again. Instead, it was BBC1 on 8th June 1967, and an edition of little-remembered drama serial The Newcomers.

Wendy Richard, Anthony Verner and Vanda Godsell in The Newcomers (BBC1 1967)

So, before we go any further, what do I know just off the top of my head about The Newcomers? It ran on BBC1 between roughly 1965 and 1969, and charted the everyday trials and tribulations of a handful of families living in one of those ‘New Towns’ that were all the rage back then, albeit unencumbered by the demands of a girl, dog and mouse asking how concrete mixers worked. There were two twenty five minute episodes a week, mostly on Thursday and Friday evenings, and the initial producer was Verity Lambert, fresh from Doctor Who and still yet to turn thirty. By all accounts, it would seem to have been less a stereotypical ‘soap opera’ than somewhere between kitchen sink social realism and the brash and breezy teenage shenanigans of Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush only with presumably less sex, less drugs and less colour; in fact, Judy Geeson was part of the regular cast of The Newcomers at one point. Only five episodes out of four hundred and thirty exist, staggeringly on their original 405-line videotape; these were discovered to have survived by chance at the BBC in the late eighties, in a find so surprising and encouraging that it was featured as a news item in Doctor Who Magazine. The most familiar detail to me, however, is the theme music; John Barry’s moody jazzy waltz Fancy Dance, which had originally been the b-side of the not entirely dissimilar Kinky in 1963. As a long-time collector of beat-era soundtracks, I’ve owned and loved this none-more-sixties instrumental since back when The Newcomers was essentially just a title to me, and my copy has a whopping great scuff on the fade which Fancy Dance now just doesn’t sound right without.

The edition broadcast at 7.05pm on 8th June 1967 – in which, according to Radio Times“an industrial dispute threatens Eden’s” while “Arnold meets an old acquaintance and spends a disagreeable day” – sadly isn’t one of the five that do exist. The nearest is the episode from 26th May 1967, an evening when BBC1 tried out Heirs On A Shoestring with Clive Dunn and Jimmy Edwards (who was appearing in ‘Big Bad Mouse’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London) as part of Comedy Playhouse, and BBC2 was up to the play-offs in the brilliantly straightforwardly named quiz show Crossword On Two. Over on the wireless, the Home Service featured an adaptation of John Wyndham’s Dumb Martian in the Story Time slot (helpfully billed as a story of ‘The Unknown World’), and the first part of the superb serialisation of The War Of The Worlds with terrifying music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s David Cain. ITV, believe it or not, was almost entirely consumed by sport and news, although the latter did incorporate the fantastically-named Reporting ’67 presented by Andrew Gardner, no doubt featuring the latest Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association updates and an exclusive interview with that bloke in a top hat trying on military jackets. Anyway, there’s so little information available about the 8th June edition – even in the deepest and dustiest of paper files – that we may as well watch the 26th May one instead to at least get a flavour of it. No, it’s not cheating. Pipe down or I’ll make you watch Test Card F in black and white.

Sandra Payne and Jeremy Bulloch in The Newcomers (BBC1 1967)

Written by future Doctor Who producer Barry Letts, this episode is dominated by a spat between sweetly romantic teenagers Janet Langley (Sandra Payne) and Philip Cooper (Jeremy Bulloch), who have fallen out over the latter’s career prospects. Escaping taunting from his annoying Byrds-alike younger brother Lance (Raymond Hunt), Philip is down at the bookies trying to win both money and in turn her back when Janet’s father Jeff (Michael Collins) turns up to talk his prospective son-in-law round. He’d learned of the incident when he offered to give Janet her late mother’s life insurance money towards any projected wedding, and puts everything right with a bluff helping of good straight common sense, and not the shotgun Lance predicted. By the end of the episode, they’re both meekly apologising to each other and the kissing and cuddling is back on.

Elsewhere, events with Peter and Freda Reilly (John Stratton and Wendy McClure) take a somewhat darker turn. Both hiding a fondness for the booze, they’ve demolished a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin respectively before their dinner party guests have even turned up. They’re about to come to blows over this when the party arrives, and they slap on fixed grins that last for about three seconds before they’re viciously blaming each other for their lack of children. The guests shuffle out nervously as they start throwing crockery at each other. On a lighter note, Katie the barmaid (Vanda Godsell) and regulars Sydney and Joyce (Anthony Verner and Wendy Richard) are following the escapades of landlord Nelson (John Dawson) with great amusement. The night before, he was set up by a computer dating agency with a woman named Roxana, and lacking a flower for his buttonhole he’d picked what turned out to be one of her prize blooms. He begs them to warn him if she turns up on the warpath; they have other ideas. Then, there’s a shock cliffhanger as Jeff finally hears back from the vet he’s been trying to contact all episode – all of his cattle have foot and mouth disease and will have to be destroyed. He’ll be needing that life insurance money, then…

Michael Collins and Sandra Payne in The Newcomers (BBC1 1967)

Aside from the inescapable issues of editing, acoustics and the as-live recording style (which gives rise to an impressive pulling together salvage job when someone misses their line – “Very quiet there Janet, is something wrong?), what’s most striking about The Newcomers is how little the soap opera style has changed in over fifty years. It’s not just the same balance of hard-hitting and comic storylines and non-sensational tackling of current issues – the dialogue and performance styles are straight out of something you could see on ITV any weekday evening now. It’s unfortunate that so little of the series now exists, as – shock-of-the-new computer dating aside – this is hardly one of its more contemporary or controversy-baiting interludes and it would be nice to see exactly what had Mary Whitehouse reaching for the phone on a regular basis way back in the mid-sixties; not least because as with so many of her early pre-plot-losing bete noires, it’s difficult to assess now whether she may have actually had a point to begin with. Of course, there’s a faint chance that all of this and more could be lurking around in a shed somewhere, awaiting restoration on a par with that amazing lazer/x-ray-facilitated Morecambe And Wise recovery. Though who knows on that score.

Not all of it’s gone, though. Later on BBC1 on 8th June 1967, exactly one week after the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Three Swings On A Pendulum saw art critic Robert Hughes, exiled South African writer Lewis Nkosi and journalist Oliver Todd scouring the capital asking “Has contemporary London something new and unique to offer? Is there any truth behind the swinging fable created by goggle-eyed foreign observers?”, chatting to boutique owners, ordinary commuters and Juliet Harmer from Adam Adamant Lives! along the way. Amazingly, this doesn’t just still exist, but is available on iPlayer. Gear!

Sandra Payne in The Newcomers (BBC1 1967)

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of A Story Of A London Family Adapting To Life In A Country Town, with more on the obscure sixties shows mentioned in it and indeed on that scratch on my 7″ of Fancy Dance, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. I mean Mary Whitehouse would probably have something to say about the free and easy availability of coffee in modern society, so you should buy one to prove her wrong. Or right. However that works exactly.

Further Reading

All That I Can See In My Mind’s Eye is a feature looking at how you define a ‘year’ in cultural terms, inspired by Jon Savage’s 1966 – The Year The Decade Exploded, which you can find here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about Doctor Who‘s early black and white days in The Zeitgeist Tapes here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.