All Dead, But Still Alive

Sylvia Anderson with Space Doctor Venus from Fireball XL5 (ATV/ITC/APF, 1962).

This is a piece that I wrote for my previous website late in 2016, and was essentially me trying to make sense of the apparent sudden madness of the world and a fairly horrendous year through angles that I actually understood. I more or less wrote this in my head on a train journey home for Christmas, and I’m still surprised by how coherent and to the point it is compared to others that I’ve spent hours and hours over on subjects that I know well. I’m also less pleasantly surprised by how much yet so little has changed since I wrote this. Along with a somewhat less heartfelt piece on railway station graffiti (which you can find here), this was the main inspiration for my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, and you can find a vastly expanded version of this – with more on the circumstances in which it was written and the people I knew in real life who were on my mind at the time (and, just in case you were wondering, lots more production detail about Thunderbirds, Camberwick Green and the early Love and Tim Buckley albums) – included in there. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

We’ve no way of knowing for certain what Gordon Murray was doing on 22nd December 1965, but we can take a fairly good guess. Chances are he was editing Mrs Honeyman And Her Baby, the thirteenth and final episode of Camberwick Green, by hand in his tiny Crouch End studio, delivering it to the BBC only days (or according to some accounts hours) before the first one went out on 3rd January 1966. Over in a slightly more well-appointed studio in Slough, Sylvia Anderson was probably watching a rough cut of the Thunderbirds episode The Cham-Cham, flushed with the excitement of its runaway success and doubtless little realising that men in suits behind desks would later claim all of the credit for her ideas. Meanwhile, in Kent, David Bowie was most likely listening to an advance acetate of Can’t Help Thinking About Me, and wondering if this would be the one that finally made him into a pop star.

David Bowie, Sylvia Anderson and Gordon Murray, of course, all died in 2016. All three are people whose work I have admired with an almost unequalled fervour for pretty much as long as I can remember; and no, that’s not really an exaggeration in Bowie’s case. The first two of them often tackled their thoughts and fears on nuclear conflict in their work; Gordon Murray certainly never did, but he did once tell a BBC documentary maker that his creative imperative was to “protect children, while they are children, for as long as possible from this dreadful world that we’re living in”, so it doesn’t take too much imagination to work out what his thoughts on the matter were.

Gordon Murray with Windy Miller, PC McGarry, Mickey Murphy and Dr. Mopp from Camberwick Green (BBC1, 1966).

Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean, the angry, cynical frontmen of the provocative and defiantly mixed race band Love, both left us a long time ago, but they were recording their debut album in December 1965 and their almost plainsong-like plea Mushroom Clouds remains one of the simplest yet most chillingly effective expressions of that same fear. Their labelmate Tim Buckley hadn’t made it into the studio yet, but he was certainly performing his furious analysis of the Cold War’s intangible sense of threat No Man Can Find The War live by that point. And we really could go on and on and on about December 1965 there, but it’s straying from the point a bit. A bit. Suffice it to say that, one way or the other, none of them nor indeed any of their contemporaries would have imagined that we’d still be having the same sense of dread and paranoia over fifty years later.

David Bowie, Sylvia Anderson and Gordon Murray will be missed by many and their work will live on. But they’re not who we’re supposed to remember. They’re artists. Creatives. Producers of material that, at least in 1965, was literally intended to entertain audiences for a couple of months then disappear forever. They are not statesmen or politicians, and even Bowie will struggle to make much of a dent on the history books, let alone a couple of people who pushed a couple of puppets around, and one of them an uppity woman at that. We’re supposed to save our reverence, our remembrance, our memorials for the decision-makers and strategists, regardless of how well they may actually have treated us. Monuments, as the similarly long gone folk singer Jake Thackray once put it, “for the eyes and admiration of the common people who/you never ever in your lifetime ever liked or ever knew”. Given that he was never afraid of having arrogant authority figures reduced to giving rosettes to prize-winning pigs or sexually violated by apes, simply telling these ‘Famous People’ that “you are unwise/to imagine you are dear” speaks contemptuous volumes.

I can’t say it really happened with Gordon Murray or Sylvia Anderson, but there were people who openly expressed bewilderment bordering on hostility at the idea that David Bowie’s death should be mourned by anyone in any way at all. Many of these, it has to be said, spent much of 2016 publically crawling up to the very political figures who have got us right back to Love’s nightmarish visions of “little children dying/in an age of hate”. Yet there’s one last thing that all three of them had in common. As did Prince, Victoria Wood, Greg Lake, Leonard Cohen, Terry Wogan, Pete Burns, Caroline Aherne and, on a personal note, Kris Ealey, who was an old friend and one of the people least affected by celebrity ever, who only ever saw acting as his job and was far happier hanging out at record fairs and playing his guitar in tiny bars in his spare time. And in fact any of the celebrities who have died this year and had columnists snorting at the pathetic public and their silly outpourings of sadness. They made people’s lives just that tiny bit better. Their names may not be on plaques or on paper, but they and their work are who and what real people will remember, and long may it stay that way.

David Bowie in 1965.

You can find an expanded version of this feature in Can’t Help Thinking About Me – which also includes features on Camberwick Green and David Bowie’s lost late sixties television appearances, which may not have survived in the archives but survive as more interesting historical moments than anything political ever will – which 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.

Further Reading

You can find a feature looking at how I reacted to the news about David Bowie at the time – and it was a lot less long-faced than you might perhaps be expecting – here. My thoughts on Jo Cox are here.

Further Listening

You can find further celebration of Sylvia Anderson’s achievements in Looks Unfamiliar with Mic Wright here.

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