Following on from my earlier series of features on Christmas Specials of BBC Children’s Programmes in the seventies, this was intended as the first of a similar series looking at ITV Children’s Programmes from around the same time, which always seemed to have the same sort of glittery tinselly spiral-eyed reindeer festive razzle-dazzle that you would more normally associate with Shopping Centre Grottos and Rowntree Mackintosh Selection Boxes as opposed to the BBC’s more restrained and even faintly respectfully religious approach. Well, comparatively. This was a slightly misleading way in which to launch the series, though, as Quincy’s Quest wasn’t strictly a Children’s Programme; whatever its target audience may have been, it went out in a much later family-friendly timeslot, presumably to capitalise on that glittery tinselly spiral-eyed reindeer angle, and got the sort of ‘Highlight Of The Week’ promotion that poor old Chorlton In The Iceworld could only have dreamed of. Given how evidently powerfully it burned itself into the memories of the children who did watch it, though – in all honesty, it felt very nearly as exciting as Christmas itself did – it would have been a major oversight not to have featured Quincy’s Quest here on a strictly box-ticking basis. After all, Christmas Specials did not come much more razzly or indeed dazzly than this.
For me, Quincy’s Quest and the excitement that it generated is also inextricably bound into a word of Pantomimes and indeed Department Store Grottos that don’t really seem to exist in the same sort of manner any more, and you can read much more about that in the expanded version of this feature included in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. There was also the amusing small matter of spotting Quincy in the television listings shortly afterwards and demanding to be allowed to watch this exciting new spinoff, only to be told that this new reboot somehow involved Jack Klugman furrowing his brow over homicides that looked awfully like murder or something; which, was childhood disillusion went, was right up there with spotting The New Avengers on late at night and begging to be allowed to watch it, only to be told that Wonder Man, Scarlet Witch and Ms. Marvel wouldn’t be showing up regardless of whether you were permitted to watch or not. Meanwhile, if you want to hear more about Quincy’s Quest, it was subsequently picked by Jacqueline Rayner as one of her choices for Looks Unfamiliar; you can listen to the full show here.
Quincy’s Quest is one of those television shows that large numbers of people seem to remember for no readily obvious reason. Shown by ITV on 20th December 1979, in a 7.00pm Thursday evening timeslot when a fair percentage of its intended audience would probably have been in bed to boot (and repeated – once – in more or less the same timeslot in 1981), it was nevertheless unquestionably one of the network’s seasonal big guns at the end of a strike-stricken year during which they had lost a great deal of goodwill. It was plugged on the front cover of that week’s TV Times via a photo montage that looked as though Here Comes Mumfie had collided head-first with a Tiger Tots advert, and a massive boxout taking up approximately eighty three percent of the day’s listings. In fact overall they gave it more prominence than they rising starlet Christina World in a see-through top, news of where you could find Paul Henry in panto, and two blokes out of short-lived thriller The Racing Game walloping each other for some reason. It’s fair to say, then, that they expected a few people to watch it.
What they probably didn’t expect, however, was that it would make such an indelible impression on so many of those viewers. At a time when most television was still considered ephemeral and throwaway, ITV’s Light Entertainment output was considered more ephemeral and throwaway still, and especially so at Christmas; seriously, you try finding one of those tinsel-festooned all-star variety efforts from the seventies in broadcast format and you’ll more than likely find yourself embarking on a ‘quest’ of your very own. Yet Quincy’s Quest – which, needless to say, does still exist in broadcast format – seems to have garishly burned itself into the memories of those who saw it, and chances are that many of them would have gone on to feel a tingle of quickly-dashed excitement on spotting Quincy loitering around in the ITV listings over the next couple of years.
Quincy’s Quest was written by and starred Tommy Steele, who also co-composed the music, and doubtless part of the reason for its success was that he’d had quite some time to perfect the production in. An earlier, shorter version of Quincy’s Quest had appeared on ITV as part of The Tommy Steele Show on 23rd December 1962 – back when he was still essentially a recording star first and foremost – which amazingly appears still to exist in some form. By the late seventies, of course, he had swapped the hit parade for the stage, and could regularly be found treading the boards in the song-and-dance-fuelled likes of Half A Sixpence, Hans Christian Andersen and She Stoops To Conquer. Doubtless this additional experience in big brash audience-friendly razzle-dazzle helped to give the 1979 version of Quincy’s Quest its extra youngster-entrancing advantage.
It’s at this point we have to be honest and admit that there is no way whatsoever that Quincy’s Quest will be able to replicate that effect on an adult viewer all this time later. We can keep on calling it a ‘lost gem’ until the cows come home, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that it connected with a specific audience of child viewers at a particular time and that ‘magic’ will not be possible to recapture. Yet whatever that errant ‘magic’ was, it was still something that clearly gave Quincy’s Quest an edge over pretty much every other children’s TV show that was on that year other than Rentasanta. And that’s precisely what we’ll be going on a ‘quest’ to identify as we take another look at the gaudy big budget oddity. What do you mean, we’ve already done that joke? Shush. It’s starting.
After a suitably festive peal of bells, and a title card depicting the sort of youngsters who would grow up to take every opportunity to remind you that all they got in their day was a wooden train and a tangerine and they were grateful for them too, Quincy’s Quest opens with animation of the London skyline which, while not credited as such, certainly looks as though it’s the work of regular Thames TV collaborators Cosgrove Hall. As a twinkly trail of snow spirals through the streets and bursts above the rooftops, we zoom in on a clock face chiming the hour with the aid of a clearly less than enthused ‘old man with nightcap and candle’ clockwork figure. Then it’s down the front of the building like some reverse version of The Hudsucker Proxy, past a plasterwork Humpty Dumpty, past signs promising ‘Fun Gifts’, ‘Games’, ‘Jokes & Tricks’ and ‘Costume Dolls’, and ending up focusing in on a huge Santa hoarding. Yes, it’s a department store, and if it’s not quite the night before Christmas, then it’s certainly very close to it.
Just below the shop front there’s a standard issue illuminated basement window, and we duly zoom in – mixing fairly seamlessly to live action in the process – to find doddery old toymaker Smithy working away and telling a creepy-looking boy doll that due to a design defect, he’ll have to be filed away with all the others that weren’t good enough to go on sale in the store. To a Golden Age Of Hollywood-esque sweep of strings, Smithy sadly notes that if he was a younger man, he could have done a better job, and dejectedly walks away from the workshop for the night. It’s at this point – conveniently – that some of that animated snow we saw earlier spangles its way through the window and alights on the discarded doll. Courtesy of a simple but effective vision mix, the snow-sprinkled doll becomes a walking, talking Tommy Steele, who – with a cry of “Yikes – it’s time!” – jumps up and declares himself to be called Quincy. Issuing a firm welcome to his fellow discarded toys, Quincy makes his presence known courtesy of a chirpy song full of exhortations to “make today a red letter day, a nothing can top, ever be better day”, “a put on the mappening, joyous handclappening happening day”, and other similarly Contrabulous Fabtraption Of Professor Horatio Hufnagel-esque linguistic contortions. He’s a bit put out, then, to discover that none of the rest of them are feeling quite so chipper and upbeat.
Apparently not one to be brought down by the prevailing mood, Quincy asks Zelda the fairy if she’s granted any good wishes lately. “Don’t be stupid”, she replies, “all the magic’s gone out of my life – who wants a fat fairy with a wonky wand? A Tatty Teddy? An Action Man who’s out of action? A puffer who’s run out of puff? Or a baby girl who’s lost her momma and can’t stop crying?”. This is all too much for poor old Teddy, who pleads with the bawling baby doll for a bit of peace and quiet; upon which he is promptly propelled through air courtesy of the arrival of a hitherto overlooked Jack In The Box. Quincy, who reveals he was actually briefly on sale before being batted about by the store’s cat, berates the miserable shower and asks again if any of them are up for a bit of fun. It’s only then that Jack In The Box – the self-appointed spokesman of the Rejects’ Union – sees fit to inform him that tomorrow is D-Day. ‘D’ as in ‘Destruction’.
Yes, 9am sharp the following morning, they’re all getting chucked in the store furnace as every single shop apparently had in those days. Needless to say, Quincy is virtually jaunty in his disbelief, and thunders into a rousing rant about how while they may not be perfect like ‘them upstairs’, he’s not going to give up and let the Rejects “stand around here moaning and groaning doing nothing about it”. Personally speaking, Quincy very much intends to do something about it, by making his way to the store grotto on the top floor and asking Santa to save them from incineration. Everyone else inevitably has an excuse as to why they can’t join him on this epic and perilous journey, but Quincy is undeterred and cheerfully insists on going alone, and they don’t exactly brim over with optimism about his plan. He has to get there before the store opens, everyone points out, or he’ll instantly turn back into an inanimate toy. Teddy reminds him that “once you’re out of the Reject Department, you’re alone” – yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence there – and Zelda warns him to be careful of the robots and The Witch. “The Witch?”, asks Quincy with barely a note of alarm. That would be the roundly feared Witch Of The Store, mention of whose name is heralded by lightning and tingly string section jangles. Quincy understandably shows a glimmer of hesitation at this, upon which the others suddenly change their position and urge him to carry on with his mission courtesy of a song about how “you can’t send a toy to do a boy’s work”. “I won’t let you down!”, Quincy shouts while ascending the basement stairs with some ‘wobbly walk’ acting that, it has to be said, does not bode well for his chances of success.
As Quincy sets off on his quest, two significant production details become clear. The first is that rather than using special effects, the production team have opted to make Tommy Steele look doll-sized by having him walk around well-realised ‘big’ sets, something that is both more complicated and more expensive to properly pull off than you might normally think. The second is that there appears to be at least an element of postmodernism at work here, as Quincy quickly acknowledges his robot and witch-rationalising voiceover as exactly that (“if I keep talking to meself, it’ll be like having a bit of company”). A device and indeed a theme that, oddly, are never really touched on again.
At the end of the first corridor, Quincy comes to a door marked ‘Costume Dolls’ – so it wasn’t a slapdash title sequence juxtaposition, then – and ventures inside to the accompaniment of ‘thriller’-type music and witchy cackles. Presumably a ‘d’ had somehow fallen off the end of the word ‘Costume’ in both locations at once, as he finds himself in a room full of dolls done up as powdered wig fops, pierrots, Quality Street box illustrations and so forth, none of whom are even remotely pleased to find themselves in the company of a Reject. Indeed, they reinforce this point by singing a haughty little song about how perfect they are (“superior, superior, not one of us inferior”). Quincy, as is his wont, proudly declares that “my wear and tear’s unthinkable, I’m spliitable and shrinkable”, but while he’s busy wasting time skipping about, untoward things are happening out in the corridor…
Conn, a Max Miller-infringing ventriloquist’s dummy, is on the oversized blower to The Witch, who is screechily briefing him about how she wants him to deal with the rogue living doll. On spotting Quincy, Conn switches into full Barnum mode and ushers him through a sleazy strip club-style doorway promising both ‘Girls Girls’ and ‘Novelties’, bamboozling him with rapid-fire comedy patter en route; “they don’t call me Con for nothing!”, he grins sinisterly to the audience. In the auditorium, Quincy takes a seat in front of a Safety Curtain decorated with Victorian lithographs of archaic vaudeville figures and what appears to be Radio 1 lunchtime host Gary Davies; as you might have predicted, Conn then beckons Quincy up on stage to join him in a swaggering number called Have Half Of My Laughter. After a hesitant start, he soon gets into the literal swing of things – suddenly acquiring a duplicate of Conn’s stage outfit in the process – and finishes up dancing wildly with a chorus line of blonde Sindy-style dolls. Needless to say, this sequence outstays its welcome by several thousand millennia and is the exact polar opposite of what any average child viewer would have found entertaining anyway.
Despite his reservations about double-crossing the ‘nice kid’, Conn duly phones The Witch to confirm that he’ll usher him aboard a toy train as planned. Needless to say, Quincy is as cheerfully gullible as ever when he’s promised a locomotive-based shortcut to Santa, and gleefully boards the driver’s carriage to the strains of a wah-wah-wah-wahhhhhhhh-ing version of Have Half Of My Laughter. He’s busily shovelling coal into the boiler and humming along to a chugging accelerating reprise of – you guessed it – Have Half Of My Laughter when a cackle and a flash of lightning divert the Grotto Express to ‘Devil’s Gulch’ and a hefty black train appears from nowhere speeding head-on towards his. Quincy spots it just in time for them to collide on a bridge with a spectacular display of sparkler-level pyrotechnics, and it’s into the ad break with a DA-DA-DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA variation on the Thames jingle. If they didn’t sneak a Quality Street advert in there somewhere, then they really were missing a thematically appropriate trick.
Part Two opens with a recap of the train crash, although this time we get to see that Quincy has safely rolled away onto some cheapo non-branded copyright-averting knock-off Lego. There he is discovered by a Miss Muffett-esque young lady named Rebecca, and the two seem to hit it off, strolling off hand in hand through a glaringly Chromakey-derived Not Lego vista. Rebecca wants to show him her interlocking brick-built village, and on the way they sing a song about how much they have in common, interspersed with toe-curlingly panto-style ‘romantic’ dialogue. There’s only one problem though – Rebecca has always dreamed of marrying a doll in uniform, and passive-aggressively provokes a pride-wounded Quincy into huffily acquiring some military attire from the village tailor. Needless to say, he is promptly mistaken for a real soldier and marched off to battle. Rebecca enthusiastically and admiringly shouts that he should write to her every day, and then and only then decides to sob that she liked him as he was and that she doesn’t think she will ever see him again. It would probably not be too unfair to call her a fucking idiot and ask what in the name of sanity she was actually expecting to happen.
In amongst vast swathes of exploding plastic toy soldiers, Quincy finds himself surrounded by fellow combatants with absolutely no qualms whatsoever about the prospect of ending up ‘smithereened’. Attempts at appealing to their innate sense of insubordination (“What makes us do it?” – “The cause!” – “What is the cause?” – “Dunno – ask the officers”) don’t really get very far, so Quincy marches up the hill himself to remonstrate with the blustery moustachioed safe distance types on horseback. Offered a choice between going back and getting smithereened in battle and staying there and getting smithereened for desertion (“It’s not fair!” – “It’s not meant to be fair, it’s regulations”), Quincy – having ‘seen’ the futility of war – opts instead to just walk out of the room and back onto his quest. “Did we win?”, asks one of the generals. “No sir, nobody ever does”, comes the shouted reply over mournful music and a montage of toppled toys. They really could have done with a fox who’s just been appointed Professor Of Cunning at Oxford University spotting a particularly nasty splinter.
The Witch is clearly quite happy with this state of affairs, as back in the corridor, we see the expected shadow and hear the expected cackle as she uses one of her lightning flashes to throw a pile of boxes down the stairs and into Quincy’s path. He’s on the verge of giving up when a song about the ability to do whatever you put your mind to starts blaring out from nowhere, inspiring him to fashion a grappling hook from a nearby needle and thread. He uses this to ascend to the top of the stairwell, shouting echoey updates on his progress to the Rejects as he goes. After all of this exertion, he needs a bit of a rest, and wakes up after a quick nap to find himself surrounded by an assortment of Top Cat-voiced stuffed animals. These include an ostrich, an elephant, a terrifyingly threadbare lion, a leopard who keeps asking to ‘eat’ him, and a large pink hippo who in no way whatsoever resembles George from fellow Thames production Rainbow. After somewhat unfairly berating them for acting like ‘a pack of animals’ in front of a complete stranger and updating them on the fortunes of their Reject pal Cedric The Camel, Quincy gets them to join him in a song and dance number about how wonderful he is, and then wanders off, leaving the leopard to wonder aloud again why they can’t eat him. Not an unreasonable question in the circumstances.
Meanwhile, Rebecca is busy writing in a giant diary about how she’d liked to have been Mrs Quincy IF SHE HADN’T BEEN SO SODDING RIDICULOUSY NEEDY AND NEGATIVE FOR NO GOOD REASON, when in a totally unexpected plot twist, he stumbles across her and they enjoy a tender reunion. The two fully poseable lovers skip off hand in hand towards the grotto, only to decide from nowhere to waste a couple of valuable minutes looking around a funfair hall of mirrors. Rebecca’s sense of trepidation about this latest enterprise turns out to be well-founded when The Witch – finally revealed in a staggeringly screechy performance by Gretchen Franklin – replaces her reflection and takes over her body. The fully witchified Rebecca gleefully informs Quincy that there’s nothing he can do to save the Rejects now, and the spooky horror film version of the Thames jingle that follows would appear to support that hypothesis.
As we rejoin the action for Part Three, Quincy is dangling in front of a big target while The Witch bitterly recounts how she has spent years on sale without being bought, hence her pathological resentment of the Rejects. Her solution to the thorny issue of their imminent salvation is, impressively, to have some battery-powered robots fire lasers at Quincy, though being unsophisticated tricky action types with randomly flashing lights and bleepy burbling voices, they contrive to actually zap through the rope holding him up instead. To the accompaniment of over-the-top disco mayhem that makes the Skiboy theme sound restrained, Quincy dodges their blasts behind a chair leg and launches a successful counterattack with the aid of a toy tank and a plane launcher game. With her robotic henchmen incapacitated, The Witch elects to activate Archie-Medies, a big massive suitmation-style robot bearing a potentially legally problematic resemblance to a Cylon, whose programming gets broken by a couple of plane launcher handle wallops from Quincy, causing it to go after The Witch instead. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never mix sci-fi and folk horror.
Quincy goes back into battle stations when a weird Cyril From Doctor Who And The Celestial Toymaker-like spinning top schoolboy thing appears, but it turns out that he’s actually one of the good guys and is there to escort him the last couple of feet to Santa’s Grotto. What’s more, some plaintive sobbing from the middle distance signals that The Witch has gone and Rebecca is back. It all seems like plain sailing from there, except that they then decide to waste several minutes singing a reprise of that you can do whatever you put your mind to song, and arrive in the Grotto to find that Santa’s not there and the clock is striking nine. As they turn back into toys – courtesy of a sequence that is hardly exactly Bagpuss – Quincy sings an equally plaintive snatch of a fragment of a song about going out in style. Perhaps one last shout for assistance might have been more in order there?
An ominous shadow and an equally ominous blast of music suggest that The Witch has returned to exact revenge on the now inanimate dolls. But no, it’s actually Santa, who picks them up with a kindly expression and a jaunty musical quote from Good King Wenceslas. At that moment, a voluble horde of kids stampede into the grotto, and a young Patsy Kensit asks Santa if she can have Quincy and Rebecca. A pompous store manager tries to prevent her from taking them on the basis that Rejects are bad for ‘branding’, upon which he is deftly booted in the shin by one enterprising youngster and they all race off to the basement. The Rejects are seconds away from being loaded into the store furnace – complete with garish seventies studio videotape flames – when the kids thunder in, wallop the janitor and race off into the snow bearing imperfect toys, leaving Smithy bewildered but delighted. Back at the Grotto, Santa tells Quincy and Rebecca that he’d like to keep them “to remind all those children with broken toys about love and understanding” – however that would work on a practical level – and that’s Quincy’s Quest.
While it certainly looks spectacular – and much like how you might expect it would look if one of those old Andy Williams Christmas Specials exploded and left a small artillery of ‘candy canes’ embedded in one of those displays that you used to get adjacent to the queues for an upmarket department store Grotto – it has to be said that Quincy’s Quest is somewhat light on actual storyline. While there’s a definite narrative start and end point, not much really happens in between other than a series of… well, calling them vignettes in the first place would be pushing it, and trying to suggest that they were in any way interconnected would get us laughed off the face of the planet. Substantially speaking, it’s little more than a string of dazzlingly-realised setpieces, and you do have to wonder how it would fare against the fundamentally shifted attention spans of modern youngsters.
That said, it’s also worth emphasising that at the time, there would have been as good as nothing else like it on television. Anything else of that length on the days either side of Christmas would have been one of those ‘charming’ animations that children do not like but adults try to insist that they do, and in the unlikely event that something similar had been on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day, chances are that you would not have got to see it due to the overwhelming volume of relatives wanting to see whatever was on the ‘other side’. It was essentially extra out-of-hours Children’s programming that looked as spectacular as, well, any of those tinsel-festooned all-star variety efforts, so small wonder that the enraptured army of younger viewers failed to be overtly concerned by the lack of narrative focus.
Of course, Quincy’s Quest wasn’t strictly a children’s programme, and had greater resources and a more prominent timeslot at its disposal, and so was almost certain to make more of an impact than any of the actual Children’s ITV shows when they started flinging tinsel and cellophane-derived ‘stained glass’ around. But that didn’t stop them from trying…
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You can find an expanded version of this feature, with more on how Christmas in the seventies wasn’t necessarily as bleak and depressing as too many people like to pretend, 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.
Quincy’s Quest was one of Jacqueline Rayner’s choices on Looks Unfamiliar; you can listen to us chatting about how disorientating it was actually like to watch at the time here.
© Tim Worthington.
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