Whenever I see, hear or possibly even in some circumstances smell the letters ‘B’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ – there’s a blissful scrupulously clean odour to those tiny down-the-line local radio studios – the first thing that comes to mind is usually a girl, a dog and a mouse.
The girl, dog and mouse in question were Mary, Mungo And Midge, and they first held up a card reading ‘BBC TV’ at the end of their programme late in 1969. Within weeks, in fact, of the first showing of Chigley, the end of black and white Doctor Who, and the release of In The Court Of The Crimson King; and as I can never help drawing these kinds of unlikely parallels, to me it represents just as much of an understated and unintentional line drawn under the idea of ‘the sixties’ as any of the above. Mary, Mungo And Midge was effectively an independent production for the BBC by artist and writer John Ryan (with Mary’s voice provided by his daughter Isobel), and was fairly radical to a complaint-engendering degree in that, unlike most previous fellow inhabitants of the Watch With Mother timeslot, it depicted the adventures of a relatively unsupervised child of working parents in an urban landscape as Mary and her pets made regular use of the shockingly exciting and futuristic lift in the tower block they lived in as they set out to discover how cranes worked, how letters were sorted and all manner of questions that children who weren’t exactly of the well-to-do classes might have asked on a daily basis. Actually probably an hourly basis to be honest, and even that’s most likely an underestimate. Complete with an appropriately Modern Jazz-tinged soundtrack, it was evidently dangerously modern for some tastes, but the seventies were on their way and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. “Do you live in a town?”, asked narrator Richard Baker at the end of his opening titles monologue over depictions of bustling streets and busy roads. A sizeable proportion of the audience did, and for many, this was the first time that anyone had spoken to them directly.
Of course, back when I was watching Mary, Mungo And Midge in the late seventies – like many of the better-remembered Watch With Mother shows, it would remain in constant rotation for a decade or more – I had no such high-flown notions of audience profiles, cultural shifts and do-it-yourself production values. It was simply a programme I liked a lot, especially when it was on first thing on Sunday Mornings where the gentle stories, detached narration and Hammond and flute-heavy music seemed to emphasise the tranquil silence of that now-unthinkable hour on the quietest day of the week; much as Sunday Morning by The Velvet Underground And Nico would come to some time later, and in fact the line about “the streets you crossed not so long ago” has always made me think of the opening of Mary, Mungo And Midge. I also thought of Mary, Mungo And Midge whenever I visited my grandparents, who lived in a tower block complete with lift (and where I would have watched Mary, Mungo And Midge on weekdays before I started school), even years later when the BBC had long since retired the show and they were more concerned about the risk of their neighbours spotting my earring. By that time, in fact, Mary, Mungo And Midge had already faded from most people’s memories. But not mine, and some of my earliest attempts at proper writing were informed by my hazy memories of slinky organ grooves and Mary getting a plaster cast put on her leg. Many years later, I would end up talking about Mary, Mungo And Midge on the BBC, and I’d like to think that some present day Mary was inspired to ask her own annoying questions about how the sounds get into the radio.
Then again, I might just as easily think about the closing caption from Mr. Benn. First seen in 1971, this was another independent production for Watch With Mother by a writer and animator – in this case David McKee – and again featured a realistic if slightly more suburban setting and a Modern Jazz score. Given that it is probably still running somewhere even right now, Mr. Benn will possibly need little introduction but just in case it does, it concerns a city gent who is in the habit of visiting a nearby costume shop, where the adoption of an elaborate outfit and a quick diversion through the changing room’s ‘Door That Could Lead To Adventure’ took him to another time and place where he could get to try his hand at being a cowboy, an astronaut, a deep sea diver or whatever took his fancy that week. Though I suspect I probably said all of this better in a piece that I wrote about my long (and ongoing) hunt for the ‘Balloon Race’ music from Mr. Benn, which you can find here.
I grew up in a large family of Mr. Benn lovers, and aspects of his adventures became descriptive shorthand that we still use regularly now. Yet more than any of his surreal post-Yellow Submarine escapades, and even more than that astonishing massive-sounding post-Swinging London cinema soundtrack, it was that closing caption that came to resonate me with the most, and not merely due to its uncanny resemblance to the Community Chest cards from Monopoly. In fact, with both Mr. Benn and Mary, Mungo And Midge it was the ‘BBC TV’ caption slide that came to resonate with me the most – in a way that even the similar ones deployed for the likes of Teddy Edward failed to match – and some of you will doubtless be wondering why. Well, I’m not entirely certain myself to be honest. It’s probably not insignificant that they both marked the end of a brief window of television that was specifically for ‘you’, and that beyond them lay The News and other things where boring men with ties talked about other boring men with ties. Most of all, though, it was those letters, in that slanted font. They caught and fired my imagination in a manner that I still struggle to properly explain even now.
Of course, it’s possible that this may all have just been an explanation-free eccentricity of early childhood, albeit one that aligned perfectly with my subsequent interests and obsessions, and that there’s nothing to be read into it at all. Maybe it was simply the first time that I actually recognised the name ‘BBC’ and despite my deep and abiding love of very nearly everything it does from Just A Minute to Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone to Gavin And Stacey to Mark Kermode’s Secrets Of Cinema and beyond, there’s really not much more to it than that. Except that, more recently, they’ve been joined by another closing caption that allows me to express this a little more coherently and concisely than animated jazz-backed strolls around city streets seem to.
In April 1968, singer-songwriter Tim Buckley was on a tour of the UK, and in the process of radically redefining his sound and his entire artistic approach. During this time he made a number of appearances on BBC television and radio shows, including a two-song performance on BBC2’s daily arts show Late Night Line-Up. Previously a radio-friendly poster boy for the folk-rock scene, Buckley had begun to feel uncomfortable with his carefully packaged celebrity status and the limitations of his stylised band sound. Taking folk off into uncharted free jazz-inspired territory, his new live shows featured a stripped down sound with looser arrangements – where there were in fact any designated and decided arrangements at all – and it was heavily showcased with his two numbers for Late Night Line-Up; the as-yet unreleased Happy Time, and a radical overhaul of a highlight from his most recent album Goodbye And Hello, Morning Glory.
A song inspired by what Buckley perceived as self-serving and insincere tendencies in charitable efforts by college students towards the homeless, in its original form – and on the then recently-released single – Morning Glory had been a brisk and high pitched number with an elaborate baroque arrangement and an epic choral accompaniment. Here, accompanied solely by guitarist Lee Underwood, bassist Danny Thompson and percussionist Carter Collins, Buckley transformed it into a drawn-out, hymnal meditation, audibly and visibly losing himself in his impulsive expression of the lyrics as the band pick out similarly impressionistic notes and Collins chimes in with finger cymbals for precision-targeted emphasis. It’s essentially the sound of four musicians with entirely different takes on the song that coalesce beautifully, and as they drift off into an extended musical coda that is closer to a religious mantra than pop music, the credits roll obliviously on, closing with that same ‘BBC TV’ caption over the top as they fade into nothingness. Literal nothingness in fact, as it was the last thing seen on the BBC that day; BBC1 had already closed down for the night, while Radio 3 and Radio 4 had also signed off, and Radio 1 and Radio 2 were sharing the same late-night Easy Listening sounds. If you’d stayed up late that night, it was quite the image to be left with.
Many years later, partly as a direct consequence of the BBC’s repeats of The Monkees, I would become an obsessive fan of Tim Buckley – one of the few artists it’s worth owning every single live album by – and remain incalculably grateful for the surprising number of television and radio performances that still survive. More by accident than design, the Late Night Line-Up appearance survived in the BBC’s archives, but it’s a little different to all of the others. It was the first real public exposure for a sudden and radical artistic volte-face that must surely have had people behind desks at Elektra records asking a few brow-furrowed questions. It’s one of the first documented instances of the highbrow critical world starting to take young persons’ popular beat music seriously as an art form. It’s the sound of what can happen when musicians are allowed to play how they want in a tiny presentation studio with no audience, aware of the millions of viewers but shielded from them at the same time. Above all else, it’s simply a moment in time, place and music that simply would never have been captured anywhere else – believe me, I’ve watched enough Tim Buckley television performances to be able to state that – and that fade-out as it leaves you in your, well, fleeting house is its defining moment.
And that, basically, is what the BBC means to me. Three moments, and one for each letter if you want to be poetic about it. Though I’m quite prepared to say it in significantly fewer words on Just A Minute if required.
Buy A Book!
You can read much more about Tim Buckley, Mr. Benn and Mary, Mungo And Midge 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.
This, He Thought, Is How The Clouds Must Feel is a feature about my lengthy hunt for the ‘Balloon Race’ music from Mr. Benn; you can find it here.
You can hear me talking about Mr. Benn as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.