Take A Giant Step

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Monkees A La Mode was the first episode of The Monkees that the BBC repeated as part of a long chain of repeats that ran into the mid-eighties, initially slotted into the afternoon children’s schedules as if it was a ‘new’ programme, then on Saturday mornings (where it once formed part of the legendary one week only experiment at getting Ceefax to ‘present’ Children’s BBC, Buzzfax, which you can hear more about in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Chris Hughes here), and then finally every morning in the Christmas, Summer and even Easter school holidays. Although tastes and fashion had moved on from The Monkees’ heyday, in many respects children’s television hadn’t moved on very much at all, and as such it’s hardly surprising that their not actually that outdated high-speed slapstick antics and superior catchy tunes should have caught on with an audience who were too young to even remember the furore over whether that was Michael Nesmith’s real hat. That wasn’t all that hadn’t moved on; as with many imported programmes repeated around this time, the BBC were still using the battered old prints they had purchased way back when, initially shuffled around as ‘A BBC Presentation’ to make their commercial origins less obvious and then subjected to all manner of further cuts over the years to accommodate shorter timeslots and sometimes to make them suitable for changing audience profiles; watching Monkees A La Mode again recently I did wonder if the shot of Peter goofing around with a pair of scissors might have gone walkabout by the time I would have originally seen it. This piece was in fact inspired by a warm nostalgic thread on Twitter about the BBC edits of The Monkees, Star Trek and so forth, so I expected it would be equally warmly received and happily it was.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that the throwaway mention of Boss Cat would cause so many ructions, corrections and in some cases unwarranted outbreaks of downright impoliteness. Like anyone who watched Top Cat on the BBC between 1962 and 1989 – and yes I have checked this, to the extent that I can tell you that it was in fact originally billed as The Boss Cat – I saw those used and reused and reused and frankly fair near worn out prints that had been hamfistedly cut with a whopping great pair of blunt scissors to insert a ‘Boss Cat’ slide in the opening titles and remove a prominent mention of ‘Top Cat’ in the closing credits, to avoid giving free advertising to the cat food of the same name (if you think this was an overreaction, Top Cat was frequently advertised in Radio Times, so just imagine Dominic Raab’s face if there was an advert for Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel drain cleaner next to a listing for Michael McIntrye’s The Wheel right now; although you are permitted not to imagine his face under any other circumstances), seemingly without any consideration afforded to the disruption to the on-screen antics or the lyrics of the theme song. It’s possible that I was in the minority in actively referring to it as Boss Cat, but I did, and out of a sense of something somewhere between stubbornness and mischief occasionally still do. Even so, it’s a little much when every single mention I make of it – even if prefaced with a very clear and evidently weary statement that I am all too aware of the reasons for the name change – is greeted with hundreds upon hundreds of explanations of the name change, sometimes with additional explanations in reply to them, and a small handful of worryingly furious types screeching with anger at me doing this, and an even smaller handful equally furiously denying that the whole Boss Cat debacle ever took place on the basis that they don’t personally remember it and probably aren’t that bothered really but must state their case at length anyway. All I can say is that it wasn’t actually me who edited those prints, but if it will keep you all quiet then I apologise on their behalf regardless.

Speaking of changes, albeit slightly subtler ones, this is a substantially tidied up version of the original feature as frankly, it needed it. If you want to see a much bigger and better version tidied up with new facts and background details and tons of anecdotage about ‘playing’ The Monkees in the street and how those repeats influenced my later musical tastes, then you can find that in my anthology Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. You can also hear me talking about the BBC edits of The Monkees as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here.

Over the years, without anyone ever asking or probably even wanting me to, I’ve no doubt given several wildly conflicting accounts of where and how my interest in sixties music started. Sometimes I’ve claimed that it all really started when I got hold of a ropey C90 of legendary garage punk compilation Nuggets, and heard the terrifying juddering buzzsaw guitar opening of I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night for the first time. At various other times, I’ve gone on record and in print with similar recollections – ‘anecdotes’ would be erroneously implying that they were stories that actually went somewhere – about similar inaugural encounters with Shapes Of ThingsThe Tears Of A ClownAlone Again OrSee Emily Play and doubtless several dozen others that I can’t remember right now. Then there’s Radio 2’s Sounds Of The 60s, which you can read much more about my longstanding relationship with here. I’ve probably even tried to pin the blame on the poor old Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association before now.

The problem with all of these versions of events, though, is that they’re all pretty much dependent on a pre-existing fascination with the hilariously amorphous concept of ‘sixties’ pop music. They’re all ever so slightly similar accounts of where the story really started, rather than where it actually started. If we’re going to get anywhere near that – and indeed if anyone reading actually wants me to get anywhere near that – we’re going to have to go back, give or take the odd Beatles film and/or cartoon, to when the BBC decided for no readily obvious or apparent reason to start repeating a television series from almost two decades previously as part of their afternoon children’s schedules.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

I have tried and tried and tried to determine how and why The Monkees found itself in that post-school timeslot at that time, but the reasons – if indeed there were any – have proved predictably elusive, so for now we’ll just have to conclude that the BBC simply felt like showing them again. But find its way there up it did, and immediately caused a shockwave of baffled excitement as playground speculation ran rampant over whether those four identically shirted moptops that achieved near-Rentaghost levels of laugh-inducement were ‘new’ or ‘from them days’. Micky, Mike, Davy and Peter’s antics and music quickly caught on in a way that probably nobody would really have expected of a fairly ancient imported sitcom flung out as a bit of cheap filler. Birthday parties were momentarily suspended so that the assembled cake-crazed revellers could watch the episode with Stan Freberg as the toy factory owner, with howls of laughter greeting the scene where they accidentally invented a boomerang-esque toy that couldn’t be thrown away – especially when Peter closed a window on it – that were quite possibly louder and more raucous than any actual party events. Reader’s Digest‘s fortuitously-timed compilation Here Come The Monkees, which in keeping with their esoteric wont placed hits alongside a handful of fairly obscure album tracks, proved a handy Christmas Present option for otherwise stumped relatives and gave their new-found fans the opportunity to enjoy the music without being distracted by speeded-up footage of chases on weirdly elongated bike-kart things. Those same after-the-event converts would quickly draw in their even younger siblings, giving rise to shared reminiscences about how ‘clever’ they thought the lyric “Mr Green, he’s so serene, he’s got a TV in every room” was, or how weird that fast song with all the different coloured trumpets where Micky sang about them finding him in the morning wet and drowned was, or just how entertainingly re-enactable and generally sidesplittingly hilarious the ‘Chaperone’ episode was, in the same sort of circumstances where others would jointly look back on landmark family holidays. In truth, given their subsequent ubiquity in the Summer morning schedules, for some The Monkees actually were their holidays.

BBC continuity slide for The Monkees, circa 1980.

Many would move on to other more modern thrills soon enough, but for some, this was an obsession that stuck – and, more importantly, led directly into other obsessions. Fascination at the fact that someone had decided to copy The Monkees only more weirdly and with more cartoons about families who had a shrinking car and renamed it The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was one of the mundane yet intriguing things that got me wondering about the history of this television whatnot, and how it all fitted together and responded to changing fashions and values and advertising demands and what have you. A constantly thwarted desire to see The Monkees’ elusive and rarely-discussed big-screen outing Head, which finally showed up on Channel 4 in the late eighties (and let’s not even get started on the long, long hunt for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee), and the quest for tiny scraps of information in whopping great oversized books in the Film And TV section of  the local library, was instrumental in instituting a fascination with other neglected and forgotten corners of cinema history. Later, I would have enormous fun disproving the longstanding myth that Head was never shown in the UK at the time of release, but that’s another story. More significantly, the search after seeing Head for a copy of The Porpoise Song – you would not believe the prices that the not-yet-reissued soundtrack album commanded in those days – led me to an obscure import-only American psychedelic compilation that also featured the likes of Love, The Turtles, The Seeds, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Vanilla Fudge and Kenny Rogers And The First Edition. In that same record shop, I also picked up a VHS bootleg of episodes of the television series, which included the one where their old mucker Tim Buckley strummed and yodelled a really rather startling song at the end whilst sat on a smashed-up old car. It is safe to say that I was being ever so slightly lured in a certain musical direction.

Tim Buckley performing Song To The Siren on The Monkees - Mijjacogeo aka The Frodis Caper (NBC/Screen Gems, 1968).

It’s also safe to say that we’re also being inadvertently ever so slightly lured in that certain musical direction again now, which isn’t so much addressing the conundrum outlined in the opening paragraph as replicating it entirely. So before we get irretrievably diverted and caught up in endless recollections about hunting down Super K’s Bubblegum Explosion, let’s get back to what this outbreak of rambling originally set out intending to do, and take another look at that episode of The Monkees that so captured all those imaginations all that time ago. As it made such an indelible impression, we won’t be needing BBC Genome to tell us that the episode in question was Monkees A La Mode, so let’s just put down the Tommy James And The Shondells ‘Original Album Series’ box set and get on with it, shall we?

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Despite what you might not unreasonably assume, Monkees A La Mode was not actually the first episode of The Monkees but the twenty fourth; predictably there is no discernible rhyme, reason or logic to them, but we’re playing by the BBC’s idiosyncratic rules here, and that’s something that will come very much to the fore in a couple of paragraphs’ time. Equally surprisingly, Monkees A La Mode doesn’t open with a trademark display of four-handed Beatle-resenting social satire quickfire gag exchange, but with one of those ‘cold opens’ that are all the rage now, featuring an icy behatted career woman, a mod-attired groovy chick, and a camp psychedelic dandy getting up to all manner of Ugly Betty-prefiguring fashion industry-lampoonery in a Pop Art-styled publishing office as they rifle through pics of up-and-coming celebrities to feature in a forthcoming spread, alighting on some black and white glossies of The Monkees and summarily announcing plans to make over the long haired weirdos ‘in our own image’. Then the action flips over – literally – to the long-awaited Monkee hangout, where the invitation to appear in Chic magazine is greeted with no little disdain, with Davy volunteering the style tip “why not take little metal bottle tops and nail them to your living room floor? It gives you the impression that you’re walking… on… little metal bottle tops”. Peter, however, is impressed that it features a ‘serial’ every month – “this month it’s cornflakes”, he adds whilst decanting some from the magazine into his bowl.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Then it’s straight into the opening titles, but not the opening titles as anyone who watched those repeat broadcasts would know them. In the years since The Monkees had first been shown, the BBC had made all manner of ‘improvements’ to their prints of the show, from removing flashframe cutaways and onscreen caption gags – you can bet the quick burst of the end credits montage of them trying on trendsetting hats that appeared during this episode’s opening sequence had gone for starters – to removing entire songs for no readily obvious reason. The Monkees was, of course, far from the only show to be subjected to this often blunt-scissored reappropriation, and not too far away from it in the repeat schedules you would often find The Banana Splits – as it was renamed in ad-free BBC-land due to no longer lasting an hour – which had somehow mislaid the live action Danger Island serial along the way, and the notoriously doctored prints of Boss Cat (we’ll call it by its proper name around here, thanks) which had been hamfistedly whittled to remove any trace of inadvertent free advertising for a certain pet food manufacturer, with the truncated opening titles cutting mid-Dibble-disobedience to an infamously shoddy title caption card, and a whopping great mid-lyric jump cut as he prepared for bedtime in a bin in the closing credits. Quite when and why this happened in the case of The Monkees is anyone’s guess, but at some point the BBC’s prints all had the series two opening titles edited onto them, which is why most viewers would probably be expecting the Wild West/Foreign Legion/Live Performance/Running Away From The Tide antics and Peter? Peter! gag, but instead get an entirely different load of clips with the Monkeemobile surprisingly very much to the fore, and, erm, Mike sitting on a skateboard. What’s more, it’s followed by a Kellogg’s sponsor bumper with its own Monkee jingle and box-hoisting comedy antics, which would doubtless have been binned before this episode got anywhere near the BBC. Then at last there’s the familiar Four Faces On Orange Background caption card and brief electric harpischord reprise of the theme, but it’s already obvious that this is going to be a slightly different experience to that of those edit-unaware youngsters watching way back when. But are we going to put this feature on hold for several months while we track down a possibly non-extant copy of that bizarre BBC-mangled version? Are we Mijacogeo.

BBC title card for Boss Cat, aka Top Cat.

Instead, it’s straight back to The Monkees’ joint, where a quick burst of polo-necked cod-Shakespearianism gets derailed by the arrival of the put-upon fashionistas – Tobi Willis and Robroy Fingerhead to give them their full names – wondering aloud how they are going to whip these long-haired scruffians into photoshoot-friendly shape. Their suggestion is that they should show the world “what you are and the way you live”, to which Davy responds with alarm “you want to get us arrested?”, and earns a Snorky-esque timpani-accompanied elbow in the ribs from Mike for his troubles; in an amusing bit of postmodernism, it appears that Davy has actually made this noise himself, and he sternly reminds Mike “don’t do that”. Some journalistic rifling through the band’s bric-a-brac – including that never-explained Gerald Campion-alike ventriloquist’s dummy Mr. Schneider – ensues, all of it hampered by a manically flailing Peter and sarcastically sceptical Mike, though it’s actually the surprisingly touchy Davy who takes passionate exception to the shorthand-happy twosome’s snobby dismissals. Micky just stands on the sidelines smirking, as though he’s waiting for the right moment to deliver a scene-flattening one-liner, and sure enough it’s him who delivers the spurious historical-one-line-cutaway-accompanied claims that the the various items of junk dotted about the place were in fact handed down a Monkee line of succession by the likes of George Washington and Paul Revere. Robroy remains cattily unimpressed, but Tobi is more sympathetic and asks them to come to the office at 9am the following morning. “What have we got to lose, fellers?” asks an unconvinced Davy. “Our shirts” is the group reply. You can guess the cutaway.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

The following morning, Wilhelmina-Slater-Meets-Helen-A-esque Madame Quagmeyer is ruminating on “the worst looking dummy I’ve ever seen” when, bang on cue, Peter ambles into the studio. After being introduced to some haughty society gal-type researchers, occasioning Mike to ‘introduce’ himself to the other Monkees, Micky to try and seduce one by posing as a Chinese-born French-talker, Davy to remark that what he looks for in a girl “depends on what I’ve lost”, and Peter to strike up a conversation with a lamp, they are ushered before the camera, where Robroy attempts to get himself on the Olympic bitching team with exasperation at their posture and lack of colour-coordination (not to mention Micky’s incessant drumming), before it all degenerates into a performance of Davy-sung second album filler Laugh, accompanied by all manner of high-speed photo session diorama slapstick ranging from Micky wrestling with a stuffed tiger to Peter larking about with giant scissors and pencils and Davy being pursued by an alarmingly realistic-looking toy chimp. In a gleeful note of subversion, even some audience-pleasing shots of them actually smouldering for the camera get the rug pulled from underneath by the unexpected addition of comedy ‘arrow-thru-head’ props and the like, simultaneously both acknowledging and refusing to take seriously the main reasons for the band’s popularity.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Madame Quagmeyer is so pleased with the results of the photo session that she screws up the pasted-up pages without reading them and flings them binwards in front of Tobi’s astonished face, and commissions Robroy to make a second attempt at it; in true media creep fashion (and indeed fashion), he’s already got one ready in his jacket pocket. Meanwhile, back at the pad, the boys are busying themselves feeding a toy giraffe when a procession of angry girls turn up at the door to slap them and a note around a brick comes through the window (which Davy presumes is “an advert for a glass factory”), before Tobi finally turns up with the long-awaited copy of Chic – “we haven’t read it, but we’ve a feeling some of our friends have”, muses Mike. Indeed, Robroy’s hatchet job repositioning them as cultured aesthetes and overall snobs is so denigratingly effective that it has caused Tobi to quit her job in a fit of ethical pique. Flushed with success, Madame Quagmeyer sends them a telegram demanding that they represent her at The Young American People Trophy Award Thing later that evening, but while Davy and Micky propose replying with ‘Monkee Telegram 26a’ (“you can take your trophy and…”), they inevitably elect instead to turn up to the awards with a plan to create mayhem.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

What follows is a description-defying frenetic explosion of mime, sabotage, vandalism, snoring, babbling, pratfalls, bizarre accents, loose-limbed tomfoolery and close harmony barbershop caterwauling, striking terror into the very cultural sensibilities of the assembled ‘suits’, and culminating in them dedicating the award to Robroy, whose attempts to sneak out with his reputation intact are thwarted by more choreographed Monkee antics. Instead it’s the boys who flee the building, performing conjuring tricks and building towers of teacups as they go. The next morning, they turn up at the Chic offices demanding a retraction, only to find that Tobi is now editor, with Robroy and Madam Quagmire as her meek and terrified assistants, and that despite this apparent game of musical office chairs basically nothing has actually changed. Rather a strong note of social satire for a sitcom widely derided as inconsequential trend-surfing zaniness-heavy appearing-and-disappearing-on-top-of-hills-fixated Beatle-plagiarising fluff to end on, you might think.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Except it’s not quite the end of the episode itself, as there’s still a mimed performance of then-as-yet-unreleased corker You Just May Be The One – written by Mike, and with most of them contributing to the instrumental backing, so stick that in your Not Even Mike Nesmith’s Real Hat and smoke it – followed by the familiar end credits only with Variety-sized Kelloggs boxes troubling their faces. And, well, that’s Monkees A La Mode, the very same episode that brought their getting the funniest looks from everyone they meet to a whole new audience way back when, and in its own small way did a large amount to introduce the idea that the pop music of the past could be resold to those outside of the more nostalgic members of their original target audience. Whether that was a good or a bad thing is something that you will need to take up with your nearest Fourteen Thousand Hits Of The Sixties – The Era That Defined An Era (Some Tracks Have Been Recreated Using As Many Of The Original Artists As Possible) box set.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

So, how does Monkees A La Mode measure up to the reaction that it unexpectedly caused back then? Well, that’s something that’s very difficult to gauge, mainly on account of the fact that the entire attitude towards, and availability of, archive media of all forms has so fundamentally shifted since then, and in a way that is most definitely a good thing. Despite the juvenile confusion over whether it was ‘new’ or not – in itself an indication of just how little archive material you’d find on television in those days – it was a garish film stock-facilitated window into the sound and style of another age at a time when ninety nine percent of anything that wasn’t one hundred percent current was locked away in a big box labelled ‘the past’, and even something like Ragtime could seem like a hazy memory only a year or two after they stopped showing it. Or, if you prefer something a bit culturally, chronologically and geographically closer to The Monkees itself, the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You? did after it disappeared for a couple of years to be replaced by wall to wall Scooby Doo And Scrappy Doo. Now of course you can watch this and all the other episodes of The Monkees on a variety of digital platforms on demand, and that couldn’t be further removed from the days when you were lucky if you saw twenty seconds of Peter And Gordon during a local news report on someone ‘bringing back’ the ‘swinging sixties’.  Plus that’s not even taking into account the fact that this is a substantially different cut of the episode to the one that went out on the BBC way back when. These things do make a difference you know. As you’d know if you’d heard the album edit of The Porpoise Song.

What it is easy to conclude, however, is that it’s a good deal more sophisticated than zinger-and-camera-trickery-festooned memory and columnist types who scoff that they weren’t any good until Head might suggest, and certainly streets ahead of the likes of The Ghost And Mrs Muir that some would appear to want to retrospectively relegate it alongside. The satire of the fashion industry is much more barbed and disdainful than might perhaps be expected – something that was also very much true of the subjects tackled in other episodes – and in that sense, with all the music and film tinkering taken into account too, it’s a lot closer to The Goodies than to The Mothers In Law. On a side note, it’s also surprising to see just how involved as a character Davy was; often misremembered as a perma-chipper ludicrously-accented number-maker-up whose primary purpose was to fall inconveniently in love – an misconception that he admittedly did little to help with his self-parody bits in Head – here he’s actually shown to be the most cynical and at times even most surreal of the four (which is no mean feat), though perhaps that kind of sardonic wit is easily lost on younger viewers. Even so, it’s precisely that kind of hidden depth that caused it to become precisely the kind of renewed success it was; practically every other fondly-remembered comedy from the children’s schedules around the same time, from Seaview and Maggie to Educating Marmalade and Behind The Bike Sheds to Smith And Goody and Luna, credited its audience with an intelligence and sophistication that was rarely to be found in any of the rest of the output aimed at them, which is perhaps why we’re talking about them now and not sodding Brendon Chase.

So that’s why The Monkees are still watched, listened to, enjoyed and indeed talked about now in a way that certain of their self-aggrandising contemporaries only ever have been in their own heads. Also, speaking of awards, I would like one in recognition of my resisting the temptation to call this article ‘Monkee Business’.

The Monkees - Monkees A La Mode (NBC/Screen Gems, 1967).

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of Take A Giant Step, including much more about watching The Monkees in the school holidays and early excursions into discovering their music, 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.

Further Reading

Time Will Crawl is a look at that weird point towards the end of the Summer Holidays morning television schedules where time appeared to actually stand still; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking about The Monkees episode The Chaperone – and the BBC edit of it in particular – as well as The Banana Splits as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here. Deborah Tracey had plenty to say about the BBC’s school hummer holiday schedules – and the existential dread of Five To Eleven – in Looks Unfamiliar here.

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