Although nowadays you’re besieged by astonishingly powerful research tools literally every time you pick up your phone – even if most of them do just get used for making memes – sometimes it really is difficult not to feel the occasional glimmer of nostalgic affection for the days when if you wanted to know anything about anything from ‘the past’, you had to go rifling around in what few dusty paper-packed and inadequately-catalogued corners were actually made available to you. If you were after more information about, say, Funeral In Berlin, then your only real option was to head for the local library where you could look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, possibly find a back issue of Empire where someone had written in to Q&A about something to do with it, and discover that all Michael Caine had to say in his autobiography about it was “Funeral In Berlin was a film that I was in that was shown in cinemas to audiences”. There might be a tantalising casual mention of some esoteric behind the scenes detail in a Radio 2 documentary, or a newspaper feature on Len Deighton that quoted an ancient review, but that was usually pretty much as far as it went. Sometimes it’s still difficult to get much further with certain subjects even in this information-overloaded day and age – something that I wrote about with regard to The Madhouse On Castle Street, a long-lost 1962 BBC play starring a then-unknown Bob Dylan, here – but it’s nice to know that the opportunity is there.
This affectionate look back at the genuine excitement of those equally long-lost days – and one discovery in particular that still makes me smile even now – was originally written for my previous website, and I have to admit I’m rather fond of it. An expanded version, with answers to many of the questions posed in it, later found its way into Can’t Help Thinking About Me – available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here – although if you’re interested in some of my actual research and findings from those days, then a lot of that formed the basis of several of the features included in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. If you’d rather just find out more about some of the shows mentioned in it, though, then you can find a feature on the first episode of Camberwick Green here and editions of Looks Unfamiliar looking at Hardwicke House here and Rubovia here.
Back in the days when the closest evolutionary relative of IMDB was those books called things like Variety’s Sci-Fi Enthusiast’s Guide To Out Of This World Movie Credits From Space, which were produced to such high and exacting standards that practically every page had half line gaps in the middle of words, the absolute and almost inconceivably exotic researching holy grail was access to back issues of Radio Times and TV Times. Definitive, unarguable – well, sort of – records of what had been on radio and indeed television, who had appeared in and made it, and where and when it went out, and all of it without having to wade through interminable wittering about Project UFO first. Of course, if for some strange reason you did want to know about the UK transmissions of Project UFO, then you could find them in there too, but that’s by the by.
Eventually, and more by accident than design, I did manage to locate a collection of bound volumes in the awe-inspiring city centre library; although they would later restrict access to dedicated researchers who were prepared to sign official-looking forms and then wait twenty minutes while the staff mysteriously disappeared and returned with the requested copies occupying about a sixteenth of the space on the world’s squeakiest trolley, back then they were just sitting on a shelf and you essentially had the free run of television and radio listings from 1962 to date. Unfortunately this did mean that some plank had already gone through and torn out all of the pages referring to Doctor Who, or worse still carefully levered them out with a craft knife leaving damaging lacerations on all the surrounding pages too, but in all honesty that was really just a minor annoyance. There was so much more in there to find out about than the even by then already overdocumented Doctor Who, and that so much more was precisely what I was in search of. There was, if you will, so much more than TV Times in TV Times Magazine. Except that doesn’t really work as Doctor Who was in Radio Times. But you get the general idea.
Suddenly, there were so many longstanding back-of-the-mind questions that could potentially be answered. What were the storylines of the untransmitted episodes of Hardwicke House? Did Channel 4 really show a documentary with clips from ‘Video Nasties’? Was there any truth in the rumour that Monty Python’s Flying Circus hadn’t been properly repeated prior to 1986? Didn’t TV Times used to use bizarre ‘genre’ icons in their listings? Did the abandoned Not The Nine O’Clock News launch make it as far as being scheduled? Was Lenny Henry really a DJ on Radio 1? What about that reference somewhere once to a Billy Liar sitcom? Had I just imagined Rubovia? And what in the name of all that is sane and rational was Whoops Baghdad? All of these, and more besides, would soon find their sometimes surprising resolutions; but what I looked up first was something else entirely.
Camberwick Green had been quietly retired from the BBC’s lunchtime children’s schedules in 1985 – having been shown over thirty times since its debut in 1966 – and like any other television or radio show (or even film) that had been consigned to the archive shelves in the days before there was the technology or even the impetus to sell it all back to us constantly, it had already slipped into a sort of cultural limbo. You didn’t have to look very far to find evidence that it had existed, of course, but the actual show itself already seemed intangibly remote and distant, far in the subconscious depths of character songs drilled into your memory by repetition and fraught recollections of never being quite sure about that clown in the opening and closing titles (an uneasiness that I had plenty more to say about here). Camberwick Green was something that had once been a permanent fixture in the cultural background but had since retreated inaccessibly into a big box marked ‘the past’, and that sense of the inaccessible recent past was what drove me to look up its very first transmission.
And there it was – Monday 3rd January 1966, 1.30pm on BBC1, an episode billed as ‘1: Peter The Postman’ and described as ‘For the very young’. To be honest, all of the handful of accompanying credits were details that I knew already anyway, involving names that were all too familiar from that clown-rotated credit scroller, but what really caught my attention was the small accompanying illustration of Peter Hazel The Postman, and a single line in italics at the foot of the listing reading ‘See page 19’; and on page nineteen, there it was – a full-size version of the artwork, featuring Peter Hazel standing on top of the Music Box (although for some reason he had actually been drawn taller than it), accompanied by a short and noticeably hyperbole-lacking piece introducing the various characters, hinting at – though stopping short of explicitly stating – its status as the first truly independent production to be made for the BBC, and handily explaining the stop-motion animation process specifically for the benefit of question-plagued parents.
And that, almost unbelievably, was how you launched a major new television programme in 1966. Other highlights for that Monday picked out on the same page included Bob Monkhouse in a ‘straight’ role in Thirty Minute Theatre, Peter Falk (who apparently “holds an ‘Emmy’ award, which he won for his part in ‘The Price Of Tomatoes'”) guesting in The Danny Kaye Show, an episode of Hugh And I – ‘more comic adventures with Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd’ which had apparently been picked out for highlighting on the basis of having a new theme tune – and an interesting-sounding documentary named Women In Europe, which looked at how our more progressive continental neighbours were opening out employment opportunities and featured an interview with the Soviet Union’s first female commercial pilot. What Mrs. Dingle The Postmistress would have made of all that is anyone’s guess.
Since then, for various reasons, I’ve done a good deal more research into Camberwick Green and its various geographical associates, from wading through a stack of paperwork outlining the tedious contractual reasons behind Chigley‘s disappearance from the schedules for a couple of years in the late seventies, to listening to a Danish-dubbed version of the Welcome To Camberwick Green album (or, in old krone, ‘Velkommen Til Grønærteby’). Yet although there are still some tantalising unanswered questions about that first ever episode – as you can find out more about here – it’s difficult to beat the thrill of finding that small quarter-page introductory piece, and indeed that artwork, probably produced in minutes flat for a magazine that by its very definition had the shortest of shelf lives, but which all this time later resonates with the ‘feel’ of a lost world of prehistoric broadcasting. That said, thanks to those thirty or so repeat runs, the show is deeply ingrained in the formative experiences of successive generations that we’re probably well overdue a politician dodging a question by frowning that we should “all try to be a bit more like the people of Camberwick Green“. To which we should reply fine, as long as they personally are prepared to be visited by the clown late at night.
Buy A Book!
You can find an expanded version of The Best Pictures Are In The Radio (Times) – with more detail on some of the mysteries mentioned in it – in 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. Some Lyons Fresh Ground will do nicely. It’s probably even more or less the same colour as Radio Times pages.
You can find more thoughts on how you can discover the most unlikely sort of detail about ‘lost’ television in the most unlikely places in Did You Watch The BBC2 Thing? here and Desert Island Dylan here.
There’s more more about exactly what went on in those unscreened episodes of Hardwicke House in Looks Unfamiliar with Deborah Tracey here, and how I finally managed to prove I hadn’t just imagined Rubovia after all here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.