Did You Watch The BBC2 Thing?

Get Back (Disney+, 2021).

One of the great thrills of cultural history is that there is always something new to find out. There are those who will insist that this is not the case, and that facts are all that matter and that they, personally, know everything there is to know and any detail beyond that is trivial and irrelevant and there is no more to say on the matter. However, they also tend to be the sort of individual who bandies about names like BBC Head Of Big Bands That Were No Bigger Than Seventy Five Percent The Size Of A Usual Big Band Charles McHaltenwood as though the general viewing public should be as automatically familiar with them as they are with Amy Dowden and Giovanni Pernice, and then get all high and mighty and personally offended when they aren’t. There is an entire and massively exciting universe of context, reception, lost topical details and so much more besides, much of which – astonishingly enough – often turns out to at least vaguely contradict the sort of assumptions generally arrived at from staring exclusively at cold hard shakily-microfiched facts. When it comes to the staggering number of television programmes from the fifties, sixties and seventies that no longer exist in any form, there’s also the small matter of what actually went on in them full stop.

There are more question marks over visual details of more black and white episodes of Doctor Who than it really would be worth going into at any length here. Nothing bar a set photo exists of the ‘Poets Cornered’ improvisational game from the third run of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also… – they are even absent from a set of off-air audio recordings made by a fan – and despite being so popular at the time that they were included on the album that accompanied the third series, there’s very little to indicate what the In The Club and Lengths sketches might have actually looked like. A few seconds of the pivotal Doomwatch episode Survival Code survive as part of a recap in the following edition, but not enough to resolve some of the mysteries arising from the lack of Survival Code itself. Some actual genuinely talented and self-aware writers have done their very best to provide answers to all of the above and more, but there’s only so much that stark typewritten text can tell you – and that’s where other sources and resources come in.

This isn’t just limited – as invaluable as they can be in their own right – to contemporary reviews, tie-in merchandise, letters to newspapers or MPs complaining that while they personally hadn’t seen it themselves their wife had and had assured them that it included some very choice language indeed. As scarce as they may be and as difficult as they can be to track down, there are also the reactions and observations of average ordinary everyday viewers who simply watched whatever was on television in a world of three channels that weren’t even on for most of the day, and enjoyed whatever it was – or didn’t – as they saw fit. When it comes to long-lost programmes like Get The Drift, Mickey Dunne or The Madhouse On Castle Street, you are liable to run out of hard factual documentation very quickly indeed, and additional information from the usual external sources not long afterwards. Then all of a sudden you might hear a relative mention how they used to enjoy a sketch show with Alex Glasgow where there was something about glass blowers trying to fashion replica cathedrals once, or find a 1967 diary amongst the shelves full of unloved decorative books in a bar in which the diarist had interspersed her workplace, romantic and family hassles with thoughts about this new show about a geezer about London with Vince Hill doing the theme song, or randomly catch an old edition of Desert Island Discs where Brian Glover talked about how he had discovered Bob Dylan’s music while touring as a wrestler and eagerly tuned in for “a film he did for the BBC before he actually made it”; you can read more about where that particular discovery led me here. You can even, it turns out, find this sort of casual but fascinating detail in casual but fascinating inter-song chat between The Beatles.

One of the saddest losses of an era when television was seen as ephemeral and not worth keeping in any form – and one of the most difficult to find out anything substantial about beyond the basic facts – is the at least eighty percent of BBC2’s output from its first decade on air that was wiped shortly after broadcast. Conceived as a highbrow service devoted to academia, the arts, science, current affairs, quality drama, challenging comedy and opposingly sized teddy bears peering through an arched window, BBC2 specialised in programming that captured many of the more exciting innovations and artistic endeavours of the sixties at a time when there was not really very much scope for capturing any of it anywhere else. Unfortunately, its forward-thinking status was also its archival undoing; broadcasting in higher definition – and in colour from 1967 – its already reduced audience share was diminished further still by the need to have a new television in order to be able to watch it, while there generally had to be an extremely good excuse not to just reuse the expensive videotape that the vast majority of their output was captured on. From Alan Bennett’s celebrated sketch show On The Margin and Eleanor Bron, John Fortune and The Kinks’ satire of modern romantic relationships Where Was Spring? to verbose quiz show The Tennis Elbow Foot Game and N.F. Simpson’s razor-sharp send-up of television current affairs World In Ferment to The Tubby Hayes Quintet’s debut appearance on Jazz 625 and The Poets performing live on The Beat Room, much of it is long gone and has left little trace. Even the decisions on what to actually keep of it seem to have been inconsistent; Tim Buckley’s staggering performance on Late Night Line-Up in 1967 – as you can read more about here – was apparently deliberately retained and still enjoys surprisingly regular exposure, but you will search in vain for his appearance on the station’s flagship folk show Once More With Felix the following year. This was, however, the sort of programming that tended to make a lasting impression on those who actually did see it, and with their keen artistic leanings and general ability to afford top of the range televisions, The Beatles were more likely to have seen it than most.

Radio Times promotion for Series Three of Out Of The Unknown (BBC2, 1969).

Very much intended as a statement of BBC2’s ‘identity’, Out Of The Unknown was an anthology series of science fiction and later horror and supernatural tales – many of them adapted from existing short stories – that ran for four series between 1965 and 1971. Although it inevitably shared many writers, directors, production team members and other elements with Doctor Who – most notably in the 1967 adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Reason as The Prophet, which not only featured the celebrated ‘robot hymn’ Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO by original Doctor Who theme creator Delia Derbyshire, but also involved a set of robot costumes that, thanks to an episode having to be produced at short notice with no budget and no sets, found themselves recast as the White Robots in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber the following year; in case you were wondering they appear to have originally been red – Out Of The Unknown, much like its similarly inclined contemporaries Thirty Minute Theatre and Late Night Horror, was very much aimed at adults and generally considered ‘quality’ television. Indeed, a 1966 reading of E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops was the subject of considerable critical praise and the recipient of several prestigious awards.

Based on a 1959 Robert Sheckley novel that would also later form the basis of the 1992 movie Freejack, Immortality Inc. – a story speculating on the possibility of what would effectively constitute ‘mind transplants’ – was the first episode of the third series of Out Of The Unknown and the first to be made and broadcast in colour. Originally transmitted on 7th January 1969, it was repeated once on 4th October 1970 before the tape was erased; a copy of the episode has not resurfaced and all that remains of it now are a handful of photographs, a partial off-air audio recording, and a short piece of footage cut for an Australian broadcast which is reportedly so brief and inessential that it may as well not exist. That would be pretty much all there is to go on as regards Immortality Inc., if it wasn’t for a conversation that took place at Twickenham Film Studios on 8th January 1969 between George Harrison, Ringo Starr and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, hidden away in an archive for decades but now enjoying prominence as part of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s new documentary series constructed from the hours of footage Lindsay-Hogg shot of rehearsals and recording sessions as The Beatles worked towards their infamous rooftop concert in January 1969.

On the fifth day of sessions for what would ultimately become the Let It Be album and movie, The Beatles had ostensibly convened to rehearse some of the new numbers but instead spent much of the time messing about with hastily jammed renditions of everything from Macarthur Park to F.B.I., and only a small fragment of inter-performance whimsy from John Lennon would make it from this session to official release. Another snatch of studio chatter, however, revealed George asking who had seen ‘the science fiction thing’ which he considered to have been ‘amazing’ – a viewpoint with which Ringo enthusiastically concurred, and although Lindsay-Hogg – who had recently been working on ITV’s similarly inclined series Journey To The Unknown – had only caught the end of it, he was interested to hear more. The three then spent a couple of minutes discussing the storyline, and in so doing gave anyone familiar with Out Of The Unknown at the very least a minor sense of the set design and the direction style and even what filmed location work may have been involved. It may not quite be any sort of reasonable substitute for an actual copy of the episode, and it may well be the sort of trivial detail that those obsessed with facts and figures would deride and disregard, but accounts that give you at least some idea of what Immortality Inc. looked like and how it was received are not exactly conspicuous by their overabundance. George was decidedly less impressed by the ‘medals and things’ in The Titled And The Unentitled, an edition of BBC2’s magazine show Europa that followed Immortality Inc., although the accompanying waltz-time music gave him an idea for a song that very quickly coalesced into I Me Mine. What he made of whatever art happenings were profiled on the edition of Late Night Line-Up that followed is, sadly, something that we aven’t garde a clue about.

Although the visuals are – with no small irony – entirely new, the discussion about Out Of The Unknown had long been known about and indeed widely analysed and contextualised, albeit all too often either by Beatle enthusiasts noting that Out Of This World was a 1973 detective show on London’s BSB Galaxy created by writer Terry Nation whose maverick ‘cutting edge’ producer Chris Morris had recently been sent to prison for attacking Michael Heseltine MP with a copy of the Queen’s Speech, or else by archive television bores who grudgingly take time out from frowning about The Gnomes Of Dulwich to petulantly concede that The Beatles are in their opinion a little overrated really, if you like that sort of thing. Slightly more of a surprise, however, was an off-the-cuff comment from John Lennon on 6th January that he had been watching The Move on ‘the pop show’ on BBC2.

Colour Me Pop: The Move (BBC2, 1969).

Broadcast late on Saturday nights, Colour Me Pop was a direct offshoot from Late Night Line-Up, which at one point was more or less the only place on television that audiences could see the more progressive pop acts that had emerged in the wake of The Beatles. Colour Me Pop was an opportunity for them to showcase their repertoire to a wider audience, performing eight or so numbers live in the studio and filling up the rest of their allotted time with other aspects of their act, whether it was poetry, comedy or – in the case of Strawbs – inviting their little-known mate David Bowie on to do a mime to one of their records (and you can find what I’ve managed to find out about that long lost bit of pre-fame Bowie in Can’t Help Thinking About Me here). Although the editions featuring The Move, The Small Faces, The Moody Blues and The Chambers Brothers survive along with a fair chunk of the one with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, much of Colour Me Pop is gone including performances from such esoteric but highly regarded names as Orange Bicycle, David Ackles, Salena Jones, Barbara Ruskin and Giles Giles And Fripp, not to mention slightly more well-known ones such as Fleetwood Mac, The Hollies, Jethro Tull, Julie Driscoll and – right in the middle of struggling to complete their troublesome masterpiece The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks. Some extracts from some of the missing editions do also survive, including a filmed insert showing The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band larking about at ‘home’, but unfortunately, as their fans seem more interested in forcing you to listen to their ukulele-leaden whimsy while going on about something or other about a foaming rasping flagon of roast ale at Aunt Nellie’s Hublic Pouse than doing anything so boringly conventional as properly liking or appreciating anything the band actually did, that has yet to reach a wider audience.

Occasionally plundered for clip shows, The Move’s Colour Me Pop appearance from 4th January 1969 saw them tearing through hits like Flowers In The Rain and Fire Brigade as well as the popular b-side Something, chaotic chart-missing single Wild Tiger Woman, a work in progress version of Beautiful Daughter, and covers of the Gerry Goffin and Carol King number Goin’ Back and bluegrass standard The Christian Life, both of which had recently also been covered by The Move’s noted favourites The Byrds. As well as an early sighting of the sort of glittery jackets that the Carnaby Street boutiques had recently started to sell – maybe inspiring David Bowie and Marc Bolan to take a trip to Alkasura the following Monday – this performance is also notable for capturing the band as they were adjusting to the recent departure of original bass player Ace Kefford. The Move had always shared out lead vocals as the ‘narrative’ of each song dictated – if you want a good trivia question to catch someone out with, ask them who the first person heard singing on BBC Radio 1 was; chances are they’ll know the first record played was Flowers In The Rain and automatically say Roy Wood, but the opening verse was actually handled by Carl Wayne – and Ace Kefford can be heard prominently on many of their best known singles. Although any fan of The Move would be able to tell that they were audibly struggling to compensate for his absence in places, their vocal interplay nonetheless caught John Lennon’s attention; while discussing how to approach The Beatles’ new songs, he mentioned the effect that The Move’s distanced stage positioning had on their vocal arrangements and began playing around with ideas inspired by that. This was an especially startling moment for me, as when I had a chat with Beatles expert Chris Shaw about the Yellow Submarine soundtrack (which you can listen to here), we got on to the subject of speculation about how The Beatles might have sounded if they had started playing live in 1968. Sceptical of some of the more fanciful ideas of string sections and elaborate stage effects, I had suggested instead that they’d have sounded more like the flashy psychedelic pop captured on the live album Something Else From The Move. It’s quite something to realise how close to the reality that very nearly was.

Of course, the fact that all of this footage still existed and was able to be used to transform the original Let It Be film – a stark and frosty effort edited by four musicians who were rapidly distancing themselves from each other and a director who had lost patience with them – into a positive and heartwarming three-part series that incorporates all manner of studio chatter alongside revealing band meetings, evident love and enthusiasm for Yoko Ono, dubious attempts at topical satire that end up really not sounding right at all and so much more besides, all of it building towards a sidesplitting real life comedy film as they unveil their new songs on a rooftop to the delight of passers-by and the consternation of a couple of gents in bowler hats and officious coppers, speaks volumes about how significant The Beatles were already considered to be even at this stage. Most of their television appearances – even obscurities like Paul’s contributions to David Frost’s sketch show A Degree Of Frost and John talking about the stage presentation of In His Own Write on the arts magazine show Release – still exist in some form, and even those that don’t have been documented to the extent that they may as well do. You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing left to know about The Beatles, but even they have some question marks of their own. For a start, there’s the unreleased electronic experimental track Carnival Of Light. You might think that sounds interesting, or you might… not, but I can tell you one thing – it would have been right at home on early BBC2.

Out Of The Unknown: Immortality Inc. (BBC2, 1969).

Buy A Book!

You can find a lot more about long-lost television shows from the black and white era in Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features on the theme of ‘lost’ television. Not On Your Telly 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. In one of those snazzy stripy mugs The Beatles have in Get Back, please.

Further Reading

Desert Island Dylan is a feature taking a look at my attempts to work out what actually went on in Bob Dylan’s lost BBC play The Madhouse On Castle Street; you can find it here.

Can We Hear It Back Now? is a look at the legendary unreleased Beatles electronic track Carnival Of Light, and the little-documented circumstances in which it was originally ‘performed’; you can find it here.

The Wind Cries Mickey Murphy is a feature looking at what Jimi Hendrix might actually have been watching when he wrote The Wind Cries Mary; you can find it here.

Further Listening

You can hear me chatting to Chris Shaw about the Yellow Submarine soundtrack here. There’s more about Colour Me Pop in Looks Unfamiliar with Ben Baker here.

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