Cult Q&A: Tim Worthington
We Are Cult, 2017
Tim Worthington is a vintage television archivist and researcher, writer, blogger and occasional broadcaster.
He’s written a number of books devoted to various aspects of pop culture, including Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1 from Kenny Everett to Chris Morris and beyond, Not On Your Telly, the ultimate guide to The TV That Time Forgot, Top Of The Box, a comprehensive, annotated discography of BBC Records’ diverse and bewildering singles output, and Higher Than The Sun, the story of Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless.
Tim also wrote the booklet accompanying Network’s Sapphire & Steel DVD collection.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I’ve been interested in the mechanics and cultural context of old films, television, radio and pop music from a very early age, but I actually started out wanting to do something in music. That never really worked out, but I sort of fell into writing and broadcasting on my more familiar themes through doing local music scene fanzines and bits and pieces for local radio. Definitely worked out for the best there!
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
See above. And also married to Belinda Carlisle. Let’s not gloss over that aspect.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Don’t try to do too many things at once. And you’ll be wrong about The Bluetones.
What are your best and worst qualities?
They are both exactly the same thing, but I’d best not go into that.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I briefly worked for a car insurance chain who had an appalling attitude towards their staff that verged on mind control, including making people in a closed office wear grim ill-fitting uniforms. Different ones for men and women too. And worse still there were some thoroughly broken career-ladder types there who babbled about how ‘fun’ it all was in the same sort of voice as when they make that robot of Buffy. What gets into the heads of people who run businesses like that? Do they really think we’d give them their custom if we knew how rotten they were to their employees?
Who were your heroes growing up?
I was always quite taken with people who seemed to be messing with the media from the ‘inside’, especially if they managed to get up people’s noses without actually doing anything. Malcolm McLaren, Janet Street Porter, that kind of character. Aside from that, Bowie, Morrissey, Syd Barrett, Peter Cook, but most of all Victor Lewis-Smith, especially on Loose Ends. He seemed to use nostalgia and current affairs almost as weapons, long before anyone else was doing that, and took no prisoners with his jokes either. Nothing was off-limits, including himself.
What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?
So many that I could choose from but I’d really have to go for the first episode of Camberwick Green. It may look ‘comical’ to some now but it was a massive technological leap forwards on so many levels, and more or less the first truly independent production on British television. Plus I really like Peter Hazel The Postman’s song and it’s in that about seven times.
Monty Python: Is it funny?
Yes. In fact Series Two, Show Four – the one with the Architect Sketch and all the apologies – was very nearly my Single Greatest Piece Of Television Ever. Saying ‘it’s not funny’ as opposed to ‘it’s not for me and here is why’ is just attention-seeking and should be dismissed as such.
What was the last film that you watched?
Forbidden Planet, for something approaching the fifteen billionth time. I never get tired of it – made in the mid-fifties with the most primitive special effects imaginable, and it still looks amazing. More atmospheric than a lot of films with any amount of CGI thrown at them ever manage to be. The most recent ‘new’ films I particularly enjoyed were La La Land and Jackie. It was a bit dispiriting to see so many people scoffing at the former because of the ‘hype’; sometimes things are hyped up because they’re actually that good.
What film could you watch every day?
The Italian Job. The original one, obviously. When something’s got comic timing that good and that fast, it becomes like waiting for your favourite bit of a song – the more you watch it, the more you love it.
What’s your favourite film soundtrack?
Does Head count? If not, Bedazzled.
Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?
Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones in Ghostbusters 2. And I’d make every last blowhard who moaned about the first having a female cast watch it.
Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?
There’s a TV show I’m not dramatically keen on, but the last time I mentioned it one of the stars snapped at me on Twitter. So in a bit of a twist I’d say a couple of recent TV documentaries based on cultural history books I’ve thought were fantastic, but which haven’t really ‘worked’ when someone’s tried to condense them into an hour or two of telly.
Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?
The first Tin Machine album. It’s amazing how many people actually quite like it when they actually hear it.
Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?
A copy of The Best Of The Goon Shows that belonged to my father as a teenager.
Which book would you save if your house was on fire?
The Ben Baker Dirty Sketchbook, which is a collection of scripts and gags that my occasional collaborator Ben put together as a gift for people who’d worked on his radio show. I think there are only about nine or ten copies out there and it means a lot to me. So, not a particularly exotic or exciting answer, but it’s the truth!
What’s your definition of what makes something cult?
Anything that makes its followers keen to spread the enthusiasm to others. Inspiring them towards fighting over who is the best at liking it or towards stats-for-stats’-sake dullness is not the same thing.
What are you reading at present?
Just coming to the end of Peter Davison’s autobiography and about to start Moranifesto. Also got the Misty comic anthology on the go. I hardly ever got to read that as a youngster due to silly notions about it being ‘for girls’, so I’m really happy to see it resurfacing.
You’ve turned your lifelong interest in archive television and British pop music into a career as a writer, researcher and commentator. When did this become a vocation?
When I started a paper and ink fanzine called Paintbox – named jointly after a Pink Floyd B-side and a video effect system that the BBC had gone crazy for in the mid-eighties – that took an in-depth cultural history-style look at ‘throwaway’ films, television and pop music. I was a regular reader of The Beastie Boys’ magazine Grand Royal, but it annoyed me a bit that they only ever gave that sort of coverage to acceptably ‘cool’ American things, and I felt inspired to provide an alternative. It really did go a bit mad for a bit, and I remember buying a hundred stamps and envelopes a week at one point. Print fanzines were on the way out by then, of course, but that was also when I discovered the Internet and got involved with the nostalgia website TV Cream, which was a huge turning point. Not just in terms of profile but in learning how to target and promote material effectively, how to sneak jokes and references in under the radar and so on.
So what have you written so far?
All kinds of things all over the place, frankly, but I’ve recently been collecting some of that into self-published anthologies; there are three so far and I’m currently looking into a fourth. I’ve also written Fun At One, which is a history of comedy shows on BBC Radio 1; Higher Than The Sun, which is the story of how Creation Records came to release four highly acclaimed ‘indie’ albums in the same month in 1991 and which almost conquered the mainstream just before Britpop did; and Top Of The Box, which is a guide to every single released by BBC Records And Tapes. They didn’t half put out some ridiculous items.
Who has inspired you over the years?
Anyone whose writing has inspired me to do more writing myself, really. So off the top of my head Andrew Pixley, Richard Herring, Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, David Quantick, Simon Reynolds, Bob Stanley, Mary Beard, Dominic Sandbrook, Mark Kermode, Caitlin Moran, and above all the rest of the TV Cream mob.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
There’s always something new to know about any subject.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?
A guy called John Connors who probably very few of you will have heard of. He edited a fairly major Doctor Who fanzine that had to broaden its horizons when Doctor Who wasn’t being made any more, and he was really enthusiastic about my writing at a point when nobody else was interested. He encouraged my outlandish ideas for articles while still being happy to say no to the more arcane ones, and without him I wouldn’t be filling out this questionnaire today. Simple as that.
Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?
I think the goalposts have moved now, in the age of social media. It’s not a case of having to ‘meet’ people any more and it’s easy to end up feeling let down by someone you admire when confronted with their personal views. I say this in full awareness that a good percentage of my audience are likely to be attracted by the ‘good old days’ angle and probably don’t much care for some of my standpoints.
We are at a bar, what are you drinking?
Macallan 50. Or, if raining, Dr. Pepper.
What do you do to chill out?
Listen to old radio shows on big headphones. I’m particularly fond of Paul Temple, and any fifties BBC sci-fi serial, as well as the more obvious comedy shows.
Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?
I’m quite proud of the fact that I’ve helped to recover a lot of ‘unimportant’ lost radio and television shows; like the first series of the early Stephen Fry vehicle Delve Special, for example, and a number of episodes of the late seventies BBC children’s show How Do You Do!. I’m aware there are some who would scoff at that, but to me this sort of material is important precisely because of its lack of ‘importance’; you can learn a lot more about the socio-cultural atmosphere of the time from mundane and throwaway popular culture than from the accepted ‘landmarks’, and also not many other people are really looking for any of it. There are copies of this material out there, though, on what are rapidly heading towards becoming obsolete formats, so in some ways it’s a more significant pursuit than people might assume.
What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?
Sticking up for something that I feel has been ignored or ‘bullied’. I had enormous fun writing a series of articles even-handedly defending the eighties Doctor Who story Time And The Rani, which I enjoyed at the time and still fail to see that much wrong with.
What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?
In a way Higher Than The Sun was the most rewarding book, even though I knew from the outset it had fairly limited appeal. It was a chance to give a history of something that had been a huge event for me but which is barely even acknowledge now. I’m also very fond of an article I wrote about an entirely forgotten seventies action series called Skiboy, which I’d love to see in full. And, for very different reasons, a piece I wrote in reaction to the murder of Jo Cox.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m currently working on a follow-up to Top Of The Box looking at the albums released by BBC Records And Tapes. It’ll be a lot longer as there are a lot more of them, and only fifty four million of them are birdsong albums. I’ve also recently relaunched my ‘nostalgia for the stuff nobody else remembers’ podcast Looks Unfamiliar, which I’m pleased to say seems to be going down very well.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.