TV & Radio

Star Caff - (BBC 1958)

original Radio Times illustration

In 1958 Hancock fever was at its height and it seemed the lad 'imself could do no wrong. With Hancock's Half Hour a success on both radio and television, Hancock was given leeway by the BBC to experiment with formats for a number of new shows. A chance meeting with astronomer celebré Patrick Moore left Hancock with a lasting fascination for all things other-worldly and soon he was telling people that his next project would be "a study of mankind's foibles from a lunar perspective". This cryptic remark eventually became a radio pilot for a sitcom called Star Caff.

Written by Galton and Simpson, Star Caff was set in the year 2020 and starred Hancock as Reg Zimmerman, proprietor of the Lonely Crater café on the moon's surface ("It's easy to find - aim for the sun and left a bit") - a dreary port of call for all manner of cargo ships, space pirates, aliens, tourists and explorers. Imagine Babylon 5 crossed with the early, more surreal episodes of Hancock's Half Hour and you'll be somewhere near the mark. In the pilot Hancock prepares for the arrival of some visiting dignitaries from Andromeda, cooking a fabulous meal and re-decorating the café at great expense, only to discover that the Andromedans are, in his words, "dead rough" (in fact they talk like Cockneys!). Not only do they fail to notice the trouble he's gone to, but they tramp "galactic mud" all over his newly polished floor.

Kenneth Williams appears in the pilot as the Chief Andromedan. In the unexpurgated edition of his diaries he notes "Did a jolly new show with Hancock today, a kind of science-fiction thing. V imaginative but can't really see it taking off with Joe Public." The pilot was broadcast around Christmas 1958 but the option of a series was never taken up. It seems Williams was right.

Drowning Bill - Bill Godley (BBC 1970-1972)

Dr Lunghead

The current fad for 'dark' comedy is nothing new, of course. In the early seventies Bill Godley made a TV series that made people shudder with revulsion as much as it made them laugh.

Drowning Bill was a sketch show shown late at night on BBC 2 that lasted for two series. Each week, the programme started with Godley apparently drowning (in increasingly unlikely scenarios - one week he fell off a yacht, by the end of the second series he was being spat on by giant ostriches). As he slipped beneath the water he would curse his luck and fantasise about all the things he could have done with his life. These musings would form the subject matter of the sketches that followed.

In one sketch he played a waiter with iron teeth who bites off his fianceé's fingers when he kisses her hand. In another he played a surgeon specialising in lung-transplants who gradually replaces every one of his own organs (and eventually his head) with a lung. Perhaps the most memorable sketch is the one in which Godley swims through Britain's sewer system in search of his watch, which he has accidentally flushed down the Queen's toilet. This routine occasionally crops up on TV comedy retrospectives.

Not much else of the series is likely to see the light of day, however, as the BBC blew up the master tapes of all twelve episodes in 1978 when an old archive shed was demolished to make room for a car park.

Bill 'n' The Bird (NBC/Childrens' Television Workshop 1968-69)

original TV Guide illustration

When the top-rated secret agent series I Spy was cancelled after a successful four-year run in 1968, NBC were keen to find a new star vehicle for Bill Cosby. At the same time, Muppet creator Jim Henson was pitching ideas for children's shows that were both fun and educational. The result was Bill 'n' The Bird, which teamed Cosby with Big Bird, a human-sized Muppet later to find fame in Sesame Street. The opening episode set the scene for the entire series, with Cosby advertising for a new roommate to share his downtown apartment, and finding that the only person who responded was Big Bird. The two hit it off immediately, but this was no flatsharing sitcom in the style of The Odd Couple. Instead, the series fulfilled its educational remit by having Cosby teach Big Bird about such concepts as shopping, disposing of litter and jaywalking as they went about their daily business.

Introduced by a jazzy theme song composed by Gary Bonner, Bill 'n' The Bird quickly became a popular addition to NBC's Saturday morning schedules. However, it was to be short-lived. Its future was called into question after just six weeks, following the transmission of a controversial episode in which Big Bird received a draft notice to fight in Vietnam. Big Bird thought that if he hid the notice and pretended not to have it, everything would be fine. Although the situation was resolved by Cosby's intervention at the end of the show (fortunately small print explained that "big yellow birds are exempt from military service"), several politicians were concerned that Big Bird was seen to have got away with draft dodging.

NBC disliked the controversy and Bill 'n' The Bird was not recomissioned after its mid-season renewal option. However, the series did well in some European countries, particularly Britain and France, and a couple of episodes have shown up on the collectors' network.

Green's Men - James R. Carter (BBC TV 1956)

screengrab of Green's Men

At last, a long overdue DVD release for James R. Carter's classic 6-part spinetingler from the 1950s. Green's Men is an unnerving tale of betrayal and black magic set in a Home Counties advertising agency. When first broadcast it caused a minor furore with its depiction of pagan worship and ritual sacrifice, eventually leading to questions in Parliament about the suitability of its subject matter.

Naïve graduate Richard Eadie (Richard Todd) begins work as a copywriter at Green's, a slick new advertising agency based in an idyllic country house in Berkshire. But it soon becomes clear that the marketing methods employed by Green's are unorthodox to say the least. After several competitors of Green's major client are found dead, Eadie eventually realises that the advertising copy he is writing for a billboard campaign is actually a series of spells designed to bring about the death of the client's rivals. John Green (Nigel Rodgers), Green's managing director, is later revealed to be the leader of a coven of Satanists, intent on using their power to murder the then Prime Minister Anthony Eden and turn Britain into a Satanic state.

The series was very much a satire on what was seen in the 1950s as the new 'science' of advertising. Fears that advertisers could manipulate the population's thoughts with subliminal imagery and other psychological 'magic tricks' abounded. There is also a rumour that the series was inspired by the true-life account of a commercial artist who was arrested for sacrificing a cockerel in a cinema in Dorset in 1946.

The DVD itself is superbly presented with a number of scenes restored that were deleted from the original live broadcasts.