Looks Unfamiliar #8: Jem Roberts - ET Is A Definite Thing

Looks Unfamiliar 8 - Jem Roberts

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim this time is comedy historian and storyteller Jem Roberts, who shares his widely-challenged recollections of an advert reuniting Neil and Vyvyan from The Young Ones, ZX Spectrum game Dizzy and its many close relatives, short-lived rave-goes-Charleston sensation Doop by Doop, budget maize snack Wheelz, powdered drink from outer space Alien Juice, and the dim and distant days of Wet Wet Wet Actually Being Any Good. Along the way we'll be finding out the best techniques for constructing a 'sandwich car', learning how not to confuse ET with a gardener, and wondering who smoked 'Rococan' and if they were able to still form sentences afterwards.

Find out more about Jem's fantastic Tales Of Britain project at www.talesofbritain.com.


Looks Unfamiliar is hosted by Podnose.

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You've Got To Fight For What You Want

It’s unusual for a television series to find popularity in two different decades, though some have managed it through judiciously-placed repeats. Finding popularity in two different genres, though, is an entirely different matter, and should be logistically impossible. Yet that’s exactly what happened to The Flashing Blade. So how did the swashbuckling exploits of a French swordsman have audiences on the edge of their seats one minute and falling about with laughter the next? It’s all down to the redubbing. Two different sets of redubbing, in fact.

The Flashing Blade was originally known as Le Chevailer TempĂȘte, a children’s adventure serial filmed early in 1967 as a co-production between Pathe Cinema and the French television company ORTF, with international funding coming from Switzerland and Canada. Written by Andre-Paul Antoine and Pierre-Aristide Breal, and stylishly directed by Yannick Andrei, the storyline was set in 17th century France but, unusually for a serial of this nature, was not actually based on genuine historical events.

The action takes place in 1630, around the besieged Fort Casal on the Savoie Border between the warring France and Spain. The liberation of the castle is the key to the intended truce, and there are those within the opposing ranks – most notably the devious Don Alonso – who will do anything in their power to prevent the agreement from taking place. Unfortunately for them, the French have assigned this mission to dashing young spy Francois, Chevalier de Recci and his loyal servant Guillot, a wisecracking pair who seem to get as much of a thrill from corny jokes as they do swordsmanship. Over the course of the serial they mount a number of plots to rescue the castle, adopt many disguises – including a lengthy spell hiding out with a troupe of travelling players – and stage near-constant daring escapes, whilst Francois becomes involved with a young local noblewoman, Isabelle de Sospel.

The popular costume drama actor Robert Etcheverry took the part of Francois, with Jacques Balutin as Guillot, Mario Pilar as Don Alonso, Genevieve Casile as Isabelle, Jean Martinelli as the Duke de Sospel and Denise Gray as the Comtesse. None of the cast were well known outside of France, despite a considerable list of starring roles on film and television between them – although in an amusing quirk, Balutin later ended up redubbing Paul Michael Glasier’s dialogue for the French language transmissions of Starsky And Hutch.

Le Chevailer Tempete was shown by ORTF in four seventy-five minute episodes in October 1967. The series attracted acclaim for its stylish direction and colourful cinematography - noticeably similar to the style adopted by many historically-based European feature films of the day, not to mention such British efforts as Masque Of The Red Death and Witchfinder General - as well as for scripts that skillfully combined lengthy action set-pieces with comic interludes – the latter perhaps best exemplified by the dashing duo’s attempts to pose as actors. As was common practice at the time, the serial was subsequently offered for adaptation by overseas broadcasters, and the BBC bought the rights during 1968 for transmission in Spring 1969. The four episodes were cut down by into twelve twenty-five-minute instalments, with the adaptation and redubbing overseen by Peggy Miller, who performed similar duties on a number of imported series. Indeed this was common practice for all imported children’s serials, subjected to changes that went anywhere from re-editing to entire rewrites, leading to the credit 'BBC Presentation By …' becoming a familiar sight. While the closing titles of the BBC version also revealed the new soundtrack was recorded at the famous De Lane Lea studios, a venue incongruously favoured by the big progressive rock acts of the day, the identity of the actors performing the English language dialogue was not revealed and remains something of a mystery to this day.

Although the new version of the serial ran to a dozen episodes, most UK viewers have only ever seen eleven of them, as the dubbed print of episode twelve suffered from a technical fault which caused a loss of vision partway through. The BBC attempted to show the episode on a couple of early runs of the series, and indeed once managed to air virtually the entire twenty five minutes with only a slight interruption, but still ran into the same problems each time. As a result, and no doubt to the frustration of those who had followed the long serial over numerous weeks, the final edition was never properly shown, although in response to viewer requests, the conclusion was later featured in the BBC children's clip show Ask Aspel. Fortunately for the BBC, episode eleven acted as an acceptable ending in its own right, with the truce signed, the Castle liberated, and Francois finally seeing off Don Alonso in an epic sword fight. Apart from confirming the wounded Guillot survived the climactic battle, episode twelve had little to do with the story proper, largely set a year after the events of the previous instalment and recounting a very slow reunion between Francoise and Isabelle. As most later showings were simply truncated to eleven, without much really being lost in the way of the storyline, it’s quite possible that many viewers never even noticed.

While Francois could stop a war virtually single-handed, it seems even the miracles of modern technology cannot resolve the same technical fault that first sent BBC1 haywire almost fifty years ago. On a DVD release of the complete English language version of The Flashing Blade, the twelfth episode has been replaced by an appropriate subtitled edit of the original French language version, complete with the original credits and theme music. This may have come as something of a surprise to erstwhile followers of the series, as The Flashing Blade is as well remembered in the UK for its dramatic galloping theme song as it is the swashbuckling exploits of the Chevailer de Recci, or indeed for technical breakdowns at the worst possible moment. Composed by Alex Masters, the theme was popular enough to be released as a single by Phillips, retitled Fight and credited to The Musketeers. Although it stopped some way short of the top forty, the single has subsequently become much sought-after by soundtrack collectors; sadly, the intriguing-sounding b-side Magnifico is in fact a rather ordinary love song that sounds more like a football team’s musical exploits than its more compelling a-side, despite clearly being recorded in the same session.

The adventures of Francois and Guillot would later find an altogether different notoriety when The Flashing Blade was cut up into five-minute segments and comically redubbed for the BBC1 Saturday morning show On The Waterfront in 1988. Written by producer Russell T Davies and voiced by the show’s cast with impressionist John Culshaw, the redubbings were initially very funny and quickly won a cult following – Don Alonso’s grim examination of a local map, for example, was turned into a weather report, and each instalment ended with the assembled cast shouting “Shut up!!” after the first couple of bars of the theme song. Inevitably inspiration soon ran dry – one later instalment consisted of little more than Isabelle singing an interminable song about how “she likes to stitch and sew her clothes” – but all the same it is fondly remembered to this day. In fact, it’s not too great a leap of the imagination to suggest the arrival on BBC2 the following year of The Staggering Stories Of Ferdinand De Bargos – which did much the same thing with genuine historical footage – owed more than a little to this idiosyncratic re-interpretation of The Flashing Blade.

The On The Waterfront inserts proved sufficiently popular to warrant a full (well, apart from episode twelve) re-run of The Flashing Blade in its proper form the following year, the last time to date that it has been shown on terrestrial television. It’s interesting to ponder on the fact none of the things it is best remembered for – the theme song, the redubbed send-up and the notorious technical fault – were ever part of Le Chevalier Tempete, and while two of these may not have been quite in line with what Peggy Miller and company intended for the serial, it does show that there was a lot more to 'BBC Presentation By …' than a simple vanity credit. This and so many other series bought in during the sixties and seventies were to a large extent shaped into almost new programmes, often near unrecognisable from their original form. Then again, few could deny that the straightforward thrill of all those seemingly endless sword fights on staircases had a lot to do with the appeal of The Flashing Blade too.

This is adapted from an article featured in my book Well At Least It's Free. You can get Well At Least It's Free in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

There's So Much More In TV Times Part 13: Anybody Seen A Tea-Stained Cardigan?

If you've been following this series of cuttings from old issues of TV Times, then you're probably of the opinion that it's already got pretty odd at times. We've seen plenty that's best described as inadvisable, inappropriate, or just plain inexplicable. And that's just Tivvy. Every so often though, you'll stumble across something so baffling and beyond explanation that it causes you to double-take. No amount of reading and re-reading will bring you any nearer comprehension, and you do have to start wondering if poor old Brucie and his oversized comedy chef's hat had stumbled across some 'leftovers' in a scowling hippy's damp-sodden kitchen. If you can figure out what was actually going on with any of the below, you're doing better than us...

Before television actually started broadcasting overnight, there were persistent playground rumours of 'Secret Television', with scarcely credible reports of adverts running backwards at high speed and Jon Pertwee being menaced by Kronos The Kronivore in black and white suddenly leaping terrifyingly out of nowhere in the deepest darkest recesses of the small hours where even The Open University feared to tread. The obvious and logical explanation was that it was just the 'backroom boys' testing equipment with a bit of it escaping onto the transmitters whether by accident or design, but the idea that there was some hidden McDonald's Menu Hack-style unlisted schedule on the other side of the IBA Colour Bars that the likes of you were not allowed to see on pain of retribution from 'Girl' and 'Clown' was too tantalising a possibility to discount. So you covertly waited up. And never saw anything ever. Here's proof that it actually did happen, though what's really interesting is the editor's disturbingly over-robust 'Sincerely - Little Girl'-style response making it clear that you should all move on and that there was nothing more to see here. Which more or less rubber-stamps the idea that they were clandestinely putting out Sunday Night At The London Palladium - Too Hot For TV and 100% All-Nude Her Off Of Weavers Green Uncensored at two in the morning after all.

In case you thought you had simply, erm, hallucinated unexpected middle-of-the-night television, then here's some stark and sensible advice on the subject of illegal substances from those noted experts at TV Times. In summary, dangerous drug marijuana is smuggled into the country by a 'drug-ring' straight out of Paul Temple, is distributed by 'negroes', and partaken in by sneering snickering teenagers who would do well to jolly well listen to those influential hep cats at the British Medical Association. And it's all down to 'jazz', according to this article from the week of release of Rubber Soul. Anyway, kids - remember the important rules. One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that Brucie makes out of 'leftovers' don't do anything at all.

Meanwhile, if you're a teenager confused by this 'dating' lark, and are full of questions about how many hours beforehand you should brush your teeth and how many square feet away from the door it's appropriate to 'walk' her to and which blouses offer the sturdiest defence against 'wandering' hands, who would you look to for advice? Yes, that's right, sixtysomething naval racounteur and confirmed 'funny he never married' type Godfrey Winn. After visiting a 'jive session' and speaking to some seamen, Godfrey solicits the opinion of a handful of teenagers who, well, y'know, can take it or leave it really but it's nice to have the option to do a bit of 'necking' if you get bored during Bunny Lake Is Missing etc etc. Quite how many lovelorn teenagers took his advice to heart is sadly not recorded, though presumably a princess looking for a prince found it useful. A reference that about two and a half people will get. Moving on...

As the snow began to fall/or was it a pigeon on the aer-i-alllll? No, it's a handful of MPs having an 'hilarious' - i.e. 'not' - debate about whether homing pigeons might get confused by television aerials despite there being absolutely nothing they could possibly concievably do about either factor in the equation, a bit like that episode of Trumpton only boring and with no jokes. Still, better that than "what about disability benefits?" - "tut tut your tie is not done in Christensen knot on St. Biliwick's Day you scruffy ruffian", "For the many, but after I've finished enabling Hard Brexit and forcing my party to wave through the pissing bastarding Investigatory Powers Bill eh?", and "me party is making significant gains that we have not seened the likes of since me best selling album Brothers In Arms come out".

Never mind all those press reports about Mark-Paul Gosselaar signing up for the first passenger flight to Neptune or whatever it is, here's TV Times arranging an exchange visit to 'space' back in 1964! With the aid of Bachelors, two lucky winners who manage to correctly guess the contents of a sort of low rent equivalent of that 'golden disc' Carl Sagan sent into space with an episode of Captain Butler on it or something get to go to 'Mars' and 'Venus' - both of which, in true Doctor Who And The Invasion Of The Dinosaurs fashion, appear to look suspiciously like France. In return, two old-skool take-me-to-your-leader-mister-parking-meter Martians get to visit Blackpool, with a trip to the illuminations - that year featuring tableaus of The Voord, Ian And The Zodiacs and 633 Squadron - very much on the agenda. Chances are that they spent twenty minutes in a long queue crawling past occasional street lamps with two or three bulbs on them and then gave up and went back to Viltvodle VI.

You may well think that some obscure television programmes get covered on here, but even poor old Skiboy has nothing on The Hathaways, a sitcom about a family bringing up three chimps - played by Charlie, Candy and 'Enoch' - which has been so deservedly forgotten that until recently there was not a single mention of it on the entire Internet. Here's proof positive that it existed in all its revoltingly exploitative glory, though, with a profile of the three 'stars' who were apparently no strangers to ITV variety shows. Honestly, you might well scoff at Martin Clunes Meets The Sealions or whatever they put on in primetime instead of actual proper programmes now, but at least they're sodding nice to the animals. And to Martin Clunes.

One peculiar recurring feature in the letters pages in the mid-sixties was 'Pot Shot', wherein readers were invited to assemble kitchen utensils into a rough Stainless Steel And The Star Spies-esque approximation of a leading television celebrity. Here you can see one E. Teskey-King's take on Ken Dodd, who was no doubt 'tickled' by it. Hmm, wonder which other wholesome and well-loved small-screen stars also received the honour?


This would never happen now, of course. Nobody cares enough about writers to ask them to advertise anything.

A: No. Though if it does, please send Atlanta round to see me.

TV Times reporter Victor Edwards drops in on the production office of short-lived Anglia soap opera Weavers Green, set in a small rural community and featuring a young Kate O'Mara as a student vet. Here we can clearly see the sort of thrilling, contemporary, Mary Whitehouse-enraging storylines they traded in. Though apparently that one where a knight appeared on the village green and started rotating very slowly was a belter.

Get the TV Comic Holiday Special for forty eight pages of sitting eating fish and chips on a sort of kerb adjacent to the beach fun, thrills and puzzles with Supercar, Fireball XL5, Popeye, The Telegoons, and some sort of resigned-looking melting bespectacled cat with a propeller hat on. Or alternatively chase a walking Salt'n'Shake bag with a 'showbiz' straw hat on into a sort of newspaper-hued void. Or, failing that, join us again next time, when we'll be rocketing forward to The Eighties. The decade of Thatcher! Citrus Spring! And the 'Wacbada'...

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more slightly more serious writing about fifties and sixties television in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.