Thursday, 26 October 2017

DANCE YOUR CARES AWAY, WORRY’S FOR ANOTHER DAY


The future of television once lived on my doorstep. In the pre-internet, pre-digital days of the 1980s, Television South (TVS), the local ITV company for the south and south east of England, based in Southampton, the next city along from me, made programmes that were shown across the UK and the world, owned two TV studios in the UK - with a third in Hollywood owned with CBS - and owned MTM Enterprises, makers of “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Newhart.” Note the past tense – TVS had the kind of ambition that created its own obstacles to overcome, but before they tripped themselves up, they were captivating to watch.

Franchises to run ITV companies in the UK were once run like a beauty contest – with each review, your company could take over a licence if you could prove you could provide a better service. In 1980, a group of TV producers thought they had better ideas for programmes than the existing Southern Television, which had a track record in children’s programmes, opera and local news, but were otherwise safe and conservative, and owned by companies based elsewhere, in London and Scotland. TVS expected a “shotgun marriage” with Southern (as had happened with Thames Television in London), but won an outright victory - Southern felt they did not need to provide enough detail on their re-application, until they were asked to do it again.


What could have been an independent company became a fully-fledged TV station, buying and building its own studios, selling ad space, and making deals. When there was no space at the same decision-making table as the major ITV companies – Thames, Yorkshire, Granada (north-west England, Central, and London Weekend Television (LWT) – TVS signed a deal with LWT to gain access to their space, putting game shows like “Catch Phrase” (from 1986, and still going) onto screens. Drama series like “C.A.T.S. Eyes” and “The Ruth Rendell Mysteries” were also shown, but they also had form with children’s programmes like “Number 73,” “Art Attack” and “How 2.”


TVS had some firsts – an episode of the 1982 science series “The Real World” became the first TV programme to be shown in 3D, using glasses given away with the “TV Times,” and Hayao Miyazaki’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” became the first Japanese animated feature film to be shown on British television, and in the south of England only. TVS also owned the UK’s first TV news helicopter, and made the wraparound live-action scenes for The Jim Henson Company’s “Fraggle Rock,” using a converted cinema in Gillingham, Kent.


However, with so much money coming in from advertising – the south of England was more likely to watch the BBC, so TVS instead pioneered selling UK TV ad space based on the types of people watching - and fewer opportunities to make bigger programmes in the UK, TVS started to look around. We nearly had a situation where a Southampton-based TV company owned either the film division of Thorn EMI, or even the biggest TV station in France, TF1. Instead, MTM Enterprises and other American companies were bought, in anticipation of the revenue from selling programmes worldwide, and TVS became a conglomerate named TVS Entertainment. On screen, they were TVS Television – “Television South Television” – underlining that it was no longer just about the south.

This growth happened just after the “Black Monday” stock market crash of 1987, and ahead of the global recession of the early 1990s. Not making enough money from selling programmes as they had hoped, Job losses followed, and the companies they bought were being sized up for sale again.

In 1991, it was the turn of TVS to defend its own ITV franchise. This time, instead of only relying on your track record, or future plans, the Government had introduced a blind bidding process. TVS won the programming round, but they bid £59 million – an amount they would have to pay each year. They won this round too, but they lost their franchise, their business plan having been judged to be unsustainable - they bid more than they could realistically pay. The company that won, Meridian, bid £36 million – now, with the internet and digital TV turning the system upside down, each ITV region pays a token £10,000 each per year.

What remains of TVS is hazy memories, and hazy video recordings posted to YouTube. TVS was bought by IFE, a company owned by the fundamentalist Christian preacher Pat Robertson, launching The Family Channel using the TVS library – this later became the game show channel Challenge, helped out by the repeat showings of “Catch Phrase.” As IFE was bought, TVS was passed through 20th Century Fox, Saban International (the “Power Rangers” people), and its library is now owned by The Walt Disney Company. Reportedly, the paperwork for the programmes has been mislaid, meaning it is impossible to show them, meaning a whole period of UK TV history is out of reach, for now. The situation may change one day but, for now, I’ll keep with what I have.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

I’LL PICK A ROSE FOR MY ROSE


A weekend trip to a home furnishing shop led to my gazing at a display of artificial flowers – yes, you can now find fake horse chestnut branches, free of bleeding cankers, with spiky capsules and all. However, looking at the limited selection of roses, I thought to myself, “if you can’t make real blue roses, how come you can’t buy a fake one?”

Blue roses, something never found in nature, are desirable precisely because they are unattainable: in Chinese folklore, the idea of them are used to signify unrequited love, while in the western world, mystery, the impossible, and quests for the impossible are often highlighted by the flower. These ideas were formed at a time when the colour blue itself was very expensive, formed using cobalt or lapis lazuli, and featuring rarely until synthetic dyes were introduced in the 19th century. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Blue Roses” depicts a man’s “idle quest” across the world to find the roses his love truly wants, despite being able to freely pick red and white ones – when he finally returns, she has died: “It may be beyond the grave / She shall find what she would have.”


So, if you have bought a blue rose, it will have been a white rose dyed blue, unless you have come across “Applause,” a rose cultivated after twenty years of research between the Australian company Florigene, and Suntory, its Japanese parent company, more of which later. It appears to be as “blue” as a blue greyhound – it is actually more lilac in appearance, and the research on producing a bluer rose is ongoing. In the meantime, “Applause” is on general sale as a luxury item, particularly geared towards a Japan, where “Ikebana,” its tradition of flower arranging, is taught in schools.

The strangest aspect of this rose is the presence of Suntory, as its company in the UK is known as Lucozade Ribena Suntory – in January 2014, it bought the drinks division of GlaxoSmithKline, minus Horlicks, which the British pharmaceutical company opted to keep. Suntory began as the name of a whisky, but now own brands such as Jim Beam, Teacher’s whisky, Courvoisier brandy, and Orangina. Suntory owns the vineyard Château Lagrange, in Bordeaux, where a high percentage of the grapes planet are cabernet sauvignon – delphinidin, the blue pigment in this type of grape, was transferred to “Applause.” Meanwhile, Suntory’s business as the exclusive Japanese bottler and distributor for Pepsi has made its way into the anime version of the manga series “Tiger & Bunny,” where its superhero characters receive on-screen sponsorship by real-life companies –  the character sponsored by Pepsi is named “Blue Rose,” which I have concluded is a happy accident.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

FEEL THE POWER OF THE RAIN KEEPING ME COOL


There are more than enough reasons to have a sense of burning injustice, and while there are bigger reasons than this one to feel something extremely unfair has happened, I am surprised I had not come across this one until now.

With the recent fiftieth anniversary of the start of BBC Radio 1, there are few people left who don’t know that The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain” was the first song played on the station, after a jingle, the theme for Tony Blackburn’s breakfast show (“Beefeaters” by John Dankworth), and the sound effect of Arnold the dog.


As told in the radio documentary “The Story of Flowers in the Rain,” which I heard last week – Tony Blackburn narrates the programme sounding completely unlike his DJ persona - the thunderclaps at the start of the song led Blackburn to choose it as the first record to play, while the lush musical arrangements, adding a pastoral setting to the song, were made by co-producer and violinist Tony Visconti, most famous for his run of albums he produced with David Bowie.

However, only two weeks after Blackburn’s first playing of the song, which had reached number 2 in the charts, The Move were in court, convicted of libelling the Prime Minister, and having all royalties for the song removed from them in perpetuity, never to see a penny from it.

I was shocked. Importantly, this wasn’t the fault of The Move itself, but rather that of Tony Secunda, their manager at the time. Secunda was fond of publicity stunts, including an event at Birmingham Fire Station to promote the band’s later single “Fire Brigade,” while sending out blackberry pie and champagne for “Blackberry Way.” For “Flowers in the Rain,” five hundred promotional postcards were printed, which decided to make use of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, “in flagrante delicto” with his secretary at the time, in order to make a point of comparison…


Wilson sued The Move for libel or, to be more accurate, he sued the band, Secunda, the record label, the illustrator of the postcard, the third party that arranged the printing of the postcards, and the printer. The Labour PM was represented in court by the Conservative MP and barrister Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, who successfully argued that Wilson had been subjected to a “violent and malicious personal attack.”



Finding in favour of Wilson, the postcard had a perpetual injunction placed on it – technically, this is still in place, so I can’t really show or describe it properly, although it is not beyond the ability of anyone to find an example of it – and all royalties for “Flowers in the Rain” and the B side, “Lemon Tree,” would be distributed to charities of Wilson’s choosing. These initially included Stoke Mandeville Hospital, birthplace of the Paralympics, and The Spastics Society, now renamed Scope – the latter charity had recently lost out on thousands of pounds due to a government tax change affecting a football pools it had been running. In later years, the British Film Institute, art galleries, the Variety Club, Bolton Lads Club and the St. Mary’s Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild have been among the beneficiaries.
Roy Wood with Nancy Sinatra, who
recorded a cover of "Flowers in the Rain"


I still couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Later, I found the documentary to which I had been listening had actually been for the fortieth anniversary of Radio 1, in 2007, but if the BBC were happy to have played it again, it must have meant the situation had not changed – in 1995, The Move’s lead singer, Roy Wood, took the Harold Wilson Charitable trust to court to reroute the still incoming royalties to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, but was told the original agreement could not be altered. It is unsurprising that Wood considered The Move to have received “a longer sentence than the Great Train Robbers.”

Wood was not interviewed directly for the documentary, but fellow Move band members Bev Bevan and Trevor Burwood were, and it felt that they had chalked up the whole affair as a bad experience, and moved on. Wood, as the songwriter, would understandably be less sanguine about it. Yes, most of the band had barely entered their twenties in 1967, but it was an action of their manager that caused the court case, leading to Tony Secunda’s firing by the band, which itself broke up soon after.

Wood and Bevan founded the Electric Light Orchestra, with Roy Wood later leaving to set up Wizzard, then become a solo act, while Secunda later managed T-Rex, Motörhead and The Pretenders, among others. English defamation laws were reformed in 2013, but only applies to cases from the start of 2014.

I still don’t know what to make of this, apart from feeling that this shouldn’t ever have happened – I have seen the postcard, and while it is attempting satire, its purpose as an advertisement for a record is almost in the background. Knowing none of The Move receive anything for any time I hear “Flowers in the Rain” make me want to avoid ever hearing it again, but Van Morrison still performs “Brown Eyed Girl” despite a similar situation existing for him, although his relates to the contract he signed at the time. I can only guess that, if everyone has found their way of dealing with it, and have moved on, then there is nothing more I can say.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

JUST A DREAM AND THE WIND TO CARRY ME


On 18th January 1994, the ocean liner SS American Star ran aground at Playa De Garcey, a remote, rocky beach at Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands. The ship, and the tug boat towing it, were caught in a hurricane, breaking the tow-lines, the crew on the ship later rescued by helicopter. It was hoped that the ship could be re-floated until, a48 hours later, the strong current broke the hull in half – six months later, the ship was declared a total loss. Becoming a popular spectacle for both sightseers and looters, the wreck of the American Star finally collapsed beneath the waves in 2013 – you can still see parts of it at low tide, but not on Google Maps.

The golden age of transatlantic travel between Europe and America spanned fifty years to the early 1960s – with planes reducing commuter trips from days to hours, cruising became the market for the remaining ships, and for the passengers that did not worry about time. Now, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the only liner built to withstand Atlantic crossings, but is still a cruiser for the majority of the year. Its cabins are much larger than the box-rooms that even first-class passengers had on the original Queen Mary but, when that liner was in service, it was not a destination in itself, at least in the way cruise liners are today. When the city of Long Beach, California, bought the Queen Mary in 1967, turning it into a tourist attraction and hotel itself, and many other plans that have been and gone, it has become an ongoing race to repair the ship - estimates produced by the city in 2017 put the cost at $300 million.


Capitalising on the nostalgia for liners like the Queen Mary, the American Star, launched in 1939 by Eleanor Roosevelt as SS America, was being towed to Thailand where, as one of the few liners of its vintage left, it was to have become a five-star floating hotel. As the flag-carrying official liner for the United States, it wore the flag, its name and stated country of origin across its sides once the Second World War began, warning prospective bombers that it was not involved in the war – once Pearl Harbor was hit, it was refitted as the troop carrier USS West Point, returning to civil life in 1947.


By 1964, SS America was out of time as a transatlantic liner. Holding only a thousand passengers and, at 723 feet, a hundred feet shorter than RMS Titanic, and three hundred less than the Queen Mary, its bigger sister ship, SS United States, took over its routes. Bought by the Greek shipping company Chandris Line, it was refitted as the Australis, a very popular cruise ship able to take over two thousand emigrating “Ten Pound Poms,” and occasionally other cruising tourists, on a two-week voyage between Southampton and Australia, via Rotterdam and Cape Town, before stopping off in Panama and Miami on the trip back to the UK. The two funnels of the Australis, in blue with the Chandris X emblazoned across it, are still seen on the ships of Chandris’ spin-off successor company Celebrity Cruises, although the front funnel of Australis, a dummy funnel used as both storage and to enchance the look of the ship, was found by one trespassing passenger, so the story goes, to have been storing potatoes.



Sold back to the United States in 1978 for an ill-fated voyage under its old “America” name – the new owners had done such a bad job refitting the ship, the US Public Health Service had given it a score of 6 out of 100 after it was impounded – Chandris bought it back for half the cost they sold it for, and ran it as the Italis for a few more cruises, cutting away the front funnel ahead of a refit that never happened. It later was left in port in Greece under new owners, renamed Noga, then Alferdoss, waiting to be rescued or broken up – the listing caused by a burst bilge pipe in 1986 was solved by cutting the left anchor, and dropping the right one. Finally, in 1994, the ship set sail for its final destination, although its final use was slightly different than intended.

If the American Star had arrived at Thailand, it is quite possible that its owners could be in the same costly predicament as Long Beach is with the Queen Mary. The Queen Elizabeth 2 arrived in Dubai in 2008, and has remained laid up ever since, although its owners have no plans to scrap it. There were calls for the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to be bought and preserved in Portsmouth Harbour, alongside the unique ships Mary Rose, HMS Victory and HMS Warrior, but its sad trip to the scrapyard was quickly replaced by celebration when its replacement, HMS Queen Elizabeth, arrived in port. Nostalgia can be an expensive business, and if new uses can be found, while being able to pay for itself, that is fine. Ironically, the most glamorous of the American liners is now most famous as a wreck, making nostalgia for it far more vibrant than it could have ever been as a floating hotel.