#BlastfromthePast: Smack the Pony

A comedic DeLorean hop for this week’s #BlastfromthePast this week. In the last two decades, few sketch shows have tickled us quite like Channel 4’s Smack the Pony. Arriving on screens in 1999 – a whole eighteen years ago – and picking up an International Emmy award along the way – Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips gave a silly and at times surreal take on the sketch show format.

Not only was it a ratings and award winner, it also helped launch the careers of the likes of Miranda Hart, Sarah Alexander and Amanda Holden amongst others. Following a well received reunion piece for this year’s Red Nose Day for Comic Relief in March, we’ve gathered together some of our favourite sketches from the show’s original four year run. So here’s to Smack the Pony – a whinnying showcase of British sketch comedy at it’s finest and most eccentric.

WATER BOTTLE WARS

And not since have we been able to look at water cooler tanks in the same way…

SINGING CONTESTS

When you think you sound like Mariah Carey, get upstaged and then feign a papercut rather than admit defeat…

WINDOW CLEANERS WITH BIG…

…well. You’ll see.

THINGS YOU SHOULDN’T TOUCH WHILST BABYSITTING

Mystical weaponry being one of them…

DATING ADS

I really am a byoootiful lay-deh.

YOGURT EATERS

Someone do a Muller advert with Nicole Scherzinger based on this, ad execs of the UK…

PEOPLE WHO LOOK IRISH

They’re everywhere.

AND NOW, A SONG TO CLOSE THIS BLOG POST…

From B*Witched, Shania Twain, Geri Halliwell and Alice Deejay…or is it?

The complete series of Smack the Pony are available to watch on All4.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

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#BlastfromthePast: Aqua

Now here’s a blogging DeLorean hop this weekend that will make certain readers – namely around my age – feel old. Can you believe it’s 20 years to the week that a certain group of Danish Europop legends topped the charts with an ode to the world’s most plastic fantastic doll?

The story of Aqua really begins nine years prior to that breakthrough. Under the name Joyspeed, keyboardist Søren Rasted and guitarist Claus Norreen were working together from 1988, with raspy voiced rapper and DJ René Dif joining and lead singer Lene Nystrom joining before they changed name to the one that stuck for the release of their first single in Sweden in 1994.

However, ‘Itzy Bitsy Spider’ was a resounding flop, spending only one week in the charts. Dropped by their record label and management, they regrouped and beavered away on the sound that would make up their debut album ‘Aquarium’, finally signing with Universal Music Denmark in 1996. Success duly followed with their next single, ‘Roses are Red’, which spent two months in the Danish charts and went platinum.

By the time their third single, the Mattel lawsuit baiting, disco pumping Europop anthem ‘Barbie Girl’ was released, they had been catapaulted to super stardom. After becoming a huge top 10 hit in America, that single went to number one in 13 countries, including the UK, where it spent four weeks at the top, and save for Sir Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ single for Princess Diana, was the biggest selling single in the UK that year.

But anyone convinced they were a one hit wonder in a decade as full of them as the 90s were proved wrong in all respects. With the release of ‘Doctor Jones’ and ‘Turn Back Time’ in January and May 1998 respectively, they joined an elite list of acts to reach the top of the UK charts with their first three singles, with ‘Turn Back Time’ even appearing on the soundtrack to the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors.

Quiet for most of 1999, they returned in the new millennium with their second album ‘Aquarius’. Its lead single ‘Cartoon Heroes‘ was another worldwide top 10 smash, but sales and subsequent singles didn’t hold a candle to the huge success and chart topping positions of their debut three years previously.

After performing as the interval act at the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest in their home country (with short lived drumming dance team Safri Duo, no less), they quietly disbanded, with all the band going off to pursue solo ventures.

However, in 2008, they reunited and released and toured a ‘Greatest Hits’ package to good success, and their third studio album, ‘Meglomania’ was another huge hit in Denmark and Europe in 2011. So with two decades now having passed since ‘Barbie Girl’, here’s to Aqua – the band that put brightly coloured Europop on the map.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#BlastfromthePast: The Worst Witch (1986)

Welcome to a suitably spooky DeLorean ride for Halloween on this week’s #BlastfromthePast. This week, we hop on our broomsticks to 1986, when the then 11 year old Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz, The Craft) took up the role of one of Britain’s best loved witches.

Originally airing on ITV in October of that year, The Worst Witch had started life some ten years before as the first in a series of bestselling novels by popular children’s author Jill Murphy. This feature length adaptation of the first book in the series was to be the first of three TV adaptations – including a long running series in 1998, and now a new version of the show on CBBC and Netflix in 2017 – but arguably, in my view, one of its best.

For those unfamiliar with the series, The Worst Witch follows the misadventures of Mildred Hubble, a witch-in-training at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches (St Michael’s College in Tenbury doubling up as the academy for this adaptation) who means well but frequently gets everything wrong, leading to her being dubbed the worst witch in the entire academy.

Her best friend Maud Warlock is often along for her misadventures, but matters aren’t usually helped by the fact that her frosty form mistress, Miss Hardbroom, is always on her case, as is teacher’s pet and vindictive goody goody, Ethel Hallow. The events of the first book and the 1986 film chronicle Mildred’s first term at the academy, with laughter potions going wrong, pupils being turned into pigs, a broomstick formation display at the Halloween ceremony going spectacularly tits up, and Miss Cackle’s wicked twin sister Agatha, and her coven of cronies, plotting to take over the entire school and turn everyone into toads.

The 1986 version finds Balk in the role of Mildred Hubble, with The Avengers star Diana Rigg in the role of a dramatic and comically camp Miss Hardbroom, whilst Charlotte Rae takes on both Miss Cackle and Agatha, and the Sweet Transvestite himself, Tim Curry, plays the Grand Wizard. 

This adaptation wasn’t met in high regard by Jill Murphy herself, but so many elements to this film make this entertaining and compulsive viewing for me every Halloween, including, but not limited to:

  • The dodgy 80s early CGI/green screen. There’s plenty of it abounding in this version but the flight sequences of the Grand Wizard in particular make him look, as me and my sisters observed, like a sock has been cut and pasted into the scenery.
  • The songs by Don Black and Charles Strouse. Only three of them, admittedly, but the title song, sung with total theatrical abandon by a young Bonnie Langford, and the songs by both Agatha and the Covens’ ‘Queen Aggie’s School’ and the Grand Wizard’s song at the Halloween ceremony are OTT spectacles of the best kind. Especially lyrics in the latter along the lines of ‘Anything can happen on Halloween, your dentist could turn into the Queen’. Quite.
  • The fact it sticks to the plot line of the book. More so than other adaptations, the 1998 series in particular, it doesn’t deviate by having Ethel turned into a pig then a duck before she becomes herself again, or by Mildred getting Maud to help her fight Agatha and her coven.
  • It’s really funny in places. Charlotte Rae’s portrayal of Agatha, and her pairing with bumbling sidekick Delilah (played by Su Elliott) is a hoot. Similarly, Miss Cackle’s niece, the straight talking, trashy but flashy Donna (played by Kate Buckley), looking every inch like she has stepped out of CBGBs, is a hoot and greatly underused. 

But more than anything, I greatly identified with the character of Mildred Hubble. Growing up, as the title song says, isn’t easy, and everyone can identify, through the medium of a fantasy, magical witches’ academy, the themes of being bullied, not being great academically, and just generally trying to find your place in the world with the best of intentions.

The full 1986 film is on YouTube thankfully, and is well worth a watch after a round of trick or treating this weekend. Charmingly shoddy and retro, but bewitching all the same. 

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!


#BlastfromthePast: Radio 1’s Official Chart (The Mark Goodier Years)

This week’s blogging DeLorean hop comes via the recent celebrations that it’s 50 years since the BBC Light Programme on the radio was split into two new stations: Radio 1, for a younger audience and Radio 2 for an older one.

As part of these celebrations, weekend before last saw the broadcast on digital radio and iPlayer of Radio 1 Vintage, three days of retrospective programming covering a wealth of highlights, including original breakfast DJ Tony Blackburn hosting a breakfast show with current Radio 1 host Nick Grimshaw, and Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley reunited for a look back at their Evening Session show.

But of course, no retrospective lineup of Radio 1 would have been complete without a look back at probably it’s most widely recognised show: The Official Chart. Hosted by the show’s current host Greg James, he was joined by the show’s longest serving host of that slot by far – Mark Goodier. Having joined Radio 1 in 1987, on aggregate he spent about 10 years counting backwards from 40-1, but it was from 1995 onwards that he did it full time.

Mark’s reappearance also meant that it allowed for this bit of radio gold – both he and Greg counting down that week’s top 40 using the old jingle package from the 90s. And as Popjustice rightly pointed out on Twitter – he’s still got it, hasn’t he?

I said myself on Twitter that even listening to that familiar voice, that was such a huge part of my early pop music loving DNA and childhood Sunday afternoons, and hearing him say things like ‘Down 4 at number 9, CNCO and Little Mix with Reggaton Lento’ elicited some kind of Pavlovian/nostalgic desire to huddle round my radio as if I were 7 again. Because that’s how old I was when I started listening to the Official Chart. In fact, in the YouTube playlist I compiled for today’s blog, the rundown from the very first one I remember listening to is preserved here: 28th April 1996.

By this point, Mark had been doing it for a year, having taken over from Bruno Brookes. It was an interesting moment in time to start following the charts, even as a 7 year old. Take That had just split up, but the Spice Girls were still a few months away from launch, and the likes of Oasis, the Manic Street Preachers and the Bluetones were flying the Britpop flag high, whilst George Michael (then on his ‘Older’ era of his career) and Gina G’s Eurovision smash were top of the charts. Suddenly I was being exposed to this huge variety of music from all genres in a three hour timeslot, far beyond anything in my parents or sisters’ record collections.

It was to be another year – as already documented in this blog – before I became a singles buyer myself full time, and thus started contributing to the weekly singles countdown without even realising (yes, it did take me that long to work out that a visit to Woolworths did result in what happened on the chart that week). But by this point, Sunday afternoons from 4-7pm were entirely my own time, huddled round the nearest mini system I could find to ensure I was tuned in to find out who was number one – and who wasn’t.

Mark’s style of hosting was the one to beat – professional and consummate, a mix of excitement and avuncular, but never at the expense of the records. One of several features his hosting of the show bought in was the sourcing of chart stats from Alan Jones’ weekly commentary for industry bible Music Week.

This was particularly useful for historic chart moments like in March 2001, when Hear’Say, the (short lived) winners of the first ever series of Popstars, learned in a simulcast of the show with ITV that they had scored the fastest selling debut single ever with sales of over half a million copies of debut hit ‘Pure & Simple’ in its first week on sale alone.

If the opportunity was there, Mark would also talk to the act behind that week’s number one single on the phone before their record got played to the nation as the UK’s new chart topper – in my playlist above, there’s a particularly lovely instance of this with Melanie C, on discovering she’d hit number one as a solo artist for a second time with ‘I Turn to You’.

Mark was host at a time when single sales were at an all time high, with a regular turnover of number ones. In 2000, there was 43 to be exact, a record that still hasn’t been topped to this day. But as the 90s gave way to the 00s, new technologies were emerging that would change the way music would be consumed by the majority forever. Single sales and interest in the charts began to take a direct hit as a result.

You can even hear the mild fatigue in Mark’s voice in a clip I’ve included in my playlist from about September 2001, when he realises he’s having to introduce Bob the Builder as the nation’s favourite that week, saying that it had become a ‘news programme with music’. Something was going to have to give, clearly.

In previous years, he’d had his own weekend show, as well as hosting the Breakfast Show and the Evening Session at various points. By this time however, the Official Chart was the only show he was tied to. Mark’s final show came just as the Official Chart celebrated 50 years, on 17th November 2002.

I remember his last show fondly, and it felt like an end of an era for me at that time. My listening to Radio 1’s weekly rundown became less and less after that as the years wore on – only really bothering to tune in when an artist I liked or cared about was charting. Not to mention that the format of the show changed beyond all recognition of what I’d grown up with, as it became increasingly less and less about the chart and more about pumping it with irrelevant rubbish like celebrity gossip and DVD charts, and hosted by a succession of DJs for whom the chart was entirely an afterthought.

In fact, in the fifteen years since Mark left the show, Greg James is probably the one DJ who has been closest to his style of hosting it, even with the reduced timeslot on Friday afternoons from 4-6pm that the top 40 now occupies in the Radio 1 schedule. So it seems quite fitting then, that they hosted the Radio 1 Vintage show together. It was a bit like the passing of a baton to another in radio – and pop music – form.

Here’s then, to Mr Goodier. The fastest and most accurate host of a unique slot of music radio broadcasting.

The Official Chart ‘best of’ show with Greg James and Mark Goodier on Radio 1 Vintage is available to listen to again on BBC iPlayer Radio until 31st October.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!


#BlastfromthePast: Live and Kicking

Those casting a bleary eye over this morning’s TV schedules today (Saturday, 30th September 2017) may find an unusual creature in amongst all the cookery shows and endless reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. For the first time in God knows how long, the BBC is bringing mayhem, pop, cartoons and hell even a bit of gunge back to Saturday mornings, with it’s new BBC Two/CBBC series Saturday Mash-Up. Hosted by newcomer Jonny Nelson with BBC 1Xtra DJ Yasmin Evans (and CBBC’s Hacker T Dog), it’s the shot in the arm Saturday morning telly in the UK has needed for some time.

It thus marks the grand return of the tradition of kid’s TV with a wide appeal on weekend morning television to the masses. Those born before 1998 will be able to remember the format at its height through all number of incarnations. Kids of the 70s will remember Noel Edmonds in his pre-opening red boxes days on Multi Coloured Swap Shop. Kids of the 80s will go all dewy eyed thinking back to the old silver fox himself, Phillip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher on Going Live. And if you, like me, were a kid of the 90s, it was all about Live & Kicking.

Launched in the autumn of 1993 as the natural successor to Going Live, the first presenting line up consisted of the Broom Cupboard’s Andi Peters and Emma Forbes (daughter of Nanette “My hands are still soft as my face” Newman) and the ever witty announcer Mitch. Coming along at the precise moment when the likes of 90s pop legends like Take That and Eternal were at their height (the now manband legends were on the first show performing “Relight My Fire”), and bringing in a mix of cartoons – Nickelodeon’s Rugrats being the most enduring, and a mainstay of virtually all of L&K‘s eight year run – and US imports like Clarissa Explains It All and Sweet Valley High, Live & Kicking quickly became, to quote the show’s famous tagline, the only way to start your weekend.

After three years, Andi and Emma bade the show an emotional farewell, and in their place for the fourth series in 1996, came arguably the show’s golden couple – Zoë Ball and Jamie Theakston. Bringing a bit of rock ‘n roll to those early rises (along with the borderline terrifying Leprechaun puppets Sage and Onion, and Mr Blobby), their series started just as the likes of Spice Girls and Boyzone – who quickly became regular guests on the show – took off, and ratings soared to the two million mark, with the show even picking up a BAFTA along the way.

Also chief among the show’s highlights was the catchphrase ‘Miss It? Miss Out!’ and the infamous jingle for the phone number (0181 811 8181), celebrity guests being interviewed in ‘The Hot Seat’ (who can forget when Peter Andre got severely roasted by one caller that turned the air blue?), and even comedy from ‘swing your pants’ Trevor and Simon (who’d also been on Going Live) and then later, Ben, Jez and Rich.

Also chief in the Zoë and Jamie years were features like Cloud 9 and Blobby’s Office Trolley, two phone based games that occasionally reinforced why the joys of live telly are called that for a very good reason, and a panel review show called Hit Miss or Maybe, where three celebs reviewed the latest music videos via the medium of comedy thumbs up hands on sticks.

As the show got bigger, so did the guests – everyone from Jennifer Saunders to Cher, and even the original king of chat shows Michael Parkinson. And as Zoë juggled her early rises with both L&K and the breakfast show for Radio 1 and became the 90s equivalent of Fearne Cotton, so too did Jamie, hosting that and Top of the Pops become an icon of 90s TV and the gossip rags, even famously dating All Saints’ Natalie Appleton (which made for a thoroughly awkward and sadly not available on YouTube episode when they came on to promote a new single not long after their split. Oops).

By the end of the show’s sixth run in April 1999, Zoë and Jamie were ready to move on. But a solid force of competition, in the shape of ITV’s SMTV Live and CD:UK with Ant & Dec and Cat Deeley, was building up just as they left, meaning the show’s next presenters that September – CBBC’s Steve Wilson and former model and MTV VJ Emma Ledden were on a back foot from the off. Despite forming a good bond, they fell someway behind in the ratings.

Having failed to engage viewers, they were gone within a year, to be replaced by another new presenting line up – The Girlie Show‘s Sarah Cawood, Ortis Deley, Blue Peter‘s Katy Hill and creepola MTV VJ Trey Farley. They halved the viewing figures and interest even further, and a move to a year round slot rather than the traditional September – April run that L&K had operated on from the beginning sealed its fate. The show came to an end in September 2001, featuring a live performance from Steps to mark the end of an era.

Hopefully with Saturday Mash-Up on track to bring back anarchy and anything can happen antics to the young (and not so young), let us all hail Live & Kicking. Solid gold weekend viewing that set the standard for unmissable morning madness.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#BlastfromthePast: A1

Again, I’ve been somewhat slack with weekly trips in my blogging DeLorean. Rest assured, even with Strictly live blogs returning next Saturday, things are back to normal where #BlastfromthePast is concerned. Ready or not, here comes today’s one…

As a pop kid at heart, there is a place in it – and a fond one at that – for a good old fashioned boyband. By which I mean outlandish hairdos and outfits, tight harmonies, powerful pop choruses, and an epic dance routine or two. 

In fact, it was for these reasons at the turn of the millennium, whilst watching CD:UK or Top of the Pops, or busting some moves *NSYNC would be proud of at school discos (see below photographic proof), that I had a burning but secret desire to be in a boyband.

*NSYNC were one such boyband that fuelled that desire. Five were almost certainly another. But so too, for 11/12 year old me, were Ben Adams, Mark Read, Christian Ingebrigtsen and Paul Marazzi – better known, like the motorway running between North London and Scotland, and the steak sauce before them, as A1.

Formed by the same management team who bought us Steps, if you picked up a copy of Smash Hits or watched Saturday morning kids TV with any kind of regularity around 1999 or 2000, there is a chance you’d have seen them – but mostly Ben – winking back at you from the TV screen or magazine pages.

Not only going for the dance routine and matching outfit jugular, whilst also having a strong hand in writing many of their hits, the excellent likes of ‘Be the First to Believe’ and ‘Ready or Not’ ticked all the boyband boxes neatly and quickly raced their way up in to the UK top 10 in 1999.

But it was only a year later, with the release of their second album ‘The A List’, when they covered a-Ha’s 1985 smash ‘Take on Me’ as its first single, that they went one better than the original, by taking it all the way to number one that September, and geniusly recreating it’s flying cyber space video at that year’s Smash Hits Poll Winners Party (video is in the below playlist). 

They then quickly followed up with the actually brilliant ‘Same Old Brand New You’, also reaching the top of the charts a mere ten weeks later, leading to their picking up of the ‘Best British Breakthrough’ award at the 2001 BRIT awards.

And then a hush descended in their camp when, following a mall signing in South East Asia, where several of their fans were crushed in a stampede, they understandably took almost a year to follow up this incredible success they’d enjoyed to that point. When they came back in January 2002, they did so with arguably one of the greatest boyband songs, or pop songs generally, ever made: ‘Caught in the Middle’.

Eschewing the dance routines and matching outfits that had bought them success on their first two albums for instruments and a more pop rock sound, it quite simply is the sort of song that had Take That released it as their comeback single c.2006 would’ve been hailed a classic. Alas the ‘Make it Good’ album that followed it failed to find an audience willing to accept that this was A1, but reinvented.

Following Paul’s shock departure from the fold that year, the remaining trio of Ben, Mark and Christian announced they were splitting for the foreseeable future. All three released solo material and or produced for others – Ben notably worked with Alexandra Burke and Har Mar Superstar, Mark with Westlife and Olly Murs – in the intervening four years, before, following Ben’s star turn on Celebrity Big Brother in 2009, they reunited – albeit in Christian’s native Norway.

Originally only planned to be for one single release – the brilliantly anthemic ‘Take You Home’ – for the Norwegian version of Red Nose Day, and a tour, the response they got was of Take That levels, leading to their two albums, 2010’s ‘Waiting for Daylight’ (from which the title track was a single, all blissful and yet heartbreaking) and 2012’s ‘Rediscovered’ coming out to huge success. Both are on Spotify and are well worth investigating.

They were last seen properly on our shores taking part in the second series of The Big Reunion for ITV2 in 2014, but they still gig regularly together. Ben’s also currently touring in a stage version of Flashdance with last year’s Strictly pro champ Joanne Clifton, whilst Christian is busy with releasing solo music back in Norway, and Mark is also dabbling with work with former Strictly pros as he is touring shortly as music provider for a new show starring Kristina Rhianoff and Tristan McManus.

For now though, here’s to this week’s #BlastfromthePast, A1. A first class boyband who did exactly what they said on the tin.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#BlastfromthePast: Derek Griffiths

Apologies for no weekly hop in my blogging DeLorean otherwise known as #BlastfromthePast last week – partly because I had my special blog I wot wrote for my sister’s 30th birthday to get up. 

All is back to normal though you’ll be glad to hear. This week, it’s time to celebrate a true legend of British stage and screen…

Ask most people who grew up watching kids TV in the 70s, 80s – heck even a bit of the 90s – to name a few presenters/voices they recall, chances are this man would be chief amongst them – and to my delight, I discovered was on Twitter this week. Starting out as a primary school teacher, Woking born Derek Griffiths is a quadruple threat in a world of triples: actor, singer, multi instrumentalist and mime artist.

It was this set of talents that landed him the gig on the BBC’s Play School, and later Play Away, which saw him work with the late Brian Cant, as well as Chloe Ashcroft and Johnny Ball. His work on this led to more projects with the Beeb, including Heads and Tails – a wildlife/nature show with his zany narration and music accompanying it – something he’d do again for modern young audiences on the Channel 5 series Animal Antics in the early 00s.

He also voiced three animated series for the BBC that I remember fondly from my youth (pictured above, from top left) – King Greenfingers, Christopher Crocodile (from which I gained my sisters’ nickname for me of Crocodilious), and perhaps best known of all, SuperTed. He also made the move after Play School to ITV, where he hosted Film Fun, a series of amusing continuity links set in an old style cinema between assorted Looney Tunes cartoons.

He was also a regular guest feature on various comedy and light entertainment shows, including (but not limited to) Terry and June, Till Death Do Us Part, Blankety Blank and Don’t Ask Me. He also did a notable public ad campaign in the 80s promoting the awareness of bike theft (this along with several other fine works of his can be found in my YouTube playlist below).

Following West End turns in the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Beauty and the Beast, Derek recently cropped up on the nation’s favourite soap, Coronation Street, playing retired mechanic Freddie – a role he left in March this year to star in another new theatre role, this time in Driving Miss Daisy which is currently touring the UK.

Now he’s also campaigning for a reunion of the Play School cast – before, he says, “we all go senile”. Here’s then, to this week’s #BlastfromthePast, Derek Griffiths. A Jack of all trades, but a master of all of them.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#BlastfromthePast: Sesame Street

Before we delve into this week’s #BlastfromthePast, a little scene setting for you. Cast your minds back to three days ago. Ah, the start of the weekend. And the time for most people to be clocking off and winding down for the week.

If viral videos are your thing, chances are you’ll have already seen the big hit that was doing the rounds on social media. No, not of some trailer for Game of Thrones or of some vlogger denouncing their former clean cut Disney associations for a more ‘mature’ direction a la Christina Aguilera.

No. This viral video that at time of writing has had 2,000 retweets and 3,000 likes on Twitter, is in fact some very familiar faces to those of a certain generation (chiefly, my one, and several others I’m sure) covering some 80s pop classics in a new style. But enough about the Bros reunion. 

It is strange really, that even though it is still alive and present on US television and much of the rest of the world, that the characters on Sesame Street – the educational but entertaining Muppet led vehicle for pre-schoolers from the late genius that was and still is Jim Henson – are still so well loved and recognised here, despite it being 17 years removed from its last regular broadcast slot here in Blighty.

The colourful inhabitants of the fictitious New York street – Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Grover and Oscar the Grouch, to name but several – are now a couple of years shy from having been on television for five whole decades, making them second to Sooty as the longest running children’s programme in the world.

Back in 1969, following the show’s first airing, however, both the BBC and ITV were strangely oppositional to a UK broadcast, being dismissive of the show’s educational methods and creation primarily for an American audience, favouring their own successful creations at a pre-school format in Play School and Rainbow respectively.

Only Channel 4, launched in 1982, were willing to take a punt on it for UK airing, and it duly took up its regular place in the lunchtime schedules at 12pm on weekdays to great success. My sisters had all grown up watching it after nursery, and I was no exception. Its mix of education, humour,  larger than life Muppets, animation and live action film clips made for an engaging watch.

An afternoon spent on YouTube to compile a playlist for this blog (which you can find below) this weekend confirmed that even clips of it from when I watched it in the late 80s/early 90s have lost none of their appeal. If anything, they are just as captive for young minds today. 

My nieces and nephew have all been able to love and enjoy the clips they’ve seen of the show thanks to the beauty of modern day technology as well (my eldest niece, in particular, when she was just a year old, could only be kept quiet by a clip of Kermit the Frog singing a doo wop song about hopping).

In the years since Channel 4 shifted it off terrestial air for good in 2001, several segments of the show – chiefly Elmo’s World and Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures found a home for a few years on Channel 5’s Milkshake strand. And more recently, Elmo and Cookie Monster have been found on the co-produced Sesame Workshop/BBC show The Furchester Hotel that airs daily on CBeebies, which retains a lot of the wacky charm of its origins.

In our ever increasingly multicultural, diverse world, and with a broader broadcasting palette for today’s younger viewers, is it time one of the big five channels taught a whole new generation how to get to one of the world’s most famous streets once more? I certainly think so.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

#BlastfromthePast: Challenge Anneka

challenge-anneka-1992-600x403

Time for another new weekly feature to the blog. As a lover of all things retro and nostalgic, these new blogs are entitled #BlastfromthePast, and will be showcasing – in some cases introducing to you, the reader – a classic old favourite of mine from music, television, film or books, and having a little catch up on what’s become of the people behind them. First up this week, we’re heading in our metaphorical DeLorean back to the year I was born – 1989 – to a real classic TV gem from the turn of the late 80s/early 90s…and I suggest you hit the play button on the video below before you start!

Ah yes! Who could forget that theme tune? There are no bad TV theme tunes that contain saxophones. Fact.

Following her six year run on Channel 4’s Treasure Hunt, the lovely Anneka Rice made her first ‘Challenge’ some two years before this in 1987, on one of the BBC’s first ever ‘Children in Need’ appeals, before the first series finally got the green light. The premise of the series was a simple one. Anneka – in her jumpsuit and ever trusty blue buggy, along with sound man Dave and Martin the camera man – would turn up at all manner of locations across the UK after being given a tip off prior to starting filming.

A classic example usually went along these lines. Anneka would turn up at a derelict building in a semi rural location, that looked like it might’ve been a village hall at one point. After a few minutes wandering around trying to work out where her challenge lay, she’d catch sight of an unusual object amongst the dereliction, on which was a card that read as follows:

‘This village is having a village hall again for the first time in 30 years. To celebrate, organise and invite major celebrity names and entertainment for the grand re-opening party…’

(and then, on the back of the same card)…

‘…PS You also need to completely renovate and redecorate the hall before the party on Friday at 2pm – you have three days!’

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OK. So probably not the best example, but it gives you an idea. Anneka almost always achieved these challenges set before her in the tight turn around supplied, and such were her powers of gentle persuasion (her opening gambit when phoning very important people to help her complete the challenge was always ‘Hello, I’m sorry to have to do this to you, it’s Anneka Rice from the BBC Challenge programme’) that everyone was always willing to chip in and offer their time and services (‘Oh thank you, you are a star!’).

There was always something so pure and good hearted at the centre of Challenge Anneka. It had community spirit at its heart that made it feel like one great national bring and buy sale crossed with a street party. It was ushering in a new wave of television that saw the greater good ‘giving something back’ that still stands in existence even now, with shows like DIY SOS: The Big Build or 60 Minute Makeover.

Not only because of its philanthropic values, but the show has a particularly fond place in my heart from one of the challenges in particular. For the third series in 1992, when I’d just turned 3 years old, Anneka was challenged by Tommy’s Campaign, the charity based at Guys and St. Thomas’ Hospital in central London, that offers support and research into premature births, to produce Tommy’s Tape, a cassette tape of numerous famous names of the time performing nursery rhymes, children’s songs and poems.

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10,000 copies were produced in just four days – and the resulting tape was produced by none other than the legendary late George Martin. It included Anneka herself putting in her version of ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’, as well as Joanna Lumley’s reading of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’, Right Said Fred singing ‘Nellie the Elephant’, and even the cast of Birds of a Feather (which almost always followed Challenge Anneka in the schedules on BBC One on Friday or Saturday nights and that I feel equally fondly about), offering a rousing version of ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’.

My mum bought me one of the 10,000 copies, and it was always on the car stereo on the rare times that ABBA, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles or Dire Straits weren’t, and for pure sentimental reasons I loved it and played it frequently throughout my early childhood long after the series came to an end in October 1995. I was pretty delighted therefore, to discover that the album was recently digitally remastered and re-released for download.

The full episode of this particular challenge (video above) has recently reappeared on YouTube and is worth a watch to see the tape come together – if not for the endearing sight of Anneka and the buggy rocking up at Earl’s Court to try and persuade the late, great Prince to appear whilst he was in London for his world tour.

So as mentioned, the series disappeared from our screens in October 1995. But what became of it after that? Well, ITV bought it back in 2007 for two 18th anniversary specials, the first of which saw Anneka and the team head to Sri Lanka to help rebuild a community affected by the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004, and the second, in a nod to the Tommy’s Tape challenge of 15 years previously, saw her produce Over the Rainbow, an album of musical theatre songs released to raise money for children’s hospices up and down the UK, featuring everyone from McFly to Curtis Stigers.

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These days, Anneka is still broadcasting, and can be found behind the mic on her weekly BBC Radio 2 show The Happening, that goes out every Friday night at midnight. However, she still occasionally digs out the jumpsuit and buggy for one off challenges – recently she completed one during Channel 4’s annual Stand Up to Cancer telethon, and another for ITV’s This Morning – and this last year, she has also spent time revisiting some of the challenges around the UK that she helped to complete all those years ago.

Here’s to this week’s #BlastfromthePast, Challenge Anneka. A show that challenged us all to give a little something back!

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!