Peter Fleming on Windmills

Hi everyone. This week, Peter Fleming has written to me about his relationship with windmills as one of the leading lights of the golden age of British children’s TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

I must say I’ve had a quite delightful relationship with windmills over the years. That wonderful silhouette always inspired me as a child when I saw one standing against a rural skyline. They can’t help but make one dream, can they? But I wasn’t always so enamoured!

Early in my career, I had a terrible falling out with Gordon Murray and his Camberwick Green production team. We were discussing the possibility of collaborating on a series in which a miller was the main character. He disagreed and said the miller should be but one figure in a louder community. Shout and bang the table as I might, I couldn’t convince him otherwise, and so we went our separate ways with our own separate programmes. I rather gloated at the time that he didn’t even have the budget to hire more than one actor – had to make his own cast! Preposterous, I cried!

And so the race was on. I pursued my own vision with Mildred’s Mill, which was duly broadcast in 1967. And, yes, in the end, Gordon Murray got his programme out first, and Camberwick Green was much better liked and is better remembered by viewers, but who won out in the end, eh? Him, most audiences would conclude. But would I come to the same conclusion, I ask you? (Yes.) After a time, I moved on from that disappointment, although the two series I made following Mildred’s Mill, following the lives of two towns in the same fictional county, both had their thunder pre-emptively stolen by Murray yet again, which was deeply frustrating.

Nonetheless, my love of windmills held fast, and years later, long after I’d stopped making programmes regularly, I ended up moving into one! Trouble is, if you tell anyone you live in a windmill, they’ll always say, ‘Ah, just like Windy Miller!’ Impossible to break the association, even though all the evidence offered by Camberwick Green‘s opening sequence is highly suggestive that Windy Miller lives in a music box.

I decided the best course of action would be to do everything in my power to break that connection in the minds of the public. Accordingly, I spent the next few years loaning the use of my windmill to various television production teams in the hope of wiping Windy Miller from the public consciousness. A good source of income – better, in fact, than trying to sustain your living by actually working the mill to produce flour. Windy Miller made it look much easier than it actually was (a further flaw of Camberwick Green!).

Throughout the next few years, productions were queuing up to use the mill! First of all, Mark Curry was strapped to the sails for a Blue Peter item, and round about the same time, Stanley Baxter moved in for a few weeks as Mr Majeika (1988). Alan Davies also settled into the living room for a few years as Jonathan Creek, although I have to say I can’t imagine that programme going down well with parents at all. While all this went on, I made further money by providing all the catering as well! Meals would largely consist of raw grain that I’d purchased upon moving in and was now desperate to shift, but I didn’t hear any complaints. Luckily the noise of the mill drowned them out!

It was a very happy time, all in all. But eventually the interest wound down and the costs of upkeep became too much for me. I went on my way again, leaving the mill behind and wandering through the fields instead. Finally I opted to drift further away still on my little raft, and here we are! I look back on that decision at times and wish I’d had a hot air balloon to travel around in instead, but mine was stolen by Geoffrey Bayldon in the early 1970s. Just flew away in it, never came back. I tried looking out for it every morning when I lived in the windmill in case it floated by and snagged on a sail, but no luck.

As it is, I drift on along the water instead, but I always enjoy spotting a mill as I go past, and looking back – unless it’s a watermill, in which case I always have to immediately paddle as hard as I can the way I came. (Failing that, I abandon ship, let it get caught in the machinery and apologise to the owner, and anyone whose water supply I’ve cut off.) Windmills, balloons, clouds and rainbows. The things that bring the sky to life for children. And nothing shall ever change that – in spite of that vampire Gordon Murray’s best efforts to ruin them for me!

All the best,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Frome Festival on Friday 5th July (tickets available here), and at 2Northdown in King’s Cross on Friday 12th July (tickets available here).

fa16445ee4ee86924d2e91be8e34080f

Advertisements

I Don’t Pay My Licence Fee (For This)

The BBC has been hit by protests this week in the wake of the government’s discontinuation of free TV licences for the over-75s, in a backlash remarkable for its grasp of the law of cause and effect. Many have argued it is absolutely the role of broadcasters to provide health and social care. The Archers, for instance, has long been used by the NHS to send patients into a medically induced coma. Much was also made of the BBC’s decision to sell off Television Centre, now converted into unaffordable housing (a dream come true for any Londoner keen to live on the site of Jimmy Savile’s crimes).

Notably critical of the BBC’s decision not to cover licences for any over-75s not in receipt of pension credit was George Osborne, whose decision not to cover licences for any over-75s at all was much clearer in its intent. He isn’t in government anymore, and he must actually be quite relieved not to be living in the parallel universe in which Remain won the EU Referendum, where he is now campaigning to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister and facing a number of uncomfortable questions about a widely publicised photograph of him in the nineties sitting next to a pile of cocaine.

Yet it must also be a shame for him not to be overseeing our government’s renewed pressure on broadcasters to cure society’s ills, with the Tory leadership candidates floating a new raft of policies being which he could have only dared to imagine in sweet, naïve 2015:

  • Channel 4 to provide free flu vaccinations for all
  • ITV to provide all funding for political parties by 2022
  • ITV2 division to oversee national reduction of UK carbon emissions to zero by 2050
  • Channel 5 to take up and win the war on drugs
  • Sky Arts to bring northern rail infrastructure up to date by 3030 (deadline can be flexible if more time needed or wanted)
  • Amazon to oversee stockpiling of poppies in case of No-Deal Brexit
  • E4 to tackle knife crime on the streets, and institutionalised racism if there’s time left over
  • Dave to install safe cladding in all high-rise tower blocks by December 2021
  • Dave ja vu to follow up an hour later and double-check everywhere’s been done
  • Netflix to replace Trident
  • Eurosport to renegotiate the backstop with the EU

With the time and money freed up by the above schemes, the government itself would be able to turn its hand to TV production. Already some exciting and original formats have begun to emerge from Whitehall:

  • Dear Leader: confused sitcom following the exploits of a far-left commune in Islington, scripted entirely by political speechwriters. Expect dialogue to match all your favourite party conference zingers, from, “Here is my message to the editor of the Daily Mail: next time, could we have 28 pages, please?” to “By the way, that’s a rugby position, not a chapter in Michael Ashcroft’s book!”
  • Whips: comedy-drama crossing the pacey wit of The West Wing with the raunchy innuendo of Mills & Boon to create a uniquely nauseating slurry.
  • No Deal or No Deal: game show in which contestants must slowly eliminate 22 identical open boxes, each clearly displaying the outline of a Brexit strategy that has been previously exposed as undeliverable.

The future Osborne has gifted us looks bright indeed.

georgeosborne

My New Commute

A month ago, I started walking to work, having grown tired of an increasingly unreliable tram timetable, developed greater anxiety over standing in the crowded vehicles, and exhausted the potential for fictionalised blog posts about that anxiety. I did wonder if I should learn to ride a bike, but I feared humiliation at the Cycling to Avoid Commuting with People You Know course I found advertised.

I felt the multitude of benefits at once: the view into the distance unobstructed the body of the vehicle, the fresh air on my face, the weight loss. Physical and mental health improvements aplenty – crucially, the chance to get into my own space and listen to music again without bumping into friends, colleagues and acquaintances and feeling obliged to talk. At last, I once again felt the bliss of total control that only comes with solitude. It would soon go horribly wrong.

My mistake was in mentioning that I had begun walking in to a colleague who asked why they hadn’t been seeing me on the tram like normal lately. ‘Oh,’ they said, their eyes brightening. ‘I’ll start doing that too!’ The words shot like a dagger into my stomach (if a dagger can be shot at someone – presumably a rifle could be modified in such a way), and many more pinpricks followed as discussions amongst other colleagues from the same neighbourhood bubbled up about what a good idea it was. I feared this would be a habit that would form, unlike the habit of visiting the gym they’d had membership at for the last year, but exactly like the habit of voicing their intent to cancel that membership on a daily basis for the last eleven months.

Soon, a WhatsApp group had been set up. I was added against my will to ‘I WOULD WALK 500 MILES (TO WORK!)’, and began getting regular buzzes every morning as a new message arrived – almost invariably, ‘where everyone at?’ Try as I might, I couldn’t switch off the notifications, and when I instead attempted to switch off the phone itself, a pop-up appeared: ‘Is everything OK? It seems like you’re trying to switch off your phone.’ I accepted it would be easier to learn to ignore the vibrations.

Eventually, I realised the WhatsApp group could serve an alternative purpose for me. Every morning, the moment someone responded to the perennial ‘where everyone at?’ question, I immediately planned a different route that would avoid intersecting with theirs. But even as I strolled through the next few mornings, pleased with my cunning, a new problem grew increasingly clear. All across the city, across the country, more and more people had been learning of the environmental and health benefits of walking to work. In the most annoying act of rescuing human civilisation from desolation I’ve yet come across, everybody was starting to join in.

Just as the trams had been before, the pavements were getting fuller and fuller of dead-eyed worked on the morning rush. Each trying to get ahead of all the others on their way to the next pelican crossing, each giving annoyed glances and tuts to one another as their personal space was encroached upon during the wait for the green man. Yet personal space was clearly a luxury we could no longer afford. Just like the trams, just like the roads, just like the entire public transport infrastructure of modern Britain, the pavements simply weren’t built to accommodate this many people.

In a final act of desperation, I decided perhaps the time had finally come to learn to cycle instead. Zoom past the baying rabble every morning; enjoy my own space, and the breeze billowing against me, in style. But I was behind the curve again – the Cycling to Avoid Commuting with People You Know course had filled up for the next year, already brimming with newly disgruntled pedestrians.

walking

Peter Fleming on Democracy

Hi everyone. This week, Peter Fleming has written about the programmes he made to educate the nation’s children about politics and democracy in the golden age of British kids’ TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, my friends!

As well as fuelling their imaginations, I felt a solemn duty to teach all our young viewers about the society they were growing up in. This was around the time Newsround was beginning too, and across the department we took great pains to offer programmes that suited the corporation’s remit to inform and educate the nation’s children. Of course, entering the political sphere would create some sticky situations for us at times!

In 1966, Britain was hit by election fever (and the following year by foot-and-mouth disease). This was six years before John Craven first reared his not unhandsome head, and we felt it was important to help children at home understand the strange ritual grown-ups were currently going through all around them. In that spirit we produced Our Government, which was broadcast from March to May that year and showed a fictional school electing its own council.

We came up with a number of colourful characters to have pupils broadly represent each party, the most memorable of which was of course Little Lord Royce with his trademark string of spare monocles (although what a boy like that would have been doing in a secondary modern I’ve no idea!). The programme was only designed to run for the months surrounding the real-world election in the first place, but stopped even sooner than intended when an episode depicting childish jeering and playground bullying during an important meeting was mistaken for a genuine broadcast from the House of Commons, which was forbidden by broadcasting rules at the time.

A few years later, Newsround reignited our bold ambition to tackle current affairs, so we set out to teach our viewers about the ongoing struggles in Northern Ireland. This led to Father Neil (1973), depicting our title character successfully brokering a peace between the two sides and establishing a new system of government – we could but dream! I forget which denomination he was, but the programme went to great lengths to show how irrelevant such matters were! This was the main reason it was widely condemned. Indeed, the programme is nowadays considered one of the worst instances of people from the mainland wading into issues they know nothing about and causing further damage. No mean feat, given the Bloody Sunday massacre the previous year!

We took a step back from covering politics in 1974, but made a return the following year when we produced In or Out? to look at the Common Market referendum. A dry topic, it has to be said, so we added a bit of life by introducing some eccentric European characters as a foil to our salt-of-the-earth British protagonists. Once again we found ourselves in hot water, and the programme came to an end after just three episodes. The consensus on the sixth floor was that the programme came across as biased, the foreign stereotypes were inflammatory, and the idea of introducing national identity to a complex discussion of business and trading arrangements was irrelevant and unhelpful. A lesson we’ve remembered well in the years since!

As the seventies turned to the eighties, my career at the BBC faded away, but I did make one last dip into the waters of politics in 2001, would you believe! That year, election fever returned to Britain (along with foot-and-mouth again), and I was commissioned to make a short film encouraging the public to get out and vote, with the creative voice known and loved by so many generations. Somebody in the civil service was obviously a fan of Our Government, and I was only too happy to come out of retirement and do my bit!

I scripted the resulting film, Archie the Lost Ballot, which was then animated by the good people at the sadly short-lived Home Office Studios, who were very much learning on the job. Over three minutes, everyone was shown the importance of voting, as Archie went uncrossed, and drifted up above the country in spirit form when the polls shut, to see all the terrible things happening without him and his ballot friends there to stop them. A powerful message, we all agreed! Our only regret was the scheduling error on the BBC’s part that saw it go out mid-afternoon as part of the Children’s BBC strand when no eligible voters were watching. But in the end, we nonetheless made history – the lowest turnout since the war!

Living as I do on a raft, I’ve sadly been unable to participate in any major democratic exercise myself for some time. Try as I might, they simply won’t allow me to register with the Grand Union Canal as my address. Regardless, I’ll often think back to my programmes and the difference they made, and I’m sure there are plenty of people voting now who first learned about such matters from our work. Looking at the state of the nation these days, I can only apologise!

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Albany, Great Portland Street, on Sunday 16th June, 3pm. Tickets are available here.

TB-PF-2019-BP-RGB

 

Peter Fleming at Television Centre

Hi everyone. This week, Peter Fleming has written to me with an account of his recent visit to the former BBC Television Centre, where he worked as one of the pioneers of British children’s TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello, my friends!

Many years have passed since I left BBC Television Centre for the last time. But the quest for copies of my programmes, as it so often does, has brought me back to London, and I took the opportunity for a visit. As I stepped cautiously down Wood Lane, dwarfed by all the new shopping precincts around me that must have been flown in directly from America over the last ten years or so, I came past the boarded up construction site to my side – and there it was.

20190525_111528

The car park and the security gate at the front are gone now. No more porters there to play their regular practical joke on me, pretending they didn’t recognise me from years working at the building. Meanwhile Tony Hart and Lesley Judd would sail past breezily, as if they hadn’t heard me call out to them – they must have been in on it too! This time, I stepped onto the new terrace easily, no one to rib me at all. I felt another pang of sadness when I spotted the ghostly marks on the side of Studio 1 where the letters ‘B’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ used to be. The East Tower, where I spent so many happy years in the Children’s department, seemed to have been mislaid. A cause for concern, as I’m positive Biddy Baxter is still inside.

Populating the terrace was a disparate collection of men in their middle ages, all looking up at the building, sighing, shaking their heads, holding up a camera to take a picture, sighing again then walking off. I managed to make my way past them all and pottered up to the statue of Helios, still perched above the fountain in the middle of the donut. I looked for the piece of graffiti I’d mischievously scrawled on the side after a Christmas party with Tom Baker (he wasn’t involved, but I saw him in the distance as I was about to do it and called out to him), but it had long since been cleaned away.

20190525_111946

I was struck by the quiet of the place, and how little there seemed to be now in terms of security. This is the result of a cost-cutting exercise, I understand, in which the owners have very cleverly dis-incentivised criminal activity by removing everything of any value. I recall reading a magazine article at the time in which they said, ‘Our philosophy is, your house is never going to be burgled if the most valuable thing inside it is Piers Morgan.’ I’m not even sure what Piers Morgan is, to tell you the truth (an ingredient? A legal principle?), so it would certainly put me off!

Thanks to this more lax policy, it was surprisingly easy to sneak in and explore the old place. Had enormous fun for the first few minutes, until I stepped into what used to be a programme planning office and immediately found myself in somebody’s living room – a common occurrence, she assured me! I tried finding other rooms, where we’d had meetings about scheduling Captain’s Cook (1967-70), preliminary discussions on a special edition of Tops of the Pops set exclusively to feature the cast of Paul’s Pop Parade (1971), and where I received a very memorable dressing down following the ‘Mechanical Synagogue’ episode of Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory (1962-63).

I found none of those rooms though. Everywhere I went, more drab flats, uninviting restaurants, and new offices that managed to be at once stuffy and well air-conditioned (an impressive feat, I grant them). For all its faults in the past, I was dismayed to see the building now so empty of its old spirit. The electricity of all those minds at work in this labyrinth. That marvellous essence, all gone. I understand, in fact, that they did bottle up some of the building’s essence in 1975 to be preserved in the BBC Film and Videotape Library and used to restore TV Centre should it ever be damaged. Unfortunately, the bottle was accidentally sent to BBC Enterprises instead and immediately thrown in a skip.

Eventually, I was thrown out myself and took refuge round the back in Hammersmith Park. I saw children playing with their parents, children unaware what wondrous works were created just a stone’s throw away, a lifetimes ago for many of them. I sat by a pond, billowing dust, as I often seem to these days, wondering what might come next. Moments later I spotted a sign that made me realise I’d never wondered what came before. I was sitting, it turned out, in what was once the Garden of Peace, dating back to the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition, built on this very site, before housing and TV Centre gradually came along. I wondered if they too had thought their work would be here forever.

Before I departed, I crept back to that statue of Helios once again. I thought to myself, one day, there’ll come a time when the water in that fountain stops running for the last time. And there’ll come a time when this whole building is emptied forever. Every building, every office, every studio, every house, empties for the last time and decays in the end. And when this one does, what memories will linger? Not the memory some will take away now of being shown round a luxury suite, or the memory others will have of tasting a pizza and immediately deciding it isn’t worth the £40 they’ll shortly be paying for it. Nor will it be the memory of sitting on a bean bag on a grassy terrace, where decades before Peter Purves would bury a time capsule on a weekly basis without ever explaining why to anyone.

No, the memories that will last are of the programmes we made there, that we all welcomed into our living rooms every night. And we’ll look at that circular building in W12, finally at peace, as we pass by in years to come, and I should think we’ll say, ‘We had something rather good there, for a while.’

Yours fondly,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Albany, Great Portland Street, on Sunday 16th June at 3pm. Tickets are available here.

_61338080_61337948

Hair-Raising

As a chronic lister, it’s a source of disappointment that I don’t know how many haircuts I’ve had in my life. If I did, I could rank them all from best to worst. As it is, I can only look back over those that really stand out, thanks in no small part to the hairdressers and barbers who enacted them.

A year or two ago, I was being worked on by a man younger than me, on his last day at this particular place. He actually did a very good job, but the conversation it was impossible to escape was about the most stereotypical 45 minutes of white-guy-hipster-babble you can imagine. Starting with 10 minutes on his favourite drugs to use, he then spent 25 minutes recommending his friend’s podcast (“We just chat shit, and he says I can come back on anytime!”), before rounding it off with 15 minutes on his new invention. I can sadly no longer remember what it was, merely that it already existed.

A bad haircut grows out, but the practitioners imprint themselves for much longer, at a level much deeper than my scalp. One made an impression long before she first gave me a haircut. This was in my hometown, and as I sat down for her to begin, I finally realised where I recognised her from. A few years previously, I had gone back to my old school for work experience, and she had been one of four Year 8 girls to have sent me lewd, predatory notes and blow suggestive kisses at me for an entire week. I was lucky that my hair had then looked distinctively bad to the extent that I was unrecognisable by the time she was cutting it years later. She will never know why I struggled so deeply to make eye contact.

Fast forward to the barbers I visit today, and a barber I now specifically avoid by booking ahead. He has cut my hair a few times, but a steady stream of dross on each occasion has gradually put me off, which is a shame as he really was talented. On the first occasion, I made the error of revealing in the agonising preliminary small talk that I’m a comedian. Within minutes, he was gleefully bragging about the times he had heckled comedians he hadn’t rated, allegedly receiving bigger laughs than the comedians themselves. He asked me to let him know when I was next gigging in the area. I lied that I would.

Months later, I was back. The conversation (to which I never especially had to contribute once he’d got going) turned to comedy once again. He revealed that one of his favourite sitcoms was Father Ted. So reluctant was I to have any common taste with him, I decided that he likes it purely off the back of Graham Linehan’s tweets.

As the chat continued, I wondered if I might be more on the money than I’d thought. Clearly a mid-90s TV comedy fan, he began waxing lyrical about The Fast Show, only for this to devolve into a 20-minute rant about the retrospective claims of liberal fans with an agenda that Ted and Ralph were gay. He spent a further ten minutes passionately arguing his theory that Ralph is in fact Ted’s illegitimate son. “Ted had a wife,” he barked incredulously. His clear emotional volatility, and the scissors he was holding, prevented me from using my family history to illustrate why that wasn’t proof of anything.

The last time I spent being argued at by him, comedy reared its head again, and he began to tackle the subject of audiences being too easily offended these days. I took a rare pause for breath from him as an opportunity to try and nudge the conversation towards audiences who really were actually too easily offended, citing the Brass Eye special and Life of Brian as examples. He immediately answered that both of those went too far, before being distracted by a woman attempting to park a car in an awkward space outside.

On my most recent cut, in the same place, my (mercifully) new barber asked if I’d had long hair as a teenager. I asked how he could tell, and he replied I tensed subtly each time he positioned my head, suggesting I’d not got used to regular haircuts in my youth. Had he experienced some of the ones I’ve had, he might have acknowledged there were other factors at play.

1

Peter Fleming at Sea

Hi, everyone. I’m away this weekend, so Peter Fleming has written to me about his creative fascination with life at sea throughout his career as one of the leading figures in the golden age of British kids’ TV. Take it away, Peter!

Ahoy there, my little sailor friends!

As a boy, I had a real passion for the water. Perhaps because it was out of my reach living in a building that was quite insistently on land, but whatever the cause, in adulthood I explored life at sea in my programmes whenever able. Who could forget my Salty Sailors bubble bath advertisements in the mid-sixties (“Spray me, landlord, I’m in the Navy!”), or 1970’s widely-condemned The Secret Seaman?

Over the years, I found numerous ways to portray ocean-faring life. One of best-remembered was Captain Samantha – who set sail for the first time in 1968. A wonderful stop-motion animation series, cut tragically short by our impatience and ineptitude as animators. Every week, she and her crew would find a new source of plunder and cunningly snatch the wondrous treasures away to feed the poor sea-orphans who lived on the ocean floor. But she had better take care, lest grumpy Lieutenant Brine should catch her, or her crew should fall foul of Sandy the hungry shark! We had a lot of fun, and barely received any complaints, save those from former pirates who wrote in furiously that there wasn’t enough blood.

Later was Isla’s Island (1971-73), about a young girl stranded on a desert island with nothing but a pineapple and her own inability to swim for company. A deadly combination, you might have thought, but no! She found herself perfectly capable of surviving, and would find a new use for the pineapple every week. These sections quickly stood out as the most popular with viewers, so we had phased out any plot altogether by the sixteenth episode, allowing the programme to develop fully into a fictionalised pineapple-oriented craft show instead. A big break for the most versatile fruit, and a tremendous disappointment to me, as I couldn’t stand the taste.

A few years after that came the more experimental My Life as a Fish (1975), in which young Joseph is turned into a haddock by his clumsy biology teacher, released into the wild and proceeds to embark on a series of aquatic adventures in the North Sea. The real challenge was matching a storyline, and young Joseph’s dialogue, to the mere five minutes of stock footage we had at our disposal to provide the visuals. That we managed to craft twelve distinct half-hours of television from that lot is nothing short of a miracle – and hats off to Malcolm Clarke at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop! His soundscape underscoring the series really aided the momentum, and only planted itself as a traumatic childhood memory in the minds of just over half the audience.

I often find myself drifting out of my dreams with those sounds echoing through my head. Perhaps that’s the reason I haven’t slept well in a year, aside from the discomfort of sleeping on a raft. But I often look back on my sea-faring programmes and find the memories enhance my experience of the water today. To amuse myself, I’ll dip my face beneath the surface and shout down to the sea-orphans that might be lurking on the riverbed. When I make excursions onto the land for supplies, I always imagine it’s for them. And I know treasures when I see them – discarded sandwiches, pennies – you name it, I’ll pinch it, and with all the efficiency of Captain Samantha herself! Yes, it’s quite a life. My only regret is how dependent I am these days on pineapples I snatch from greengrocers. But there’s just so much they can be used for!

Bon voyage!

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Taproom in Islington on Friday 17th May, Smoke & Mirrors in Bristol on Monday 20th May, and the Black Dove in Brighton on Friday 24th May.

91518