Peter Fleming’s Birthdays

Hi everyone. I’m taking the day off writing for my birthday, so Peter Fleming, leading light of the golden age of British children’s television, has written about his instead. Many happy returns, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

You know, I’ve had so many birthdays now I can hardly remember my own age – or indeed what the actual date of it is. But certain birthdays flash into my memory all the time as I peer into different pockets of my life, and the pictures in my mind always seem more important that where exactly in the calendar they fell.

I should think most of us have had a birthday or two at work, and I had one I didn’t much enjoy at BBC Television Centre. Everybody decided to take their running joke of pretending not to know who I was a little too far that day. No one acknowledged it was a special day for me all morning, but after lunch, I was delighted to return to my desk and find a card there waiting for me – only to open it and see it was filled with messages like, “All my fondest love to you, Alan”, “Best of luck, Alan”, or “Get well soon, Alan”. But in the end I had the last laugh, spending the rest of the afternoon painting an enormous banner which I hung on the building just in time for the end of work, reading:

“TO HELL WITH ALAN!

Yours,
Peter Fleming”

Clearly it was seen, because for some months after, everyone was too embarrassed by their actions even to make eye contact with me in the corridor!

Birthdays at my own studio in the garden shed of the home I grew up in were much more fun. Surrounded by my surrogate family of friends, colleagues, neighbours, matrons, away from the hullaballoo of Wood Lane. More often than not, one of my programmes would be on for us all to gather round and watch. And I often used the schedule to my advantage and would plan programmes about celebrations to be broadcast on the big day itself! Millie’s Birthday Parade (1965), for instance, began as I held one of my own! The Happiest of Years came to a delightful end as I turned 28. And who could forget the infamous cake episode of Professor Zany’s Mad Laboratory (1962-63)? I suppose I must be one of the few people to have marked their birthday with the full backing of BBC1 (alongside the Queen and Christ).

Some years I liked to treat myself and see the viewers respond to my programmes, as a reward for all my hard work, so I would frequently surprise families by knocking at a random house and asking to watch with them! Tom Baker did something similar, I recall. The trouble for me, of course, was that, as a behind-the-scenes figure, none of the families knew who I was, and I slowly gained what I later found out was a very sinister reputation! Nonetheless, I still enjoyed making the visits – the irony is, now that I genuinely do need refuge, unfortunately no one will take me in!

Growing older, I’ve found myself spending more birthdays alone, and, drifting about the place as I do, I lose track of time completely. I’ve almost certainly celebrated my birthday a good few times per year in the last decade. The date itself has faded into insignificance in my mind. I simply live a day, and, heading to sleep, think to myself, ‘Yes, that felt just how my birthdays did’ – and so it must have been one! Although I’m long since removed from all the people and places that were part of those days, they remain always what a good day is measured against in my mind.

Days in the shed, gathered round the television I bought for the home with my first BBC pay. Seeing in another year one evening by sneaking out to watch Quatermass through a neighbour’s window. The last birthday I had with my family before I left home to pursue my career – my eighth one, that was. I looked through the window of a shop, saw gleaming new television sets all sitting there, all waiting for viewers to take them home and tune in, and my mind lit up with possibilities! How the rest of my life really all began.

I can reach further back too, though those memories are mistier now, to birthdays I spent with my family as they were. A trip to the beach. Unseasonably sunny days in the park. Following my sister up a hill as she flew her kite. I couldn’t see her face then, and all these years later, I still can’t quite place it. But all these images and sounds do emerge as I close my eyes at night, and I wrap myself up warm in them as I settle into my dreams. Longing for the next day to be a birthday again.

She had brown hair, I remember.

Many happy returns,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Heroes @ Dragonfly, 15.20, 1-25 August (not 12). Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming in Print

Hi everyone. This week, Peter Fleming has written to me about his experiences working in print during the golden age of British children’s TV. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well now, television may have been my medium of choice, but throughout my career I had a joyous creative relationship with the printed word too. And not just when typing out the scripts! (Contrary to popular wisdom, every programme we made was scripted and structured properly.)

My first taste of print publication came in the mid-sixties, when I contributed regular items based on my programmes for TV Comic. Over three years, I came up with all sorts. Puzzles with Professor Zany, to which we never published the solutions (‘Fear not, readers! A true inventor will always invent the perfect answers for themselves!’). A comic strip starring Freddie the Door, where readers were always on tenterhooks as to whether the final page would reveal him opening, shutting, or not moving at all. And of course studies from Professor Zany’s counterpart Doctor Straight-Laced, which I lifted wholesale from scientific journals! (Those, incidentally, led to the legal battle that resulted in the severing of my relationship with the magazine.)

Meatier than any magazine though, were the books! That my programmes are all lost from the archives makes clear this was not an age of home recording. No, if children wanted to enjoy the shows again, they would have to purchase one of the many novelisations published by WH Allen over the years. Penning these often gave me the chance to enrich characters in ways that time constraints prevented on the television. Who could have guessed just from watching Our Home Down the Road (1969) that grumpy Mr Mason had never recovered from his cat running away when he was a boy? Suddenly, it became more understandable to viewers why he punished the orphans so savagely every week!

As my televisual workload gradually increased (we eventually reached a point where we were producing about 20 separate series in a year), writing the books became more and more difficult. I remember sustaining multiple injuries to my wrist trying to fully novelise seven separate episodes of Ringmaster Patrick in a day in May 1973, in between spells of giving notes on the episodes as we shot them! So it was that writing duties were passed onto young actress and aspiring writer Lynda La Plante. This was a little before her big break in Rentaghost, but she certainly knew the territory – and the books’ popularity continued!

However, I later realised that sales were in fact going up with adults, and down with children. Already Lynda was growing fascinated with crime fiction, and had proceeded to add numerous gruesome storylines to the novelisations without my knowledge that had never been present in the programmes. I was irritated upon finding out, but must confess I didn’t take any action against Lynda, as at the time I was rather short on money, and quite happy for the increased revenue the books were now generating! As such, we both benefitted in the end – especially Lynda, who went on to adapt her novelisations of Sarah’s Paper Round (1975) to form the entire first series of Prime Suspect (1991).

Fan magazines that emerged after the number of programmes I was making thinned quite suddenly to zero were very sunny in their outlook, in spite of the circumstances, and I often gave interviews to them – such was my gratitude! But this came to an end in 1986, after one publication, Peter Fleming Bulletin, grew steadily more hostile, often taking an editorial line that it was my own fault no new programmes were forthcoming. It all culminated in them publishing a damning interview with myself, in which my own words were distorted to give the impression I agreed with their view that I was a liar and a charlatan – whereas I’m convinced I only said that about Mike Reid.

Away from the fan magazines, I always liked to collect cuttings from the Radio Times and national newspapers that covered my work, to make sure I had souvenirs – sadly, most of those I lost to mildew in 1987. However, I’m fortunate that some of the reviews and opinion pieces looking at my experimental mid-seventies output do survive, although admittedly in isolation they do give the impression that my work was met exclusively with horror.

However, I’m hopeful that I’ll now be able to redress the balance at long last. Yes, it gives me great pleasure to say I’ve finally got my very own Peter Fleming Annual off the ground – in spite of all the feet-dragging by the BBC and publishing house all those years ago! But you’ll have to come along to my talks in Edinburgh for a sneak peak of what I’ve conjured up for that…

Happy reading,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, Heroes @ Dragonfly, 15.20, 1-25 August (not 12). Tickets are available here.

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You Didn’t Hear It from Me

‘Course, you won’t hear that on the BBC though, will you?’

Huw Edwards was disgusted at himself. The studio seemed to rumble with the churn of the news team’s collective stomach. But they had no choice.

‘It’s all very simple,’ their editor had said on Monday’s meeting. ‘We provide great news content, and we need it to reach a wider audience who are getting put off – but they think the BBC doesn’t speak to them. They think our coverage is biased, they think we cover up the important issues of the day. The anti-BBC brand is getting stronger. To survive that, we have to embrace it.’

Accordingly, at the close of every headline, and at least once a studio item, once an interview, once a package, once a weather forecast, the presenter would have to say, ‘Course, you won’t hear that on the BBC though, will you?’ It was the only way to get over the conspiracy theorist hurdle, they reckoned. The only way to exist in the modern landscape. This would get their stories shared around online like they hadn’t been for years.

Sissons would never have stood for this.

They could never say what exact bias of theirs they were trying to beat though, one way or the other. That had been clear. Had to keep it ambiguous. Keep themselves everyone’s confidante, everyone’s whipping boy.

Couldn’t make the same mistake Comedy had, commissioning things aimed at one community and not the other, and feasting off the chatter. Have I Got News For You for nostalgic people who couldn’t face the music and let go. The Mash Report for lefties who couldn’t take a joke about themselves – according to the right-wingers who’d whinged Geoff Norcott into a TV career and a regular slot on The Mash Report.

They were talking about giving Titiana McGrath a show now too. So desperate were they to find women to helm a right-wing comedy show, they’d started recruiting fictional characters. ‘What about giving us a show?’ the women who’d been working successfully on the live circuit for years had asked. ‘No more SJWs!’ the panicked commissioner had shrieked as he ran back to his office and locked the door. Better to concentrate as he planned a sequel to First of the Summer Wine.

Soon it would all collapse, Huw thought. The licence fee would go. The standards would slip. The lines would blur. Soon we’d have our own Fox News. LBC had already talked about setting up a new channel to ‘liven up the debate’. And talked about what exciting new anchors they’d get too. Tommy. Farage. Hopkins. Arron Banks. Marc Francois on Sundays. James O’Brien for balance. An Aryan woman for diversity.

One day, thought Huw, perhaps everything will get back to normal. One day, perhaps we’ll hear voices of reason again, challenging petty vested interests and championing fact once more. A call for truth.

You won’t hear that on the BBC though.

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Peter Fleming in Space

Hi everyone. This week, to mark 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, Peter Fleming has written for me about the ways space travel influenced his work in the golden age of British children’s TV. You’re clear for lift off, Peter!

Hello there, my friends! Over! [crackle] (Ha ha ha! My little joke. I’m very much on the ground – practically in the gutter, in fact!)

Children have always been fascinated by outer space. I wonder if there’s ever been a child who hasn’t gazed up at the myriad stars of the firmament, and wondered. Naturally, this was perfect subject matter for children’s television, and throughout the sixties and seventies my team and I stretched our imaginations and our creative ambition with the programmes we made.

This was a time of more generous budgets, don’t forget – nowadays, you couldn’t train an entire production team as astronauts and blast them off into space. And you wouldn’t be able to take animals with you anymore either, thanks to the unforgettably bloody filming of Cows in Space in 1968! On that front, I can only apologise to my peers for spoiling the fun for everyone else.

The space race was a real driving force for us in the early sixties, and we tried explaining it to children in our own Race to Space series in 1963. Every week, they tuned in to watch a team of upstanding British astronauts helmed by Captain Steven Stardust – played by teen heartthrob Mickey Steele. (We were very lucky to get Mickey when we did, as within two years he’d become a much bigger name and branched out into narcotics.)

Under Stardust’s leadership, the crew eventually made it to Mercury, in spite of underhand tactics from their rivals: brash American astronauts and seedy Russian space spies, all played by Harry Secombe. We thought Harry was very good, but his broad performances ultimately brought the programme down to Earth, when management on the sixth floor received a number of complaints from the government. It turned out NASA had found the programme very insulting, and our Prime Minister bowed to the President’s wishes that production cease. A real lack of backbone, I thought – thank God those days are over!

At the other end of the decade, as the moon landing approached, we felt inspired once again, and produced 1969’s Our Friends on the Moon. This depicted a family of strange little creatures popping out of the craters they lived in on the lunar surface, their alien voices realised by an actor speaking the dialogue into a musical instrument (an ocarina, I think). Sadly, it didn’t last long, thanks to a dispute with Oliver Postgate regarding a similar programme he created at the same time. Merely an unfortunate coincidence, but nonetheless, Our Friends on the Moon was unceremoniously scrapped, following a particularly lively discussion that culminated in my kicking a Clanger’s face off.

After the moon landing, I decided to make programmes showing how, in the future, space travel would become much more routine. That was the inspiration behind Neil the Rocket Driver (1972; every week a delivery astronaut transports space stationery to a different lunar office building), Space Wardens (1974; a team of space traffic wardens gives speeding tickets to daring astronauts and prevents their adventures, teaching children to drive responsibly), and of course Mars Town (1976; our way of giving an exciting outer space twist to local government and  council bureaucracy – ironically brought down itself by BBC bureaucracy, and dismal viewing figures).

Those are all still remembered by viewers now, and often credited with the wider public falling out of love with space travel over the course of the decade. Apologies once again, my friends! In spite of that, I still often find myself gazing up at the stars each night (hard not to when there’s no roof over your head!), and I wonder what life might be out there, gazing back at us. I wonder too what lives we may build out there for ourselves in the future, thanks in no small part to the hundreds of thousands of people who worked on that Apollo 11 mission, back in 1969. To say nothing of the crew! Yes, this weekend, I too shall spare a thought for those three brave men, whose names will live on in history: Michael Collins, and whatever the other two were called.

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed at the following times and places:

  • Weds 24th July: Comedy Balloon, Manchester (tickets don’t exist)
  • Tues 30th July: XS Malarkey, Manchester (tickets available here)
  • 1st – 25th August (not 12th): Heroes @ Dragonfly, Edinburgh Fringe (tickets available here)
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Neil has moved to the MESA. Ulli Lotzmann has captured a frame from the 16mm film showing Neil as he takes 5903. No other Apollo photograph has been reproduced as often as this portrait of Buzz. Neil is, of course, visible in reflection on Buzz’s visor. Buzz has his left arm raised and is probably reading the checklist sewn on the wrist cover of his glove.

Catalogues

My first memory of being let down and betrayed by an adult came when I was six. I’d drawn four of my favourite Action Man figures – best of all was Dr. X in his lab, surrounded by bubbling chemicals in test tubes and beakers. I hadn’t coloured them in, but I knew the colours in my mind, and I was very proud of them.

I took the drawings into school, and my teacher was so impressed that she asked to take it to the staff room to show all the other grown-ups. I agreed, and never saw them again. I nagged and nagged her for them back over the next two years, and she always told me to remind her again later. After leaving that school I saw her once more, when I was nineteen, and decided it was now too late to ask. Who knows how quickly they ended up in the bin?

My imagination had really felt like it was soaring when I drew those pictures – probably more so than it would have done had I ever played with those Action Man figures. Because I never owned any of them. Every single one of the drawings had been based on each figure’s promotional photo in the Argos catalogue.

It is surely a testament to the power of advertising on gullible children, and not simply an indictment of me, that I consider catalogues unequivocally to be the greatest genre of children’s books ever published. What could better light up the mind of a child than the prospect of new adventures to create for themselves with a shiny new toy? (Answer: many things.)

I’ve been thinking more about catalogues lately since discovering the excellent Vintage UK Catalogue Pages account on Twitter (here it is). Scrolling through those glorious double page spreads, those enticing little photographs and the item numbers that would make your wildest dreams come true if only your crap, selfish parents would cough up, I’m reminded just how much of my youth I spent hungrily browsing.

Sometimes, my dreams did indeed come true. I remember writing down the three items I coveted most in a mail order catalogue (not Argos) at my grandparents’ house in the run-up to Christmas one year. Within months, the chemistry set and Hoberman sphere were mine, along with something else that I loved so much I can no longer remember what it was.

That memory hammers home a conviction I can’t quite shake looking back at these books (and they were books). I can recall vividly the yearning, the pure yearning, to own those Game Boy games, those actions figures, those Star Wars toys, those Lego sets, and ideally all the scenery that was provided for their photos too. In the luckiest cases, I vividly recall owning them and playing with them too – usually in the case of the Lego sets, especially the Ancient Egyptian series in the late nineties. Those items that really encouraged your creativity and your engagement had the best life beyond the catalogue page.

But there are others I remember receiving only vaguely now, which must have inspired me less in real life than the promise of their pictures had. I only ever owned one Action Man doll (I think I’d be right in saying it was the original Professor Gangrene). I had fun with it, but even now I still pine more for those lost drawings when I squint back into the mists of my childhood. Actually being given something you saw in a catalogue was one thing, but I realise in retrospect that the idea of having it was often the biggest thrill.

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Peter Fleming on Jon Pertwee

Hi everyone. Today marks the centenary of Doctor Who, Worzel Gummidge, The Navy Lark actor and all round eccentric legend Jon Pertwee. For the occasion, children’s TV pioneer Peter Fleming has kindly written to me about his own experiences with Jon (he stresses not in the capacity of stalker).

Hello there, my friends!

My first experience with the legendary Jon Pertwee was when I timidly approached the famous ‘man of a thousand voices’ in late 1968 to give life to the characters of an animated series I’d been commissioned to make. The money we had to offer was pitiful, so it wasn’t much surprise that Jon had to turn us down. As it was, The Many-Headed Millicent never came to fruition, and Jon was to become unavailable within months, when he was cast as none other than TV’s Dr Who!

That might have been the end of our association, were it not for a chance encounter in January 1970, when, in quite a distracted state of mind and something of a rush, I mistook Jon’s car for my own sprightly yellow roadster and drove it off a pier, not realising my error till quite some time after I’d fled the scene. Jon understandably wasn’t best pleased, and thought I must be pursuing some vendetta following Millicent’s premature decapitation. Naturally, I was determined to set the record straight, but he was now making every possible effort to avoid me. It seemed to me the only sensible thing to do was put just as much effort into following him around in order to apologise.

So began the saga of my chasing Jon as he went about his business while he sped away with increasing terror in his eyes over several years. He tried hiding and disguising himself, allowing his hair to become more and more bouffant as his time on Doctor Who progressed, but I could always spot him! Similarly, I would always learn his filming schedule and get to places ahead of him, often in disguise myself, so I could leap out and beg for his forgiveness, but I never could get a word in before he used his famous martial arts on me.

One notable incident, when I charged towards him dressed first as a milkman then a cleaning lady over the course of an afternoon, actually ended up cathartically channelled into 1973’s The Green Death, and provided a welcome bit of comic relief to the episode. (Incidentally, the filming of that particular Doctor Who story in south Wales was disrupted when he discovered I’d concealed myself in his convertible caravan a few weeks before he drove it out to the location!)

As this pattern of events continued, it would often give Jon ideas for chase sequences that he fed back to his own production office – for instance an occasion where I pursued him through the countryside by car, helicopter, motor boat and finally hovercraft, which was later copied note for note in 1974’s Planet of the Spiders. I was delighted to have inadvertently inspired so many gripping TV moments for Jon’s fans – and I enjoyed watching them myself, as I considered myself a true fan of the programme when he was at the helm. There were times in the early seventies when I was a little the worse for wear, but I always found comfort watching his heroism as our friend the Doctor, in that cosy era of the series.

In fact, my determination to tune in every single week during this time, coupled with the above encounters, led some to suppose I had developed some form of obsession with Jon – but that really wasn’t the case! Did worry me that such talk might get back to him, which made me even keener to set the record straight, but once he’d left Doctor Who I wasn’t able to find him anywhere. Found out recently that he actually spent the next few years hiding out as a scarecrow just to get rid of me, although he was eventually able to monetise this – happy to help, Jon!

Nonetheless, I still miss his presence on the screen, and in the wider world with his many generous public appearances – as I’m sure many of us do. Like lots of our shared child viewers at the time, I always felt somehow more… secure watching his Doctor Who. While he was there, with Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks to help him, the programme blossomed beautifully into real appointment viewing for me. One of television’s great families, with one of its greatest ever showmen at its heart.

Best wishes,

Peter

The Jon Pertwee Files, presented by Sean Pertwee, is available to listen to now on BBC Sounds.

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed around the country at the following times and places:

  • Fri 12th July: 2Northdown, King’s Cross (tickets available here)
  • Fri 19th July: The Southern Belle, Brighton (tickets not available yet)
  • Weds 24th July: Comedy Balloon, Manchester (tickets don’t exist)
  • Tues 30th July: XS Malarkey, Manchester (tickets available here)
  • 1st – 25th August (not 12th): Heroes @ Dragonfly, Edinburgh Fringe (tickets available here)

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Peter Fleming on the News

Hi everyone. This week, Peter Fleming, architect of the golden age of British children’s TV, has written to me about how, throughout his career, he has made the news – in more ways than one…

This just in, my friends! (Ha ha! Just my little joke – this all happened years ago!)

But I’m sure anyone reading will remember my landmark children’s drama series This Just In (1973). I have discussed previously various attempts I made to inspire viewers to engage with current affairs, and with Newsround having started the previous year, I thought they could be encouraged to think about how the news itself works. A glimpse behind the curtain, showing the workings of television – always a treat for the children, I thought!

Every week, the fictional newsroom staff of This Just In would plan how to portray some new, emerging crisis. These would always be fictionalised situations, but to help launch the programme, I thought it would be a splendid idea for John Craven to cover our first story, a bank heist, on that day’s Newsround, as we were scheduled to go out directly after. It was too good an opportunity to pass up – or so I thought! You see, when I went up to John to suggest the idea, he replied, ‘Who are you?’ – a running joke I had with a number of my best-known colleagues at Television Centre! But unhelpful for my purposes.

On that occasion, we pressed on without the story being covered on Newsround, but I approached John to suggest further stories of ours as we went on. Zoo escapes, school sieges, royal kidnappings. You name it, I suggested it, but he steadfastly refused every single time, even after giving up pretending not to know who I was!  He maintained it would be irresponsible, saying, ‘I will now lie to the nation’s children by using their only dedicated news programme as a way of flogging your pathetic tat’. Or words to that effect – who can remember such things these days, other than myself, vividly?

However, soon after this, I cannily came up with the idea to engineer that one of our fictional stories should take place in real life, meaning he’d have no choice but to cover it! And that, as I’m sure you’ll now realise, is how I came to break into London Zoo that October and set all their crocodiles loose. That was in accordance with an episode we’d already scripted, so I made sure none of the other animals got away. Borrowing an outside broadcast van, I managed to get through the staff entrance and lure the crocodiles out of their enclosure and into the van using some leftover props from Mr Michael’s Meat Farm (1972). Once the back door was broadly secure, I drove back to Television Centre and deposited the animals in the Newsround studio – ignore that, Craven, I thought to myself. And sure enough, he couldn’t!

In fact, so difficult were the reptiles to recapture that it became very hard for other news programmes to ignore them either – so I got a bit more than I bargained for! The infestation was covered by the Nine O’ Clock News, and the national press, for the next few days. Very good publicity for This Just In, I thought, although many of the wider team argued it rather overshadowed the programme itself, and was almost certainly the main factor in its immediate cancellation.

Still, a revolutionary piece of work for its time, and its effects were felt in the decades to come. To this day, I still periodically get in touch with the creator of Press Gang (1989-1993) to request a portion of the royalties, but tend to receive nothing more than a reply of ‘Who are you?’ I’m also pretty certain This Just In influenced foreign imports in later years like The Newsroom (2012-14), and even homegrown modern classics like the BBC’s 10 O’ Clock News (2000-present).

Fans have also brought to my attention that a James Bond film from the 1990s by the name of Tomorrow Never Dies is quite clearly based on the incident described above, featuring as it does a news magnate creating catastrophes in order to cover them. The only difference is he’s ground up by a large drill in the end, not ordered by the courts to pay for counselling for John Craven for the next five years.

I recently contacted the studios demanding some form of recompense – perhaps an opportunity to write a script for a future film. To be surprise and delight, they got back in touch straight away (no mean feat to get a message to me on my raft), saying they’d love me to help script the film they’re currently working on! ‘Please God, so much has gone wrong with this one, it can’t get any worse, we’re absolutely desperate – when can you start?’ A positive note to end on!

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed around the country at the following times and places:

  • Fri 5th July: George Hotel (Granary), Frome (tickets available here)
  • Fri 12th July: 2Northdown, King’s Cross (tickets available here)
  • Fri 19th July: The Southern Belle, Brighton (tickets not available yet)
  • Weds 24th July: Comedy Balloon, Manchester (tickets don’t exist)
  • Tues 30th July: XS Malarkey, Manchester (tickets available here)
  • 1st – 25th August (not 12th): Heroes @ Dragonfly, Edinburgh Fringe (tickets available here)

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