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