The next post will be on either on or before Thursday April 20th
BLUSHING EMBARRASSMENT IN THE REMOTE PROVINCES
Ever heard of the Outer Hebrides Broadcasting Corporation, which produces most varied yet always gripping TV programmes for the denizens of one of the loneliest and most windblown areas in the British Isles? You’re right, there isn’t one, and indeed it is just an excellent invention of the fine Scottish comedian Gregor Fisher(born 1953), better known as the scathingly eloquent Glaswegian layabout Rab C Nesbitt, and the Teuchter aka Highland Hick sea captain Para Handy adapted for TV from the eponymous tales of Neil Munro (1863-1930). In one of these OHBC skits the presenter with his mad stick up hair and gleefully singsong Highland brogue announces a phone in competition for which the coveted First Prize is, raising it proudly aloft… a bag of 4 inch nails.
I come from the remote provinces myself, or at least West Cumbria in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up was certainly the back of beyond, both culturally, linguistically (a type of unintelligible latter day Viking dialect in certain villages around Maryport, Cockermouth and Wigton) and geographically. There were no decent road connections to the main towns of Workington and Whitehaven from Penrith = the M6 motorway, up until the mid-1970s, which means that should I have wished to hitchhike home as a student the lifts would have become ever more short, sharp and endless. The rule of thumb with living in the sticks is that you get laughed at by those who don’t or who alternatively reside slightly less in the risible hinterland than yourself. So the metropolitan Newcastle Geordies regularly laugh at the adjacent North Cumbrians of Carlisle who in turn make jokes about the pitiful primitives down West, just as on the opposite side of the Atlantic mainland Canadians make endless gags about the gullible stupidity of the Newfoundlanders who they sneeringly refer to as Newfies. The humble West Cumbrians who have no one lower to laugh at in the near vicinity, choose as a rule to mock the Irish and the Blacks, albeit the Irish are almost visible on the other side of the ocean, while the number of Blacks living in West Cumbria up until the mid-1970s, was precisely one. He was a gifted rugby league player for Workington Town and he was a window cleaner and he was called Ces.
A couple of years ago I wrote in these pages about the Cumbrian equivalent of OHBC, the late but not great Border TV (1961-2001) which also served South Scotland and the Isle of Man and meant that the news bulletin Border News and Lookaround (aka Border Crack an Deekaboot) was of such motley and serendipity contents it amounted to the dizzily surreal. A breathless lead item might be that the Sheriff of Jedburgh (where workaholic Sir Walter Scott was once a magistrate) had just opened a new mini-market on High St that would give no less than 2 new jobs to the pretty little Border town. Switch then to the Isle of Man whose reclusive citizens’ hobbies were tax evasion and as legislated by its self-governing Tynwald parliament, birching criminal vandals when everyone else had stopped doing so centuries earlier. You would either hear about the controversial and potentially fatal flogging of an epileptic, in what after all was part of the UK and not Saudi Arabia nor post Bhutto Pakistan…or of the Sheriff of Douglas attending a Rotarian dinner with his wife, both of them dressed to the nines and where Manx kippers were an unbelievable if extremely local starter.
Once in the early 1960s, there was an ITV cameramen’s strike (I never noticed any camerawomen either then or now) and as Border was a regional child of the national ITV you would have expected it to follow suit. But just as in the old National Union of Miners generally the only ones not to strike were in the passive and docile West Cumbrian branch, so the Border camera chaps decided to stay in to work as normal. They had a considerable problem though, which was that the Equity and acting unions were on strike in sympathy with their colleagues, meaning that Border TV had the cameras alright but none of these things they call programmes to broadcast. That would have daunted any organisation recognisable as sane, but not good old Border. As it happened they had as an occasional Lookaround stalwart, a handsome young chap with a guitar called Michael who not only your old Mum but your old Grandmum and her old Grandmum and all their collateral branches going back to the 10th century would have loved and cossetted as he was the most wholesome lad in Christendom complete with fair and fluffy hair and a clotted cream cardigan knitted by his Aunty Viv, and a shy and winning smile whose only possible equal was that of the charismatic pianist Russ Conway (1925-2000) author of 1959 number 1 hit Sidesaddle and who my own grandmother Lily Renney (1882?- 1969) was obviously in love with as she watched him entranced every Saturday night in our house on the Billy Cotton Band Show (1956-1968).What Border TV did for 3 whole days was to have Michael playing his Sunday school teacher’s acoustic guitar in an empty Carlisle studio, gamely warbling sweetly every song he knew, and give him his due he did no repeats, not even one. And believe it or not, and this is truly incredible, when we at home could have watched proper programmes like Z Cars or Compact on the BBC, instead we sat and for at least half of the 3 days gawked at Aunty Viv’s cardigan and asked ourselves would he ever be allowed to have his girlfriend or his Mam or even his Aunty Viv in to play on maracas and thus make him perhaps just a little less lonely in the deserted studio.
Predictably those celebrities in their own right, the continuity announcers on Border, stayed touchingly peerless innocents all the way though its 4 decades of broadcasting. I mentioned previously the anchor man who in 1964 announced the imminent Cock of the Border show which featured my own mother no less, representing Maryport versus rival town Aspatria in a cooking competition. The little chap was so excited by the climactic (sorry) task he got as far as, Now it’s Time for Cock, and then having reached his annunciatory apogee as it were, was able to go no further. We never heard the ‘of the Border’ bit, and the camera slowly faded, and even though it was black and white we saw him blushing to the roots of his brilliantined hair. Meanwhile and for even juicier faux pas, I am indebted to my friend the fine novelist Christopher Burns, another West Cumbrian a few years older than myself, and with an infallible memory for TV history as well as that of film, at which he is an unequalled expert. Chris lists some Border continuity gems which alas I never saw myself, but were wholly in keeping with the ineffable spirit of the organisation, which is to say smiling, beguiling and unfortunately there is not a word seniling, but let us employ one that exists, and it is senile
On the small scale, there was a Northern Irish vocalist who is still active but most prominent in the 70s and 80s, called Clodagh Rodgers (born 1947) and who was once interviewed upon Border TV. She should have been easy enough to announce, should she not, and no you’re wrong, the little bloke in the 70s studio still with his Brylcreem, didn’t say ‘Klo-Dag’, but instead told us that we were now to see The Clodagh Brothers, meaning two or even three euphonious Ulster crooners, albeit all of them blokes, for the price of one. Better, by which I mean even worse than that, the genius TV dramatist Dennis Potter (1935-1994) who was severely afflicted with it himself, would have been outraged or possibly just hysterical to have the same chap sunnily announce the next programme, scheduled in the TV Times to be about Psoriasis, was instead about that uniquely Border variant known as Cirrhosis…
Finally and best of all, and may its peerless memory never fade. Anyone who knows the handsome West Cumbrian port of Whitehaven will know of its legendary dockland chip shop, run for decades by a family of Irish origin known as the Peeney’s. Two of the young daughters had just started up a lively singing duo who were to appear at the tail end of Lookaround (yes yes, and now I know why we always called it Border Crack an Deekaboot) and who the announcer duly noted as The Wonderful Penis Sisters.