Monday, 14 August 2017

Punch and Judy

These colourful Punch and Judy puppets are from an exhibition I saw in Scarborough. A bizarre tale of domestic abuse and Mr Punch's near comeuppance, Punch and Judy shows are a tradition of village fetes and seaside entertainments that stretch back to the 1600s.

The Funny History of Punch and Judy (from the John Styles Collection) sets out the familiar scenario which ends with Mr Punch convincing Mr Ketch the hangman to put his head through the noose.

The exhibition at Scarborough had the familiar Punch and Judy characters as well as some other glove puppets from children's fairy tales such as Three Billy Goats Gruff.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Remembering Larry Grayson

What a pity that the William White public house in Nuneaton has closed down. Apparently the place had an infestation of vermin. "This place is alive!" Larry Grayson would have exclaimed with disapproval. Larry Grayson was William White, and, possibly Nuneaton's most famous inhabitant since George Eliot.

The pub used to display some Larry-related artwork on one of the walls.

There are other clues regarding Grayson's connection dotted around this Midlands town. The streets of terraced houses where William White grew up. The working mens clubs where he performed for many years before becoming a household name and television star. A small permanent exhibition of Larry's theatrical items is on display in the museum on the park.

In 2016 there was a touring exhibition devoted to Larry at venues in Nuneaton and Bedworth. The latter was created to coincide with the first biography of Grayson, Seems Like a Nice Boy, written by his nephew Mike Malyon.

Larry Grayson's talent should not be underestimated. In his early ITV series he manages to get away with some relatively anarchic humour. This is not always asexual camp. Take a look at some of his early ITV sketches and you'll see what I mean.

Yet at the same time he was able to endear himself to millions of television viewers. This demonstrates how broad minded his family audience of the 1970s and '80s was.

His particular talent was that he managed to be utterly endearing and bizarre in equal measures. His monologues verge on the nonsensical. It is difficult to actually say what the content is of some of his stand up sketches. In the Music Hall tradition, they consist of pieces of idle gossip about his ailments and his imaginary friends, Everard, Slack Alice and Apricot Lil. Even the mention of the name 'Everard Farquharson' will elicit squeals of delight from his audience. 

He was also very down to earth.  The very essence of a working class Midlander.

Here's a picture of yours truly with Larry at a public appearance in Loughborough...
Souvenir book of matches from public appearance in Ashby, 1980s

Larry is buried in the cemetery next to the train line that passes through Nuneaton. His real name William S. White, and his stage name are carved on the memorial stone.

  • Further reading: Malyon, Mike, 2015, Seems Like a Nice Boy, Apex Publishing

Monday, 20 March 2017

Kristin Baybars and her Incredible Shop

If you have read my previous blog post about the exhibition of children's television artifacts at Coventry in 2015 you might remember that I mentioned Kristin Baybars. 

Kristin was the woman who designed Humpty and Jemima on BBC's Playschool (1964 – 1988). Previous to this, Kristin was the toy buyer at Heals department store in London, and the inventor of the Ostrobogulous.

Ostroboguli – if that’s the plural - were a range of suitably 1960s-looking soft toys such as owls, hedgehogs and clowns, which looked like psychedelic precursors to Playschool's Humpty.

Ms Baybars has evidently made a magical contribution to many people's lives: for adults who remember Playschool and for those who have visited her shop over the years.

Anyone entering Kristin Baybar's shop needs to forget about time. You might think time has stood still here, but on the contrary, time passes very quickly in this shop. I've been involved in a conversation here with Kristin or one of her colleagues, and three hours have passed. You should allow for 90 minutes at least. Remember, you may be in a space only 7' by 5' but this is equivalent to Harrods department store, Fortnum and Masons, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Academy all in one... but in miniature form. Imagine how much time you would have to spend walking around those, and converse with a guide at the same time. 

One of my favourite memories of visiting this place was when I sat on a small chair looking through drawers of miniature pottery whilst Ms Baybars sat opposite me looking in an address book for the name of a ceramicist whose name had slipped our minds. A quiet quarter of an hour passed in contemplation… and we both found what we were looking for: Duncan White.

Imagine for a moment that you have shrunk to the size of a Borrower and you need the following:

A Swiss Army knife
An egg slicer
A rattan chair 
A slipware wassail drinking vessel
A shoe house to live in

From this list you will get an idea of what you might find here. All mostly in 12:1 scale. (1 inch = 1 foot). Kristin likes to quote a visitor who once said that 'Aladdin never had it so good!'

Not everything is for sale here however, and the customer needs to respect this. 

The customer might visit the shop to buy something but comes away with much more than a miniature item. They might come away having learned something about art history, the top quality miniaturists of the past few decades, or about Kristin's father, Blair Hughes-Stanton, the artist and book illustrator. All of it enriching and incredibly fascinating.

Kristin’s shop can be found opposite Gospel Oak Station. Knock on the door and wait to be invited in…

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Filmurbia and the Children’s Film Foundation

The films of the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) construct an arguably romanticised yet progressive image of the suburbs where children claim and consume the streets of the post-war British housing regeneration. In films such as Cup Fever (1965), Egghead’s Robot (1970), and Terry on the Fence (1985) children are foregrounded, whereas adults are relegated to marginal roles, and pushed indoors to work or perform domestic duties.

The CFF films celebrate and explore British suburbia as a site of childhood play and independence. For audiences of the time these films played a major contribution to the ways in which the suburbs were constructed through British visual culture, firstly in the cinema, and later on television.

I was part of the group of youngsters who stayed at home to watch Tiswas (1974 – 1982) and / or Multicoloured Swap Shop (1976 – 1982)However, I did see some of the CFF films – such as Sammy’s Super T-Shirt (1978) – on television in the mid 1980s. I was also familiar with CFF clips from the TV series Screen Test (1970 – 1984). 

The only time I've seen a CFF film was at the National Film Theatre many years ago when they screened The Glitterball (1978). I was there as a film student, making notes for a dissertation, and must have made an incongruous sight, scribbling notes on an A4 pad in the dark. This was before the film was available on DVD, and it's a good exercise for film scholars to try and make notes without being able to hit the pause button!

Now I’ve written a chapter for Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs (published April 2017). In it, I look at how boys and girls of the 1960s use the suburban streets to practice for an important football match, and how by the 1980s, the potentially-violent suburbs may have persuaded audiences to appreciate the safety of their own living rooms.

I’m looking forward to reading about the other screen suburbs in this edited collection.

Further reading:

Forrest, David, Harper, Graeme, and Rayner, Jonathan, (eds.), 2017,  Filmurbia: Screening the Suburbs, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan