Saturday, 25 July 2009

Singing, Ringing...

My old friend Maddie Grigg, whose excellent blog 'The World From My Window' inhabits a Dorset village somewhere between Dibley and Royston Vaysey, asked for this.
It's a piece about the TV programme The Singing Ringing Tree, which was probably the most frightening thing ever to appear on TV.

I WAS never really that scared of Doctor Who.
I never watched episodes from behind the sofa.
I never peeked out from between my fingers at the Daleks or the cybermen.
There was one, in which people in cars were suffocated by some horrible expanding plastic dolls, which caused me a few moments of concern.
But, on the whole, I was all right with the Doctor.
However, somewhere back in my memory I knew there was a programme which had been bothering me for many, many years.
I occasionally had flashbacks to a land of brilliant colours and strange noises. There was a white horse with antlers there, and a giant golden fish with rolling eyes.
It sounded like something from the darker recesses of chemical-induced psychedelia, but I was at Hayes Road at the time and not in Haight-Astbury, so it can’t have been that.
It started to come back to me during an episode of the Fast Show, in which Charlie Higson dressed as a medieval prince and crossed a bridge into a magic kingdom.
As he stepped on the bridge, it played Gary Numan’s Cars.
And so it came back in a blinding flash.
The most frightening television programme of my childhood, in fact of my entire life, was The Singing Ringing Tree.
You may remember it.
It was made in 1957 in what was then known as East Germany, and had the first of its countless showings in Britain in 1964.
For some reason, presumably some film stock that had been left out in the sun for a while, all the colours were extremely bright, with great watercolour washes all over the scenery.
The characters all spoke in German, naturally, but instead of dubbing them into English, the BBC had a narrator speak over the German voices.
The story concerned a prince who set out to get the singing, ringing tree to impress a beautiful but selfish princess, but fell foul of a vertically-challenged gentleman in the magic kingdom where it grew.
He got turned into a bear, and then the princess learned the error of her ways by being nice to the animals in the magic kingdom and, after a battle with the vertically-challenged gentleman, they and their tree lived happily ever after.
As simple as that.
The antlered horse and the big fish came in at this point, by the way.
I know all this because I recently saw The Singing Ringing Tree on video, thanks to my mate Patrick.
He came into the office the other day and said he had a video which might interest me.
His wife, he said, had banned his children from watching it because it was too frightening.
It wasn’t the sort of thing she wanted to see in the house.
Would I like to see it, he whispered conspiratorially?
My mind boggled. What manner of video nasty could this be? Something with chainsaws and cannibals? Flesh-Eating Cheerleader Zombies III?
No, it was the Singing Ringing Tree, and yesterday I was terrified all over again as the story unfolded.
You see, it isn’t so much the ghastly colours and the hideous creatures.
It wasn’t even the state-of-the-art special effects of the chilling prince-to-bear transformation, or the shocking fiery demise of the vertically-challenged gentleman at the end.
It was the sound.
Every step on the bridge sounded like a Dan Hawkins power chord, and odd wibbly noises in the background gave way unpredictably every now and then to jarring, shuddering orchestra noises.
My palms were sweating long before the princess walked through the flames to embrace the tree and the bear was transformed back into a prince once more.
By the time the credits rolled at the end, I was like a damp rag.
The Singing Ringing Tree belongs to an age when the BBC bought in cheap foreign films and hacked them into episode lengths for the daytime TV schedules.
And they got their money’s worth out of it.
Every time you switched on the TV during the day back then, it seemed to be on.
Mention it to anyone in their 40s and they will remember it. They may even burst into tears and demand counselling.
They certainly don’t make ’em like that any more.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Colour changing Hugh

IS July 15 too early to be going to a football match?
Probably, but Bazza's offer was too good to refuse.
My neighbour is a Plymouth Argyle fan, and on Wednesday Argyle were playing a friendly at Torquay United, whose blue and yellow colours have run through my veins for many a year.
"I'll give you a lift," said Bazza. "I'll even buy you a pint."
And so we found ourselves in Molloy's at Babbacombe sinking a pint of draught bitter and watching the sports headlines creep across the bottom of the Sky Sports screen.
We made our way to the ground, and Bazza was faced with an agonising decision. Would he come and stand with me on the Popular Side among the supporters of God's own team, or would he don his Pilgrim green and stand in the away end.
He thought long and hard, but he was drawn to his own kind and bade me farewell to stand among the visiting supporters. In fact, as we rounded the corner of Marnham Road a Plymouth fan of such immense girth rounded the corner with us that Bazza was pulled across two lines of traffic and into his gravitational orbit. The last I saw of him pre-match was his bald head disappearing into a seething mass of green. I hoped he would be all right.
I adjourned to the sumptuous surroundings of the press box to renew acquaintances with Dave T, Gordon, Darryl and Ross. You can keep the Bernabeu, the San Siro, the Maracana and all those, there is nowhere on earth I would rather watch football than the Plainmoor press box when the banter is in full flow. The conversation was erudite and intellectual as always. We spent half an hour eulogising about Mark Loram's left foot and Gordon's half-time coffee was a seething industrial strength concoction which would have kept me awake until about 4am if the ITV4 Tour de France podcast on my ipod hadn't put me soundly to sleep long before the final credits rolled.
The football finished 3-3.
I had a surreal moment in Bazza's car when he hopped out to get some cash and left me listening to Don Maclean singing 'Vincent' at high volume, What an interesting song that is, packed with fascinating characters. I would love to meet Colour Changing Hugh one day.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


EVERYONE had come to see the Vulcan.
You had to feel a little bit sorry for the Royal Navy, celebrating 100 years of naval aviation with the spectacular pageant of the Yeovilton International Air Day.
The Royal Naval air station was decked out in its finest and it was estimated on the local radio that more than 30,000 people were making their way there.
Most of them, it seemed, were with us on the A303 near Ilchester watching distant helicopters flying to and fro.
But despite the Navy's best efforts, the aeroplane that everyone wanted to see was the Vulcan.
The last of the giant delta-winged bombers went out of active service with the Royal Air Force in 1986, four years after the extraordinary Black Buck mission to the Falklands.
Six years later the last flying Vulcan, XH558, was retired from airshow service, and that, it seemed, was that.
But ever since then the Vulcan To The Sky Trust has been using public donations, bequests and lottery money to restore the aeroplane to flying condition, and it is now airborne again.
There were Vulcans on show from the minute you got inside the gate at Yeovilton — on hats, on T-shirts and inflatable ones in the hands of small children. You could buy model Vulcans and DVDs of Vulcans flying.
All week I had been checking the weather forecast for Yeovilton on Saturday, and at no point in the week did it get any better. I checked the Herald Express online weather, the BBC, Metcheck and the Met Office but they were all unanimous.
However nice it was in the few days leading up to the weekend, it was going to hammer down on Saturday on the Somerset Levels.
But while the skies were grey and the clouds lowering, it was dry when we arrived and it stayed that way right up until the last 20 minutes.
Having battled through the jams, we got out of the car just as a flypast marking the 100 years of naval aviation swept overhead.
I was all excited.
Back in the 70s Dad and I frequented airshows at Exeter, Chivenor, Yeovilton, Farnborough and Greenham Common.
We saw the first flights of Tornados and Jaguars, we watched anxiously as the Red Arrows made the tricky transition from the Gnat to the Hawk, and we held our ears and grinned like idiots as Buccaneers, Lightnings, Phantoms and Starfighters tore great fiery holes in the sky.
I hadn't been to an airshow since, and I wondered if Saturday's excitement would live up to the memories. It did.
The low cloud meant things got off to a bit of a slow start, with the Typhoon unable to do its display and the Red Arrows making just a couple of red, white and blue smoky runs up and down the display line before heading back whence they came.
But that just gave us more time to enjoy the massive static display, where you could buy souvenirs and get up close to some aeroplanes.

Prince Andrew paid a quick visit and then departed by private jet. A Sea Vixen made lovely shapes in the sky and the Royal Jordanian Falcons performed intricate aerobatic manoeuvres in time to a slinky disco beat booming over the speakers.
A French pilot leaned casually on the crowd barrier in front of his beautiful Rafale fighter plane. He smiled a lot, chatted happily to the crowds and looked as if he should be modelling something. A few minutes later he ran his hand through his immaculate coiffure, climbed into his beautiful Rafale fighter plane and threw it around the sky in a rage of sound like a tempestuous tango partner to the cheers of the adoring crowd.
I hated him.
Back on the ground, the unmistakable sound of Vulcan engines sent a stir around the aerodrome. The great beast, visible across on the other side of the airfield, was being brought to life ready for its flight later.
And it still hadn't rained, although the low cloudbase was playing havoc with the programme.
Two giggling girls under an umbrella had their photograph taken by almost every photographer in the press area just in case it did rain later and their editors wanted a picture to illustrate the downpour.
Somewhere in the skies above, in the cockpit of his beautiful Rafale fighter plane, a handsome pilot shook his fist at the photographers below. "Photograph me!" he shouted. "Photograph me!"
Over on the apron, a blinking red light on top of the Vulcan's fuselage showed that another stage had been completed in its preparation for flight. Small boys of all ages gnawed their knuckles in excitement.
In the sky an F16 multi-role combat aircraft of the Belgian Air Component poked the low cloudbase in the eye and did a display anyway.
As it turned sharply through the wet air a cloud formed momentarily over its wings and was gone again. Then the pilot completed his display by simply hammering down the crowd line from one end to the other as fast and as low as he was allowed to.

My vital organs vibrated. Over in Ilchester people trying to watch the cricket on TV looked up at the sky crossly and said "Bah!". The photographer in front of us nearly fell off his little stepladder with excitement.
It was absolutely brilliant, and I remembered standing with Dad and grinning like an idiot at fiery holes in the sky again.
According to the programme, an F16 of the Royal Netherlands Air Force was up next, and this one was painted bright orange like a Dutch football shirt from the 1970s.
Now we were REALLY excited.
Imagine Johnny Rep and the drummer out of Golden Earring unleashed at the controls of a fighter plane.
Now THAT'S exciting.
But there was bad news. The orange machine had been shut down and the pilot had got out. A mechanical problem was blamed, but we preferred to imagine the pilot claiming a prior engagement with a blonde and a roll-up.
And anyway, we had the Vulcan to look forward to.
We walked around the static displays for a bit, finding ourselves in the Airfix tent where whole families were sitting at long trestle tables sticking little plastic aircraft together and grown men were discussing Vulcan kits.
The heady smell of modelling glue was thick in the air and we almost bought a 1/72nd scale Spitfire but fought the temptation.
Back outside, the bottom of the clouds had touched the top of the hills off to the south and that, according to the commentator, was A Bad Thing.
And worse was to come. In sombre tones normally reserved for the death of a pop star, the announcer gave us the news that the Vulcan had fallen victim to a mechanical failure and would not fly.
Its blinking red light had been extinguished for the day.
Its engines were no longer being prepared.
It was, he said, a hydraulic fault. The Vulcan, being made of the same kind of technology that propelled early Austin Minis down A-roads in the hands of men wearing caps and string-backed gloves, is as susceptible to gremlins as any other piece of technology of that age.
The crowds took it well, considering, and for those who hung around, there was a treat in store.
The Vulcan was towed slowly across the airfield in front of them behind a truck, and manoeuvred into an enclosure where they could all but reach out and touch it.
It was magnificent up close — not as good as seeing it in the air, but almost.
Then, as the clouds finally emptied their contents over the runways, the finale saw the Navy flyers reassert themselves with a display full of swooping helicopters and pyrotechnics so loud they must have woken the snoozing cricket fans of Ilchester all over again.
Fly Navy. You know it makes sense.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

We're rolling...

There are times when this job gives you an insight into something really special, and today was one of those days.
We were at the Music Mill studios in Newton Abbot where Digby and Shaun engineered the first efforts by Space Beacon Earth to commit their songs to posterity.
And the lads were stupendous all day, recording the instrumental parts of three songs, plus some overdubs. Tomorrow they go back in to do vocals, a cowbell or two and maybe some battered hub caps or shopping trolleys for shits and giggles in the percussion department.
They are all talented people, and it's a privilege to be there to see it all come together.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

BANTHAM today, and a chance to walk another bit of coast path. Big bad showers, though, and a curtailed picnic. Nature notes confined to a big yellow and black dragonfly and a big sign in the dunes saying 'Adders'. We had our picnic right next to it. Scared? Us? Pah!

Friday, 3 July 2009


Alan the coach, being a generous chap, let me organise the run.
I decided to go for Greenway, which is my favourite route for a summer evening. You go up to Galmpton, down through the village, up round the back of the tree-that-isn't-a-tree-it's-a-phone-mast on the muddy track, down to Maypool, up over the cow-field hill, down to Galmpton Creek and back up through the village and over the common before the drop back down to Paignton.
It's eight and half miles and hilly, and it rained for the first half, which wasn't so bad underfoot but made brushing through the overgrown narrow lane a bit of a soggy experience.
Nature notes were a bit thin on the ground, though. A hen pheasant literally dropped out of a tree on to the track in front of us just as we reached the field at Maypool with the spectacular view of Dartmouth. It skreeked a bit and made off. And Mr Fangio scared a heron into flight on the mud at Galmpton Creek.
Back in the car park the consensus was that everyone had enjoyed the slightly damp and eccentric route, specially the Jamie The Legs and his fast group, who did it in the opposite direction for reasons known only to themselves, then added a couple of extra miles on the way back for good measure.