Saturday, 12 November 2011

It's a Knockout - Remembering Stuart Hall

There can be no-one in the history of It's A Knockout who so personified and represented everything that the fun and games were about as Stuart Hall. A gifted wordsmith with an infectious sense of humour and a laugh that millions will never forget, Hall has excelled in a diverse cross-section of broadcasting since the 50s.
Stuart Hall introduces IAK from Luton, 1981
Stuart Hall was born on Christmas Day, but the year in question has been subject to speculation. In 1993, he told The Observer that he would be 64 and that can be verified elsewhere. However for some time Who's Who in Manchester used to include an entry for James Stuart Hall, born in 1934. Childhood was spent in the Cheshire town of Hyde and his early life with his father James Stuart, mother Mary and younger brother Keith, encompassed the family business of baking. He was educated at Glossop Grammar School, where he achieved high academic accolades, captained the football team and became head boy. He attended UMIST - the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - and following his National Service, joined the family business as the Director of Catering.

Sporting endeavours were and are an integral part of his make up and as a young man he played professional football for Crystal Palace FC, playing in the position of wing half. His love of motor sport has remained constant; racing cars around circuits such as Silverstone and Oulton Park. So it was in 1957 at the Cheshire motor sport circuit of Oulton Park that the prowess for a career at the microphone began to blossom. In an interview for Loaded magazine he said he took to commentaries like fresh-water salmon to a river. He joined the BBC in 1959 and contributed to Sports Report, Radio Newsreel, A Question of Sport and Grandstand where in his role as a roving (or should that be raving?) reporter took him to a first assignment at a motorcycle scramble. QuizBall and Pot The Question were other national networked shows in which he took the chairman's seat.

The saga moves on to 1965 and the start of the BBC's production of regional news magazines across Britain. Look North was to be the vehicle from Manchester for all points from Windermere in the North to Crewe in the South. In a quarter of a century under various guises - Look North,Look North West and North West Tonight, Stuart became the face and voice of the region's output. He was to viewers in Blackpool and Rochdale what Alan Towers was in the Midlands, Ian Masters in East Anglia, Mike Neville in the North East and Bruce Parker in the South. He thrived in an environment where the hard, serious news of the day would be read and then anything could happen and usually did. It was the opportunity for Stuart to display his versatility. If you ever meet Stuart, ask him about the 1972 Christmas Pudding disaster and I'm sure you'll get the details at full throttle. As a viewer, what was really special on nights when Jeux Sans Frontières was due to be aired was that he would hand back to Nationwide in London by saying, "and don't forget to join me when Oldham represent Great Britain in Évry at 8.15pm tonight". Fantastic!!!

The BBC changed its local news output in the late 1980s. This was the era of John Birt's regime at the Corporation and Birt had a preference for hard news and little individualism. Other factors came into play too, but the love affair between the BBC and Stuart Hall had ended. It is regrettable that Stuart never got the opportunity to wish BBC viewers a final fond farewell in 1990.
Stuart characteristically bounced back and was soon found appearing rather than presenting on the local ITV news programme Granada Tonight, sparring with former rival Bob Greaves. He has participated in a plethora of programmes for Granada. Travellers Check, Stuart Hall's Christmas in Bosnia, Stuart's Hall of Fame, Quiz Night, God's Gift and The Way We Were are amongst an extensive list.
Stuart Hall, pictured in 2000

On radio, Sports Report has remained a constant motif for Stuart. His reports from Anfield (The Coliseum), Goodison Park (The School of Science), Maine Road (The Theatre of Base Comedy), Wembley Stadium (The Slope) etc, etc have now reached legendary status. He tells the listeners the story of the game, but it is wrapped in a language that some cannot comprehend, but others lap up to their heart's content. His descriptions of particular players are mind-blowing but often perceptive: Mick Jones of Leeds United was described as a sweating, plunging Lincolnshire dray, Wolves' Steve Kindon was likened to a runaway wardrobe, while Liverpool's Tommy Smith was compared to a dyspeptic water buffalo. His idiosyncratic reportage is an acquired taste. But when the BBC produced a cassette to celebrate Sports Report's 40th anniversary in 1988, there amongst all the famous events chronicled by some of the greatest exponents of the broadcasting art was Stuart's report on the 1987 Manchester derby match which remains priceless.

In 1998, when the BBC produced a book to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sports Report, a chapter was devoted to Stuart's escapade at the 1977 European Cup Final in Rome. Having used up most of the local BBC funds to get a local view on events in the Eternal City, he was refused permission to enter the Olympic Stadium. The players and management of Liverpool FC thought differently and on the eve of the club's greatest achievement, film and sound equipment was smuggled into the dressing room via kit bags and Stuart was also kitted out with a tracksuit and a shirt with a number 14 on the back. He watched the Final from the substitutes bench alongside legendary striker John Toshack, collected souvenirs such as the shirt of Berti Vogts who had played for the losers of Borussia Monchengladbach, plus the dressing door key and most of all got the film of one of British football's greatest moments.

Also on the wireless, he hosted a regular Friday night programme on BBC Radio 2 from Manchester and for number of years in the 1980's, Stuart Hall's Sunday Sport on Radio 2's medium wave frequency. To give a flavour of the latter here are his opening remarks from a show in September 1987: "Welcome to Stuart Hall's Sunday entombed in the bowels of Broadcasting House in sun-kissed Londinium. The sun blazes down - or does it - and kisses are certainly not prevalent at our three main venues. It's deadly serious and climax time for Europe in the Ryder Cup Singles at Muirfield Village, Ohio - Ian Woosnam leads the charge at 2.30. In Spain, Nigel Mansell with paranoia, ruffled feathers and a $3000 dollar fine must win the Spanish Grand Prix to stay alive and in Brazil - My Boy - Wayne Gardner needs to win to take his first World Championship on two wheels".

So eventually to It's A Knockout and Jeux Sans Frontières. As you will know from viewing the website, Stuart's connection with the series began long before his arrival as main presenter in 1972. But in the decade from then,Knockout and Stuart Hall fitted in place together like a hand in glove. He has admitted that when he joined Knockout he thought the show was very downmarket and the balance between games of physical strength and slapstick needed to be addressed. It happened gradually and with each passing year the dream team of Stuart, Eddie and Arthur pulled in greater viewing audiences and the programme became a staple part of the BBC's summer and autumn schedules. I have yet to hear anyone else on television introduce a programme like Stuart did with Knockout. I have yet to hear any other broadcaster combine the duel tasks of projecting the atmosphere to viewers while maintaining the excitement at the venue so well. He was able to mix high levity and north country wit that gave the show an edge.

There is no doubt that through Knockout, Stuart had become ingrained on the conscience of the British viewing public. It has to be said that it was the famed laugh that brought notoriety and acclaim in equal measure to Stuart. He has described laughter as the safety valve in our often hard and serious lives. Some have suggested that his laugh could be turned on and off like a water tap, but laughter is a natural emotion for everyone and being a man of emotion and passion, for Stuart his hilarity was part of his make up and it became his trademark. The comic writer Barry Cryer once said the famous maxim, "he who laughs last, laughs longest" should be amended to "he who laughs Stuart Hall". Knockout fans I'm certain would testify that the famous Penguins of Aix-Les-Bains in 1974 or the Budgies on show at Sherborne in 1981 would not have been as amusing if it wasn't for Stuart's raucous laughter while at the microphone. There are hundreds of similar examples that could be chosen, but a fitting tribute to the laugh would be from Willi Steinberg the Jeux Sans Frontières games designer for German television who once said to Stuart, "if you laugh, we know the game is good and funny".

Stuart Hall with one of his prized antique clocks.

In 1999, an early day motion was presented to the House of Commons in celebration of Stuart's forty years in broadcasting. The motion was endorsed by no less than eighty-two members of the club with the famous green benches. It congratulated Stuart Hall on his unique style that has endeared him to millions, his use of the English language in his football reporting that has made him an icon to the youth of today and a mellifluous voice redolent of Sinden and Gielgud intertwining Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth. I can only agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of our elected representatives.

Stuart Hall - a Christmas child, a baker's boy and a television treasure, whose gift was to enrich life for the millions he connected and engaged with, in an illustrious life and career. Though I could never be him, it's never diluted my admiration of him.

Richard Evans cartoon, Radio Times, 13th - 19th August 1977

Remembering Betty Turpin: 1969 - 2011

With the sad passing recently of Coronation Street legend Betty Driver I thought I'd pay my own tribute to the Rovers Return's greatest & longest serving Bar Maid, Betty Turpin.

Betty Williams (nee Preston, previously Turpin) arrived in Coronation Street to help her sister Maggie Clegg run the corner shop, and has since had a number of storylines which have seen her become twice widowed, and mother to an illegitimate son. Working as a barmaid in the soap's Rovers Return Inn, Betty created a signature dish, known as Betty's hotpot. In 1995, a real-life range of hotpots and pies based on the dish were launched by Hollands Pies, and in 2007, the world's largest Lancashire hotpot was created, based on Betty's recipe. Sadly, Betty Driver died in October 2011. Coronation Street producer Phil Collinson stated on 17 October 2011 that he was working with scriptwriters on Betty's send off.
Betty was born on 4 February 1920 to Harold and Margaret Preston. During World War 2, she had an affair with serviceman Ted Farrell (Gerald Sim), resulting in a son, Gordon (Bill Kenwright; Geoffrey Leesley). Ted left her to return to his family and Gordon was adopted by Betty's sister Maggie (Irene Sutcliffe) and her husband Les Clegg (John Sharp) Betty celebrated the end of the war with her sweetheart Billy Williams (Frank Mills), to whom she had lost her virginity. The two lost touch, and in 1949, Betty married policeman Cyril Turpin (William Moore).

Betty and her husband Cyril move to Coronation Street in June 1969, helping her sister Maggie to run the local corner shop following the breakup of Maggie's marriage to Les Clegg. Maggie, however, resents Betty's interference and persuades landlord Jack Walker (Arthur Leslie) to give Betty a job as a barmaid at The Rovers Return Public House. Betty clashes with the landlady Annie Walker (Doris Speed), who fears that Jack may find her attractive, and fires Betty as a result. Betty takes a job in a rival pub, and returns only when Annie apologises. Betty becomes close friends with fellow barmaid Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear), who on occasion lodges with her, uses Betty as a chaperone on dates, and frequently seeks her advice in running her life.

Cyril's employment as a policeman causes Betty problems when Lucas, a man he has previously arrested, begins stalking her. She initially refrains from telling Cyril, fearing that he will get into trouble. When Cyril finds out, he attacks Lucas with a piece of lead piping and has to leave the police force. Betty has a breakdown when Cyril dies of a heart attack in 1974, leaving her only £859. The same year the truth about her illegitimate son is revealed, and when the community discovers this, Betty finds it difficult to face them. She busies herself by taking in lodgers, and acquiring a ginger cat named Marmaduke for extra companionship. Betty builds a relationship with Gordon, though he upsets her occasionally, particularly when he neglects to invite her to his wedding.

Betty is mugged in 1982 by Ryan Attwood from Ken Barlow's' youth club; she ends up in hospital with a broken arm. This leads to a reunion with Ted, the man who fathered Gordon, though he is unaware of his son's existence. Ted visits Betty in hospital after reading about her mugging in a newspaper. Betty agonises over whether to tell Ted about Gordon, but decides against it, preferring not to stir up the past.

On the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day in 1995, Betty is reunited with her wartime sweetheart Billy. The two marry several months later, and Gordon gives his mother away. They live happily together until Billy also dies of a heart attack in 1997. Betty becomes famous in Weatherfield for her hotpots, which come under scrutiny in the early 1990s when it is believed that they are contaminated. She is cleared of all wrongdoing when it is discovered that beer, not food, is responsible for a spate of stomach upsets. Betty acts as lady mayoress alongside mayor Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley) when his wife Audrey (Sue Nichols) has no interest in fulfilling her civic duties. This includes accompanying him to receive his OBE from the Queen, much to Audrey's chagrin.

In 1999, Betty celebrates 30 years of working at the Rovers Return with a party attended by all the regulars. She considers retiring in 2002 and briefly moves to Wimbledon to be with Gordon and his wife Caroline. Feeling that Caroline does not want her there, Betty considers moving into a retirement home, however is convinced to stay in Weatherfield by her close friend Emily Bishop (Eileen Derbyshire). Around the time of Betty's fortieth anniversary at the Rovers Return, she is sacked by new manager Poppy Morales (Sophiya Haque) after clashing with her on several occasions. Landlord Steve McDonald (Simon Gregson) eventually tires of Poppy's poor treatment of the staff and fires her. Betty is re-instated, and plays the Fairy Godmother in the 2009 Rovers Return Christmas pantomime performance of Cinderella. In early February 2010, Betty has a party in the Rovers celebrating both her 90th birthday and the fact that she is the oldest barmaid in Weatherfield; however it backfires when 91 year old Enid Crump (June Broughton) crashes the party and claims she is the oldest barmaid not Betty. Later Enid becomes sick after Steve serves her a 3-month old hotpot. Betty and Steve are left terrified when they realise that the hotpot could kill her, but she later recovers.

In his 1998 book The Women of Coronation Street, Daran Little describes Betty as an archetypal mother figure. He compares her to one of Coronation Street's original characters Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant), as she is "warm and comforting [...] loves cats and has had her share of lodgers"; however, Little notes that "while Minnie wandered through life in a haze, Betty is sharp-witted, blessed with insight and wisdom". Discussing her evolving characterisation, Little writes: "She hasn't always been the incarnation of lovable joviality: when she arrived in the Street in 1969, she was loud, brash and a vicious-tongued gossip."

Betty's two passions in life are darts and food. Playing darts brings out her competitive side, and she enjoys beating her male customers. Cyril frequently protests when Betty attempts to diet, as he prefers her "homely and comfortable" figure. Ultimately, Betty stops trying to lose weight, stating: "I had to chose between losing a few pounds or losing my marital partner. If my Cyril had wanted to marry a skinny rabbit he'd have married one." Betty breaks down when Cyril dies from a heart attack, with Little noting that: "Cyril had been the stabilizing force in Betty's life, and without him she relied heavily on her job and friends at the Rovers – she couldn't face life alone at home". Little has observed that Betty "has a finely tuned sense of right and wrong and has never been afraid to stand up for her beliefs", citing Betty's shock at being mugged in 1982, and calling the NSPCC to report a female neighbour whose children were left outside until nightfall while their mother entertained her boyfriend.

In 2010, Betty Driver discussed her character, saying, "Coronation Street characters tend to fit into one of two camps. Those who have drama after drama and those who muddle through life, often in the background, as sturdy and dependable as the famous cobbles. Betty falls into the latter group. There have been moments of drama, intrigue and even romance – but it has been her presence behind the bar, cutting up pieces of lamb and chunks of potato, that has endeared her to the viewers." When asked about Betty's "sharp tongue", Betty Driver suggested, "Not really sharp. [Betty's] just straightforward. [She's] not nasty to anybody but [she doesn't] suffer fools gladly."

Betty was the longest-serving barmaid of the Rovers Return. She first served behind the bar in 1969 and has been shown to work there for 42 years, as of 2011. There have been brief breaks however, as storylines have led to the character being fired or quitting her post. She was fired by Annie Walker (Doris Speed), who accused her of theft, and she quit her post in 1995 when Jack (Bill Tarmey) and Vera Duckworth (Liz Dawn) took over as landlords. In the summer of 2009, Betty was sacked again temporarily by manager Poppy Morales. A Coronation Street insider reassured The Sun that Betty was not being written out of the show, however, stating: "She’ll be here for a long time to come – she’ll just be on the other side of the bar for a change". In a storyline that aired in February 2010, Betty – at 90 years old – was named Manchester's Oldest Barmaid. In a plot twist, a 91 year old rival came forward, resulting in Betty fearing she killed her, when the rival consumes a two month old hotpot.

During her time on Coronation Street, the character has become synonymous with her signature dish at the Rovers Return, Betty's Hotpot. ITV have described the dish as "the stuff of legends" and in 1995, pie manufacturer Hollands Pies launched a real-life range of hotpots and pies based on the dish, called "Betty's Kitchen". The idea for the range originated with the firm's marketing director, Dilys Day, who explained: "I was brought up on hotpot and Coronation Street. So when I joined Holland's a year ago, it seemed right to put the two together with Betty's hotpot." Day added that: "We are all very excited about Betty's Kitchen products. Holland's is a strong northern brand, with mass market appeal and wholesome, honest values - the same can be said for The Street."

In his book Marketing Communication, Richard J. Varey used the product range as an example of a company capitalising on a form of product placement or "stealth advertising", writing that "Viewers don't realize that they are, in effect, watching an advertisement". Betty Driver said of the range's launch: "Betty Turpin's hotpots have become something of an institution at the Rover's and she's very proud of her reputation for good, wholesome food. I think it is a lovely idea that people will be able to buy them in supermarkets now." Betty discussed her astonishment at the general level of interest in her character's hotpots, disclosing: "I was on a cruise on the QE2 a few weeks ago, and everyone was asking me about it. Then one day, they served hot pot on the menu and everyone thought it was mine!"

Farewell Betty. We'll all miss you!....

Radio Times - Christmas 1969

Radio Times - Christmas Edition
With the Festive season just around the corner I thought I'd pay homage to that great British of traditions, the Christmas Radio Times! The cover above is from the Christmas 1969 edition and was the first double issue.
Britain's greatest comedy double act The Two Ronnies featured on the cover of this festive edition from 1971.
Luvly jubbly! Del Boy, Rodney & Uncle Albert feature on the cover of this edition from 1985.