Tuesday 14 September 2010

Open to offers

15st 7lb, 4.5 units. As long ago as 1973 my friend Fat Ted drove me to the North York Moors in his dad’s Morris Traveller (“Christ, it’s eating up the petrol!” Fat Ted used to proclaim with monotonous regularity. Indeed, it was his most memorable pronouncement apart from the more sinister one he always used to come up with in the late afternoon: “Twilight: the most dangerous time of the day!”) The object of the trip was to take a look at the then fledgling North Yorkshire Moors Railway, on which we took a trip between Grosmont and Goathland (readers who are not train nerds look away now) in a green diesel multiple unit. I joined the preservation society on that visit and have been a member ever since, though my visits have scarcely been frequent. Still, I identified Goathland as a particularly lovely and peaceful spot, with sheep grazing along the unnaturally wide verges of the long main street, and returned from time to time for a spot of rest and relaxation at the Mallyan Spout Hotel.

During one of these visits, in the early 1990s, my then girlfriend struck up a conversation in the bar with a rather bumptious little boy of 11 or so, who proudly announced “My daddy is the producer of Heartbeat.”

“What?” we replied in unison. To his evident disbelief, we had never heard of it. The first series had already aired, starring Nick Berry and Niamh Cusack, and been a huge ratings success. When the next one hit the screens we made a point of watching it, more for the familiar locations than anything else. I remember that I had got almost to the end of the first episode before I twigged (after prompting from my girlfriend) that it was supposed to be a period piece set in the 1960s. Living in rural Northumberland in the 1990s, using big Bakelite telephones and driving around in a Triumph Herald convertible seemed entirely normal to me.

Slowly, I became drawn in, particularly to the adventures of the lovable reprobate Claude Jeremiah Greengrass and his dog Alfred. I can distinctly remember sitting down alone in front of the sitting room fire one Sunday evening, with a decent dinner on a tray and a bottle of red wine by my side, watching the opening credits of Heartbeat and thinking “life does not get much better than this.”

How sad is that?

Luckily I got bored with it after a few years, as many of the original cast departed. But then I got drawn into its hospital spin-off The Royal, (a) because it was set on the South Cliff in Scarborough, perhaps my favourite place on the whole planet, (b) because the producers had the brilliant idea of casting Bill Maynard (the lovable reprobate Claude Jeremiah Greengrass) as an awkward patient, after he had been written out of Heartbeat on the grounds of the actor’s very real ill health, and (c) because it featured the venerable Ian Carmichael, one of my favourite actors since he played Bertie Wooster in my early childhood, as the hospital secretary Mr Middleditch.

So it was that I made a point of sitting down on Sunday evening to watch the last-ever episode of Heartbeat, as it was casually billed in the Radio Times, as I had sat down to watch the final episode of the BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine a couple of weeks ago. ITV seemed to have made precisely zero effort to market it; indeed their announcer introduced it almost apologetically, as a regrettable interlude between better things. I had hoped for a grand denouement. Instead viewers were left hanging, with one of the few surviving original characters implausibly clinging to life in what passed for intensive care despite being skewered kebab-like through the chest by a giant pitchfork. Given that the character concerned was Oscar Blaketon, played by a man once better known as a puppet’s assistant called “Mr Derek”, I surely cannot have been alone in hearing the ghostly voice of Basil Brush call “Boom boom!” as tragedy struck.

All in all, a pretty shabby conclusion to what had once been one of ITV’s most valuable properties. Perhaps they would have done better to nurture it and keep it special, instead of going raving mad and making 24 hour-long episodes per annual series and launching not one but two spin-offs. Then pointedly losing interest and shuffling occasional short batches of episodes into the schedules when Simon Cowell was off spending some of his money and they did not have a suitable reality show to plug.

I decided to write about it for my newspaper column today. Then I switched channels to BBC4 and also felt compelled to cram in some abuse for “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.” First thought: if this bloke is a novelist, how come an eager reader of the literary supplements like myself has never heard of him? Second thought: if he is Geordie, how come he sounds nothing like one? It could be argued that I don’t sound much like one myself, it is true, but this bloke did have some sort of accent, just distinctly not a Newcastle one. He first outed himself as coming from “a small town about 30 miles away” and later apparently confessed that it was Hartlepool. (I had lost interest by that point and was only half-watching the programme, as I indulged in a vigorous debate on Facebook about where this wanker came from and how on earth he had got the gig). I am profoundly sorry that space did not permit me to get the popular description “monkey hanger” into the paper.

(Note for overseas readers: Hartlepool is a port in County Durham famous for capturing and interrogating a monkey that had escaped from the wreck of a French ship during the Napoleonic wars, and hanging it as a spy. Even more bizarrely, the mascot of the local football team, who paraded around in a monkey suit under the name of H’Angus, stood for election as mayor AS A JOKE in 2002, under the slogan “free bananas for schoolchildren” and was not only elected then, but has been re-elected on two subsequent occasions. I know London also has a joke mayor in the shape of Boris Johnson, but surely this must be uniquely absurd in all the annals of representative democracy? And, yes, I do know about the English Democrats in Doncaster.)

Third and final (for now) thought about Michael Smith: if the BBC wanted to make a programme about Newcastle, why couldn’t they have got a genuine Geordie to do it? One with some original ideas, who would not stumble over his lines? I am open to offers. And, failing that, there are undoubtedly several thousand other people on Tyneside who could also have done what Sir John Major would almost certainly describe as a not inconsiderably better job.

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