Friday, November 26, 2004

British Imports

Today I read that the British Broadcast magazine selected the best and worst American imports to British television. It got me to thinking how much of my time has been spent watching British TV shows imported to America. British television has a reputation for being of a higher quality than American television here in the States, although I am not absolutely sure that is true. I am sure that they have had their share of bad shows--it's just unlike the U. S. they don't insist on sending them abroad...

Anyhow, I am fairly certain that the first British show I ever saw was The Avengers. I can remember watching it at a very young age. The show centred on John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a spy in service of the British government, and his various partners over the years. When the show debuted in the United States, Steed's current partner was Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg). I was captivated by Emma Peel, as well as the various strange adventures Steed and Mrs. Peel had. It is one of my fondest childhood memories and still one of my favourite shows.

The Avengers was just one of many British TV shows imported to America in the Sixties. Two of my other favourites were Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent here in the States) and The Prisoner. Danger Man featured Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake, a decidedly different sort of spy. He never carried a gun. He never kissed the girl. And he sometimes wondered about the morality of his profession. The Prisoner also featured Patrick McGoohan, this time as a spy who is abducted and taken to a mysterious place known only as the Village. There his name was taken away and he was give a number--Number Six. The series concerned Number Six's various efforts to escape the Village and foil the plans of his captors. There has always been some debate as to whether Number Six is actually John Drake. I always thought that he was.

With the end of the Sixties the American networks stopped importing British shows. From that time forward British shows only appeared on PBS or local stations. And, for the most part, they were comedies. In fact, Monty Python's Flying Circus may have been one of the earliest British shows I saw. It was also perhaps the funniest sketch comedy show ever made. Indeed, it has had a lasting impact on American pop culture--from "The Lumberjack Song" to the use of the word "spam" for junk email (taken from a skit in which Vikings drown everything out by singing a song about spam...).

The other huge British comedy to come to America in the Seventies was Are You Being Served?. The series centred on the employess of the Ladies' Intimate Apparel and the Gentlemen's Ready-Made departments of Grace Brothers department store. It debuted in 1972 and ran for a total of ten seasons (an amazing run for any show). It is still being rerun to this day. I am guessing that it may well have been the most successful British show of all time. I know KETC reran it for years and I watched it faithfully.

Of my two other favourite British comedies (or Britcoms, as they are called), one is a period piece and one is a sci-fi show. Black Adder followed the various members of that family, through the days of Richard II to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the Regnecy period to World War I. In each Black Adder, the protagonist was Edmund Blackadder, a generally conniving and cowardly fellow, who was aided by his none to bright partner Baldrick. I always thought Black Adder was absolutely hilarious, with some very good pokes at history (and rewriting it).

The sci-fi show of which I spoke is Red Dwarf. Red Dwarf centred on Dave Lister, the last human alive. He was an employee aboard the mining vessel Red Dwarf before waking from stasis to learn the rest of the crew was dead and he had been in stasis for three million years. His only companions are Cat, a felinoid being who evolved from the cat he had brought onboard centuries ago, a hologram of his wicked roommate Rimmer, and the android Kryten. Red Dwarf is enjoyable on two levels. First, it can be enjoyed as one of the most outrageously funny comedies ever made. Second, it is actually quite good as science fiction, with some very original episodes. The series is still very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It ran eight seasons and there is supposed to be a Red Dwarf movie at some point.

There are many more Britcoms that I have enjoyed. Keeping Up Appearances, Coupling (forget that horrible American version ever happened...), The Office. In some ways I think the British may just be better at comedy than we Americans. At any rate, I have always loved British TV shows. I just wish they would import more to the States. It would sure beat more episodes of some reality show...

Thursday, November 25, 2004


Well, today is Thansgiving. I have fond memories of the holiday from childhood. As a kid Thanksgiving meant two things to me. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and a turkey dinner. I loved both the parade and the turkey.

I don't know what my earliest memory of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is. I have a vague memory of being a very young child watching the parade and seeing the debut of the new Superman balloon. It was 1967 when the second Superman balloon debuted, which means my earliest memory of the parade is from when I was four years old. Regardless, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was a well established holiday tradition by then. And I supsect watching it had been a tradition since my family first got a TV set (apparently well before I was born).

The first Macy's Parade was held in 1924. Strangely enough, it was originally called "Macy's Christmas Day Parade," even though it took place on Thanksgiving. By 1927 it was renamed "the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." During the 1925 and 1926 parades they actually had animals such as elephants and lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). It was felt that the animals frightened little children, however, so that in 1927 they were replaced with the giant helium balloons. Even from the beginning balloons were based on cartoon characters, with Felix the Cat being the first. The other ballons in that first parade were included Felix the Cat, The Dragon, The Elephant and Toy Soldier. Originally the balloons were released after the parade, but this practice was stopped in 1933. The parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944 due to World War II, something I still find hard to believe ("They didn't have a parade?!"). The balloons were chopped up and donated to the government to help in the war effort (rubber was in high demand). This means that the original Superman balloon and the original Uncle Sam balloon are pretty much lost to us.

Over the years there have been a number of popular balloons. Mickey Mouse received his first balloon in 1934. The first Superman balloon debuted in 1939 as the first to be based on a superhero and a comic book character. The Golden Age for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons may well have been from the Fifties into the Seventies. Balloons in the likenesses of Mighty Mouse (1956-1972), Smokey Bear, Popeye (1957-1969), Bullwinkle (1961-1983), Underdog (1965-1984), and Snoopy (1968-1985) all made their debut during this period. I have to admit that I felt a bit disappointed when the older cartoon character balloons were phased out in the Eighties. Indeed, no balloon except the 3rd Superman balloon, Spider-Man, Bart Simpson, and Sponge Bob have appealed to me as much as the old balloons.

Of course, the balloons have not always had it easy. Thanksgiving in New York in 1957 was particularly rainy. As a result water collected in the brand new Popeye balloon's hat and it dump it directly on the spectators below. In 1975 the Undedog balloon collided with a light pole. It seems to me that such incidents were rare until the Nineties when it seemed as if each year brought more reports of balloon accidents. In 1993 a balloon of Sonic the Hedgehog made a less than impresive debut when he knocked over a lamppost. That same year a balloon based on the character Rex from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story split in two when it hit another lamppost. In 1997 the Cat in the Hat balloon actually knocked a lamppost into a crowd of spectators and injured a woman. As a result, the size of the balloons were restricted to 70 feet high, 78 feet long, and 40 feet wide. The required number of balloon handlers was also increased and Macy's increased the amount of training they received.

I have no idea why there were more balloon disasters in the Nineties than any other year. I have read that they reduced the number of balloon handlers in the Nineties from what they had been earlier. At any rate, it actually seems to me that the quality of the balloons have actually improved. Sponge Bob Squarepants, Charlie Brown, and Uncle Sam are more appealing than most of the characters in the Nineties parades (although they still have that damn Barney balloon...).

Over the years a number of celebrities have appeared in the parade. As early as the Thirties, people like Benny Goodman and Harpo Marx made appearances. In the Fifties Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante appeared. To tell the truth, I never paid much attention to the celebrities as a child and I still don't to this day. An exception is the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Ever since I was a child I would eagerly await their appearance. I guess even when I was young I could appreciate cheesecake... Apparently, I'm not the only one. I seem to remember that when the Rockettes did their "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (in which the girls dress in soldier outfits--complete with pants) for the parade, they got complaints!

Of course, the mainstay of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade are floats. I really don't have a very good memory for them myself. I remember the mainstays--the Pilgrims and the turkey that flaps it wings. Other than that, I can only remember one float from a Macy's Day Parade. That was the Lord of the Rings float promoting the release of Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation of the classic from the 1978 parade.

As long as I have been alive, NBC has broadcast the parade. They started doing so all the way back in 1948. As hard as it is to believe, there were two years that it wasn't broadcast on NBC. In 1953 and 1954, CBS aired the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. It returned to NBC in 1955. When I was very young Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright from Bonanza) and Betty White hosted the parade. They hosted it from 1963 (the year that I was born) to 1972. To tell the truth, to me it still feels like they should be hosting the parade!

Beyond the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, my memories of Thanksgiving are primarily of Thanksgiving dinner. We always had a fairly good sized turkey, with plenty of mashed potatos, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatos, and many other foods. Mom always had to get up early to have it all ready by noon, which is when we had dinner. When my brother and I were older, we would actually take care of the turkey (they are one of the few things I can actually cook).

As to the rest of the day, it varied as to what we did. When I was really young, the networks and local stations would sometimes show various Thanksgiving oriented specials of the afternoon. One time NBC actually showed a failed pilot, The Hereafter, about a group of old men who sell their souls for youth and rock stardom. I don't really know if it was actually any good, although I liked it as a child. NBC also showed Start the Revolution Without Me one Thanksgiving afternoon. It was the first time I ever saw the movie. I still think it is one of the funniest movies that I have ever seen (I have it on VHS and plan to get it on DVD some day). Curiously, when I was a child, one never saw Yuletide movies and specials on Thanksgiving. Today it seems that there is all that is on. Personally, I liked it better when they didn't show Christmas movies and specials on Thanksgiving--the holiday should have its own character and not be an extension of the Yuletide. Anyhow, we didn't spend all our time watching TV on the holiday. Often my brother and I would go for a walk or simply play of a Thanksgiving afternoon.

I know a lot of people think of football where Thansgiving is concerned. I am not one of them. I like football and I do watch the occasional Rams game, but my parents were not huge sports fans. For that reason, I never have watched football on Thanksgiving. The two just don't go hand in hand to me.

At any rate, I do have very fond memories of Thanksgiving. As much as I loved the Macy's Parade, I ultimately think the time spent with my family was most important. And it was a time to give thanks. I know that I am thankful this year for my family, my friends, and a certain young lady (whom I won't name here). I just hope that others have much to be thankful for as I have.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Terry Melcher R.I.P.

Terry Melcher died yesterday at age 62 after a fight with melanoma. Melcher was a songwriter and a record producer. He was also the son of Doris Day.

Melcher started singing on his own in the early Sixties. Eventually he formed the a partnership with songwriter and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. The two formed the group The Rip Chords,who had a major hit with "Hey Little Cobra." The two also recorded as Bruce and Terry. They had two very minor hits with the songs "Custom Machine" and "Summer Means Fun."

In the mid-Sixties Melcher became a record producer for Columbia Records. Melcher produced the first two albums of The Byrds, inluding their hits "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." He would later produce Ballad of Easy Rider, (Untitled), and Byrdmaniax for the band. Melcher was also the original producer of Paul Revere and the Raiders at Columbia. Melcher produced the band's singles and albums well from 1964 to 1967.

As a songwriter, Melcher co-wrote songs with Bobby Darin ("My Mom") and Mark Lindsay of the Raiders ("Just Like Me" and "Ups and Downs"). He also wrote "Him or Me (What's Gonna Be)" for the Raiders and "Kokomo" for the Beach Boys. Melcher also performed on The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. Melcher made a bit of a comeback in 1974 with a solo album. He was executive producer on his mother's series, The Doris Day Show and helped run her charities.

I have always been a huge fan of both The Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. In fact, I would have to say that Paul Revere and the Raiders are one of my favourite bands of all time. As the man who produced the Raiders' early albums and wrote some of their songs, Melcher had a small role in givng shape to my childhood. I have to say, then, that I am saddened by his passing. It is a shame that he had to pass away fairly young.