Friday, 23 June 2017

Banana Splits, Chanting Stones and Flashing Blades by Steve Gladwin

And –following on from my tribute to Jim Henson's 'The Storyteller' in my last blog – here are a few more that were prepared a little earlier than that.
Yes I decided to revisit a few more classics in these next two blogs. In this first part I will outline a week of classic children’s TV of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, (my era!) and after that I will go away and revisit them all, making the most of the ones I possess and the wonder of youtube.

But before we start, here are a few questions for those with sharp memories.

*What sort of animal was Bingo in 'The Banana Splits'?
*What sort of dog was Belle in the series 'Belle and Sebastian'?
*What broadcasting disaster befell the English dubbed version of the classic French series, 'The Flashing Blade'?
*In the series 'Freewheelers' what was the name of the recurring character played by Ronald Leigh Hunt.
*What is still known as ‘the scariest programme ever made for children?

By the end of this blog you should have the answers to all of these, unless you happen to be a 60-s and 70-s TV nerd, in which case you’ll be able to think of a whole lot more. In the meantime belt yourself in and set the controls for a week of classic children’s TV from Monday right through until Saturday. And yes you will notice that there are only five, rather than six programmes and I’ll explain why later on. So without more ado.

Monday – ‘Freewheelers’

I have no idea whether Southern TV’s children’s TV series ‘Freewheelers’ was actually shown on a Monday, but it's always had a Monday feeling in my memory.

Believe it or not, there were eight series of 'Freewheelers' made and a total of 104 episodes. Within this list, it was by far the longest running, and I remember my sister and I being riveted to it week after week. Director of episodes throughout Series1-8, Chris McMaster conceived it as an ‘Avengers’ or ‘Department S’ for teenagers, being astute enough to know how popular these ‘grown-up’ programmes were with that demographic.
Probably the most familiar thing about the programme is the theme tune ‘Teenage Carnival’ which you can hear on youtube and will immediately capture long lost memories of evil machinations, threats of world domination and assorted skullduggery.

Freewheelers Credits

Initially three teens aid British Secret Agent Colonel Buchan, (played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt) to foil the plot of ex-Nazi Karl Von Gelb, (played by Geoffrey Toone) to ‘reverse the verdict of the last war.’ Interestingly enough, when the series was later sold to West Germany, the character of Von Gelb was de-nazified – in the sense that he was made not to have been a Nazi after all. He was the first of the villains in 'Freewheelers', to be followed later by familiar heavy Jerome Willis and Kevin Stoney. And talking of heavies, the most familiar to both 'Freewheelers' and Hammer horror fans, was the great Michael Ripper in the role of Burke. Over the years the children included Tom Owen, (son of Bill), Christopher Chittell who as Eric Pollard in Emmerdale, holds the record for longest running character, and former Doctor Who companion Wendy Padbury.

My most enduring memory of 'Freewheelers' however was how it must have been almost solely responsible for introducing me to the music of Wagner. I can see Von Gelb now as he listens to the overture to Tannhauser on his headphones in his submarine. It's your fault Karl!

'Belle and Sebastian'

On Tuesday we have the heart-warming story set in the French Alps, (actually filmed in the village of Belvedere in Alps Maritime) of a young boy and his beloved Pyrenean Mountain Dog Belle. He of course is Sebastian. Made in black and white, it first appeared between October 1967 and January 1968 on BBC One and was based on the novel of the same name by the actor and writer Cecile Aubry, whose real life French/Moroccan son Mehdi El Giaou, played the name part to such winning and moving effect, and with a truly memorable pout.

The wonderful Mehdi as Sebastian

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, it quickly became staple summer holiday viewing, but it was originally broadcast in the prime-time slot following Blue Peter. Due mainly to its powerful themes of love and its endurance, script and acting, 'Belle and Sebastian' is rightly regarded as a classic of children’s TV.

There were two sequels but only one of them, Belle, Sebastian and the Horses, was shown on British TV in 1968. Most memorably of all perhaps is the haunting final song, ‘Oiseau’, sung by little Mehdi himself.

I can’t imagine 'Belle and Sebastian' ever working in anything other than black and white. There’s something about it that perfectly suits the harshness and grandeur of the alpine scenery and the poverty of many of the characters. 13 episodes of 26 minutes were made and you can get a lovely copy on DVD with the choice of the original French or a dubbed version with a French accent which – as someone says on Amazon – is oddly effective.
In 2014 a feature length film of Belle and Sebastian was made, based on the original characters and again featuring a boy and his Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which was very well received, but if you want to catch moody black and white and Mehdi’s wonderfully natural performance, go for the ‘Oiseau’ original.
Wednesday is ‘Flashing Blade day!

The Chevalier and his faithful Guillot

Well obviously I can’t remember whether Wednesday ever was 'The Flashing Blade' day, but what I do remember is that FB, a dubbed and re-edited version of a French adventure series called Le Chevalier Tempete ran on children’s TV throughout the 60’s and 70’s and, despite its often suspect dubbing and the fact that five seventy five minute films in French had been adapted into twelve twenty two minute episodes for its BBC transmission, it quite stole my youthful adventurous heart and that of my sister.

Originally released in 1967 it follows the adventures of the dashing Chevalier De Recci, (Robert Echeverry) and his faithful sidekick Guillot, (Jaques Baluton) against the background of the real-life siege of Casale, part of the ‘War of the Mantuan Succession’ between 1628-31. Our two heroes have to break through enemy lines under the very noses of their Spanish enemies to take a message which will rescue the beleaguered French garrison. All this while avoiding capture, enemy spies and pursuing troops.

Such a description of course hardly covers why we loved it and continue to love it. Just watching the first few minutes set against the continuing bombardment of Casale, take you – even with our modern ears which can pick out the inferior dubbing – right back there.

Then there’s the music and I don’t mean ‘You’ve got to fight for what you want, for all that you believe’, (actually titled 'Fight' which – annoyingly catchy as it is – was of course not part of the French original). What I do mean is the section of the first movement of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ which was used as the background to any exciting bit – and there were a lot of those! There was something about that acceleration of strings which just got you so excited you could hardly speak and that was even before our hero the brave Chevalier and his nemesis, (the wonderfully smooth and slimy Mario Pilar as Don Alonso) set their blades flashing.

The series however is infamous for the way it ended – or rather didn’t. On the last two episodes of the original transmission, vision was completely lost Fans were of course heartbroken and wrote to 'Ask Aspel' in their droves. I don’t actually remember this tragedy, and nor do I remember some of the missing footage being shown on 'Ask Aspel' sometime later.

There is however something else decidedly odd about the series in its original form, and I will return to that in the second part. In the meantime -

'As long as we have done our best,
And no-one can do more.
And life and love and happiness,
Are well worth fighting for.



In the meantime it’s time for us to call in very briefly at a series which has been called ‘the scariest programme ever made for children.’ Unlike other friends of mine, I haven’t seen ‘Children of the Stones’ since it was first broadcast by HTV in January/February of 1967. I was seventeen at the time and remember being pretty knocked out by what seemed to me more than just another piece of children’s TV. As part of this investigation I will be watching it on youtube, where some kind soul has kindly placed the entire series. Produced by Peter Graham-Scott it is regarded as a piece of landmark children’s TV. It was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray and deals in seven episodes of the arrival in the village of Milbry (Avebury) by the astrophysicist Adam Brake and his son, where they find a decidedly odd community.

Of the two things I remember about it, one was how the villagers who were under the ‘influence’ of the stones would say ‘happy day’ to people with annoying frequency. Secondly it was the eerie music by composer Sidney Sayer, with the chants arranged and performed by the Ambrosian Singers.


And last but by no means least – altogether now.

Tra-la-la, la,la,la,laah.

Yes folks what would Children’s TV be without a Saturday morning classic and in my day they didn’t come much more classic than 'The Banana Splits' show.

OK let’s not pretend that the four blokes in suits – Fleegle, ( the beagle), Bingo the gorilla, Drooper the lion and Snorky the elephant, were the main attractions here. Their antics might have been amusing enough as they pratted around in various theme parks and pretended to be a band that could play in the same manufactured way as Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith of ‘The Monkeys’, (Drooper’s Deep South drawl was apparently based on the latter’s). The split's animal hosts also had certain characteristics such as a deliberate Daffy Duck type lisp for their leader Fleegle and Snorky the elephant talking only in odd honks. The series was broadcast between September 7th 1968- September 5th !970 and produced by Hanna Barbera.

The er -- band!

But no, it wasn’t the framework of fun and furry band frolic which made us love the show! It was the fact that it was interspersed with live action and animation including Danger Island, The Three Musketeers and most definitely ‘just get those blokes in suits and go to The Arabian Knights'. This alone is a subject to return to next time and I better stop there as dear reader I have rambled through the classics for long enough. So there only remain two things to complete. First – and if you haven’t yet spotted them – here are the answers to our quiz.
*Bingo was of course a gorilla with a cap and shades.
*Belle was a Pyrenean Mountain Dog
*The last two episodes of ‘The Flashing Blade’ completely lost the picture.
*The character Ronald Leigh-Hunt played in ‘Freewheelers’ was Colonel Buchan.
*Children of the Stones’ is regarded as the scariest children’s TV programme ever made.

Secondly you may have noticed there was no entry for Thursday. Well not being over fond of Thursdays at the moment, I’ve left it blank because – let’s face it – there’s bound to be some classic I’ve missed and I rely on you to tell me which, or even go further and compile your own list. In Part Two of ‘Banana Splits, Stones and Flashing Blades’ I will report further on watching most of them again. Meanwhile thanks for listening and do tune in at the same time next month.

NB You can find the full version of Children of the Stones and full episodes of the Banana Splits as well as the Arabian Knights on youtube, where you will also find the theme music to Freewheelers and sing along. Later series of Freewheelers, and complete versions of Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade including the end, (but in its french version) are available on Amazon. Enjoy!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Penny Dolan said...

Happy memories - and some of them half-forgotten, so thank you for the reminding, Steve.

Daniel Blythe said...

"Children of the Stones" was mid-70s, wasn't it? I wasn't born in 1967 but I remember it being on. And it's in colour.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think I have one episode of Children Of The Stones sent to me by a friend up in England, because Blake's 7 actor Gareth Thomas was in it, but I can't play my videos any more, only DVDs, so glad to hear the whole thing is up on YouTube.

Sword Of Freedom with Edmund Purdom, set in Medici Florence? He is an artist who rarely seems to paint, though his model Angelica is a regular character. The opening credits, in fact, show him flinging down his paintbrush, grabbing a sword and using his palette as a shield when an assassin suddenly appears. Says something about the show. But it was great fun, though Lorenzo de Medici is the villain and Machiavelli is his sidekick.

How about the Richard Greene Adventures Of Robin Hood, which was, interestingly, written and produced by Americans who had fled the McCarthy witch hunts in the U.S.? So this Robin, while an aristocrat, was very left wing in his leanings. A lot of big name or later big name actors played guest roles in it, including Robin's friend Sir Richard of the Lee played by the actor who was Rochard the Lionheart in the Hollywood Robin Hood film.

Arthur Of The Britons with Oliver Tobias, in which Arthur ran a few villages rather than a country, and the costumes looked very lived in. Mark of Cornwall was played by Brian Blessed and he was shown as the sort of character Brian Blessed usually plays, ie the sort who would rip several bits off Tristan if he had the nerve to fool around with his wife(nit that he had one in this show). The theme tune was composed by Hollywood great Elmer Bernstein - no idea what he was doing composing music for a low budget British children's TV series, but there you are.

CBCA Shortlist #1: Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Sue and thanks for your choices. Of course! I was a massive fan of Arthur of the Britons and the original Robin Hood. I don't remember Sword of Freedom but it sounds great.