PlayPlax

I recently rediscovered my PlayPlax set, looking as bright and modern as it did nearly 50 years ago, minus only two squares of the original forty-eight.

PlayPlax (rather pedantically, I thought it should be PlayPacks as a child) was invented by Patrick Rylands in 1966 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.

Ryland’s ‘spatial construction game’ consists of 48 brightly coloured plastic squares in red, blue, green, yellow and transparent.  An incision on each side allows them to be fixed together to form myriad, interlocking abstract shapes or architectural structures.  The Montreal Convention Centre is a real PlayPlax building.

Rylands became chief designer at Ambi Toys and PlayPlax a staple of children’s play during the late 60s through to the 80s with over a million packs sold.

Plastic fantastic

I used to spend many happy hours with PlayPlax, sometimes simply revelling in the bright colours.

The structures I made were part abstract imaginary, part versions of real-life buildings rendered bright, open, transparent and looking even more fantastic if the sun cast stained plastic reflections over the bedroom carpet.

I thought of my buildings as kinds of churches.  They bore no resemblance to a traditional spire and steeple church yet felt inspirational, hallowed in a very modern kind of way.  They would probably be urban art galleries now.

Six years ago, the original PlayPlax was reissued, no doubt with baby boomers in mind, using the same dyes and even manufactured in the same factory as back in the 60s.

I am sure I have seen a circular/cylindrical version in the intervening years but it’s the squares which have stood the test of time.

PlayPlax
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands

 


Growing up with Lego

Mythical Kings and Iguanas

The other day I turned on the kitchen radio and after a slight pause heard the opening notes of Mythical Kings and Iguanas, the title track to Dory Previn’s 1971 album.  It was as if I had just pressed play on my CD player:

I have flown to star-stained heights
On bend and battered wings
In search of mythical kings
Mythical kings

Sure that everything of worth
Is in the sky and not the earth
And I never learned to make my way
Down, down, down where the iguanas play

I’ve not heard Mythical Kings and Iguanas – the song nor the album – in perhaps twenty-five years though scraps have played in my head from time to time and I still have the vinyl LP.

I first heard it around 1987 or 1988 in my early 20s.  Last week it was as if it was playing to me for the first time:

Singing scraps of angel song
High is right and low is wrong
And I never taught myself to give
Down, down, down where the iguanas live

Stopped in my tracks, I put down my plate and my tea-towel, pulled up a chair to listen and for the first time found I understood.

Without any effort on my part, the words arose from the speakers and made utter sense as if they simply couldn’t help themselves.  I realised that, like it or not, I have lived enough to know what the song means instinctively.

 


Dory Previn

 

Lying with iguanas

Mythical Kings and Iguanas is about embracing the often despised ‘lower’ aspects of being and not losing oneself in fruitless flights of wishful fancy towards unobtainable heights.  Fundamentally it’s about gaining self-acceptance, becoming embodied.

In my 20s maybe I simply liked the sounds the words made, the overall sense of philosophical musing which, in a way, is what she is railing against:

Curse the mind that mounts the clouds
In search of mythical kings
And only mystical things
Mystical things

Buried treasure

In 1987 or 1988, without realising it, I laid a trail between then and now.  Rediscovery in 2017 meant connecting with my younger self and gaining awareness of a kind of unknowing, a certain confusion perhaps, which I couldn’t perceive at the time.

I think there’s real value in this kind of experience which goes way beyond nostalgia.  The feeling of connecting across time, is vivid and poignant, the sense of unlocking meaning without even trying, so powerful.

Had I heard the song for the first time last week, I would have ‘got’ it, been a little moved by it.  But there wouldn’t have been the discovery of buried treasure and finding it richer than I could ever have imagined.  And of feeling a kindness towards the moment of acquiring it so many years ago and someone I once was.

Cry for the soul that will not face
The body as an equal place
And I never learned to touch for real
Or feel the things, iguanas feel
Down, down, down

Where they play

The seeds that you once planted

This epiphany is a little akin to experiences of religion as a child and which organised religion possibly exploits for its own effectiveness.

The words of The Lord’s Prayer or of a particular hymn are planted in young minds at a time when they can be barely understood.  A seed of meaning is sewn with the potential to bear fruit many years later, when an old idea is revisited and subsequently accepted, modified or rejected.

At that point there may be the strong sense of time, growth, a journey, change and impermanence an awareness of being caught in life’s unstoppable flow.  And of a kind of learning which is natural, uncontrived, inevitable.

Could it even be wisdom?

Teach me, teach me
Teach me, reach me.

 

 

Melamine blue

A blue melamine cup…

What is it about that particular shade of baby blue – deeper than powder, softer than steel – which is so consoling, so pacifying, so utterly redolent of childhood?   And when rendered in melamine, perhaps the ultimate soft edged yet unbreakable material, the association is intensified again.

Baby blue featured very little in our 1970s’ household and yet the blue of that cup more strongly evokes early childhood than contemporaneous staples such as ubiquitous brown carpets or a sofa’s pukey orange.

Baby blue

It feels like that particular shade might have been born in the nurseries of the immediate post-war era.  Blue slows the metabolism, calms the nerves…  Like invalid cookery and Boots The Chemist, it provided a hygienic, protective wrap for atomic babies, consolation in an uncertain age.

 

I half-remember a flashback scene in an early Absolutely Fabulous where cot-bound baby Edina is comforted by a gently cooing mummy June Whitfield.  We see the new antispectic white-tiled world from Edina’s viewpoint but I’m sure there is also baby blue, perhaps in mother’s dress or a nurse’s tunic, for more than anything, this is the colour of the NHS, the diluted authority of a navy police force rendered oh-so comforting.

“I dare you!”

That melamine cup conjures one particular incident:  it’s summer 1969 and next door’s neighbour – a towering giant of an eight year-old – persuaded this five year old, for a dare, to pass through a low, concrete pipe carrying a shallow stream under a main road at the back of our house.   He would meet me the other side.

I don’t recall much of the darkened journey or the trepidation which accompanied it.  I do recall being found out by my mother and sent to bed at 5pm without any tea.  I lay accompanied by my constant bedtime companion, a giant panda called Peter, and on the table beside the bed, a blue melamine cup of tap water.

The words “You could have been killed!” still stung my ears and chilled my spine but all I could actually hear was the loud tick-tock of a (melamine) alarm clock, the swish of an occasional car and the distant chatter of my friends playing on the road.

Light filtered through daytime curtains in the way which only summer light can – unnatural, disturbing, the light of deprivation.  Normally a succour to nightmares, the water in the cup had become prison ration austerity, the ultimate in neutrality and antiseptic punishment.

Yet somehow through this, the soft-hard blue melamine maintained its unbreakable comfort as if it had been chosen to prevent a prisoner from coming to harm.  It was like my mother’s presence in the room, still nurturing even though I had been disobedient.

So there I lay awake for countless wide-eyed hours, gazing into the blue, listening intently to the racing tick-tock of the alarm clock, until day became night and sleep finally descended.

Blue comfort

I learned my lesson and never went down the concrete pipe ever again.

That shade of infinitely mid-mid-blue continued to crop-up though less frequently as time went by.  I think particularly of an Adidas skinny-rib T-shirt in 1978.  Now, baby blue is largely confined to NHS logos and sanitary ware products or the textured panel of an Oral B toothbrush.

The memory of that particular afternoon, so confining and nerve-shattering at the time, now raises a smile.

My cup overfloweth.

Birdwatching in the 1970s

birds-in-your-garden-1971Were garden birds so different back in the 60s and  70s?  A blackbird in 2017 seems pretty much the same as a blackbird in 1977 (or my memory of one) though an ornithologist may well beg to differ.

Take The Birds In Your Garden, an RSPB booklet from 1971.  Forty-six years on and it still does what it says on the cover, forming a perfectly usable guide for identifying and attracting garden birds.

Yet times have changed…
birds-in-your-garden-bird-boxes-edit

 

This photo suggests the RSPB wanted to appeal specifically to suburban bird-watchers (I don’t think they were called twitchers then).

Our ideals of human habitation are clearly not what they were in 1971 though bird boxes cannot be so very subject to changing architectural styles.  I do recall some pretentious ‘heritage’ boxes in the 80s complete with pinnacles and turrets, suitable for the upwardly-mobile blue-tit perhaps.  The boxes above are perfectly in keeping with the pared down, dwelling-unit feel of the houses.

1973’s RSPB booklet, The Birds From Your Window was a rather more elaborate affair with a groovy font to boot:

birds-from-your-window-1973

The illustrations, fine for identification purposes, are not a patch on those by Charles Tunnicliffe for his Wild Birds in Britain 50-card series for Brooke Bond in 1965:
brooke-bond-bird-cards-tunnicliffe-1965

Brooke Bond birds: Waxwing, Long-eared owl, Long-tailed tit, Woodcock

The Birds From Your Window has pages on birds spotted by various well known people in their own gardens.  The choice of contributors – Humphrey Lyttelton, Joyce Grenfell, Robert Dougall and Peter Cushing – makes no concession to a younger audience though I was familiar with three out of four as a nine year old in 1973.  Peter Cushing proffers an elegantly written piece:

birds-from-your-window-peter-cushing-page

birds-in-autumn-winter-1975On to 1975, and Birds in Autumn & Winter is graced with a Tunnicliffe illustrated cover albeit without the decorative background detail which makes the BB cards so lustrous.

Fledgling tweets

I was only ever a casual bird-watcher through windows and on walks in the countryside around Guildford.  The birds were always so damned elusive though my Auntie Wyn was able to identify stray hoots and treetop twitters with casual ease.

My parents tried to interest me in a Surrey Bird Club membership as a Christmas present in 1973.  I didn’t make it to any of the club events but do remember leafing through their unillustrated magazine with its blue and green card covers.  Within, members crowed excitedly over rare sightings of exotic Scandinavian visitors or the occasional bird of prey in Cheam.

Winging it

I also recall a windswept trip to Pagham Harbour in Sussex in May 1978 with a Christian youth group.  This came just after the then Labour government’s introduction of the May Bank Holiday which fell on the coldest, wettest May day for several decades if not centuries.  Pagham too was cold and desolate.  We maybe heard the occasional screech across the mudflats but I don’t actually recall seeing a single bird despite long hours spent clutching binoculars in numb fingers.  A thermos of Heinz oxtail soup and white bread fish paste sandwiches (no crumbs for our feathered friends) helped sustain us through a long, grey day.

I think I went partly out of some misplaced duty to my parents.  As I shunned the numerous sporty events at least I could show I was relatively ‘normal’ by going on a bird-watching trip which was supported by a total of three boys out of over a hundred and fifty.  Well at least it was an outdoor activity…

The spirit of 1970s’ bird-watching is best captured by Martin Parr’s marvellous photos (again, Surrey Bird Club).  These are studies in English eccentricity where the camera is turned back on the middle-classes, patiently at leisure in the home counties.

birds-in-your-garden-bird-watchingFrom ‘The Birds in Your Garden’, RSPB 1971

 

Dr Who: 1976 and all that…

Thanks to a thread at missing episodes, I’ve discovered there were actually two Dr Who omnibuses prior to Christmas 1976 – Pyramids of Mars on 27th November and The Brain of Morbius on 3rd December, both one hour long and presumably scheduled to fill in the odd mid-season gap between The Deadly Assassin Part 4 on 20th November and The Face of Evil Part 1 on 1st Jan 1977.

An omnibus Seeds of Doom was scheduled to follow the first two repeats on 11th December but was pulled at the last minute in favour of Gerry Anderson’s outer space odyssey Into Infinity.  I’ve heard Into Infinity referred to in the same breath as The Seeds of Doom-omnibus-which-never-was but never quite got the sense of it, assuming that Seeds would definitely have been on 27th December as per usual.  So I’m grateful to Richard Bignell for the correction.

Quite why the Pyramids and Morbius omnibuses have fallen through my memory I have no idea.

Dr Who: the 1970s’ Christmas omnibuses

Scraps of Dr Who

Scrapbook coverAs this is the season of good will and indulgence, I hope you’ll indulge me just a little…

As a postscript to Dr Who: the 1970s’ Christmas omnibuses and from my 1973 scrapbook, I proudly present my very own cut and paste of the Radio Times cover for 15-21 December.

Nine years old and I can almost smell the Gloy golden gum…

scrap-book0002

Scrapbook scrawl 1Scrapbook scrawl 2

Happy New Year!

Scanned signature

 

 

 


Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses

 

Dr Who at Christmas: the 1970s Christmas omnibuses: Part 3

A little taste of the times…

Christmas 1974 positively sparkled with an excellent, perhaps the most excellent, adaptation of David Copperfield starring Patience Collier, Martin Jarvis, Arthur Lowe and Jacqueline Pearce whilst in 1975, Crackerjack’s Christmas Pantomime, Robinson Crusoe, featured Windsor Davies, Don Estelle, John Inman and John Lawrie, a different kind of sparkle perhaps.  

Both Christmases were lit up by the annual Dr Who Christmas Omnibus: Planet of the Spiders in 1974 and Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.   

And in 1976..?


1974: Dr Who 
Friday 
27th December, 2.45-4.30
pm 

1.10 Grandstand – introduced by Tony Gubba
2.45 Dr Who: Planet of the Spiders
4.30 The All Star record Breakers
5.00 National News – with Richard Whitmore
5.10 Tom and Jerry [Regional News – not London]
5.20 Top of the Pops – Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis

‘A complete adventure in one programme starring Jon Pertwee as Dr Who… A Tibetan style monastery in rural England; a stage magician with uncanny powers; an alien crystal… these are the strands of the sinister web woven by the Metabelis Spiders’  – Radio Times billing.

 

Or Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker – again.

Even the fact that this omnibus began not at 4.00 or 3.30 but at 2.45pm was exciting to me as a ten year old. The earlier time made the screening feel somehow more ‘urgent’ and it was less long to have to wait.

Indulgence

For all its shortcomings and accusations of indulgence (actually the much criticised chase takes up only half of episode 2) Planet of the Spiders remains underappreciated.  A well-crafted story arc gently builds on seeds sewn in The Time Monster (the Doctor’s teacher), The Green Death (Jo) and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Mike Yates) to provide a coherent and poignant close to the Pertwee era.

Thus a moral tale (the emptiness of power, the innate healing quality power of mind, surrender of ego followed by rebirth) coupled with an end-of-an era, retrospective feel makes for an ideal Christmas recipe.

The regeneration game 

Most touchingly of all, this was transmitted only the day before Part 1 of Robot in which Tom Baker picks up the mantle and a whole newplanet-of-the-spiders-byline era of Dr Who begins.  “Tears, Sarah Jane?”  I’m sure I shed some of my own as my familiar white-haired hero was transformed before my eyes into a brown curly-haired stranger for a no less traumatic second time.

As a six-parter, this would have been 2.30 in episode format, so approximately 45 minutes have been lost.

8.6 million viewers tuned in as against a shade over nine million viewers on average for the original.  Throughout the two weeks of Christmas and New Year, BBC-1 showed Holiday Star Trek each weekday morning at 11.45am.  Possibly this may have bumped-up Planet of the Spiders‘ viewing figures.

ITV screen the film Half a Sixpence at 2.25 all the way up to Looks Familiar at 4.50.

Transmutation

Planet of the Spiders is the first omnibus repeat still held in the BBC archives and is included on the DVD release along with the trailer.

 

 

No illustrations accompany the billing in Radio Times but on the Saturday 28th December page we have a Pertwee-Baker transmutation across four photos as if in imitation of the superb Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special artwork which blended the features of the first three doctors across a double-page spread, thus creating Hartnell-Troughton and Troughton-Pertwee hybrids.  This Pertwee-Baker version is rather more basic and it’s clear Pertwee’s head has been matted onto Baker’s be-scarfed body but still it’s a nice try and gets the idea across.

For the first time in the 70s, the new Dr Who season is not marked by a Radio Times cover, odd really considering Tom Baker’s debut the week before.  All my research has drawn a blank as to what did make it onto the New Year edition cover.

 


1975: Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
Saturday 27th December, 3.00-4.25pm 

12.15 Grandstand – Introduced by Frank Bough
3.00 Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
4.25 The Basil Brush Show – with Roy North
4.50 Final Score 
5.05 News/Weather – with Michael Fish
5.15 It’s Cliff & Friends 
5.50 Saturday Night at the Movies: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, mad World

‘A complete adventure in one programme, starring Tom Baker, written by TERRY NATION… The Time Lords have a mission for the Doctor. He finds himself stranded on Skaro -the planet of the Daleks where a war of attrition is reaching its bitter final stages’ – Radio Times billing.

 

That’s not Terry Nation but TERRY NATION.

Blast off Basil  

No really, Blast Off Basil.

In a bizarre reversal of the usual BBC-1 Saturday evening schedule, Dr Who now precedes Basil Brush which is incongruous given Genesis of The Daleks’ hard-edged, adult themes.  The omnibus would have benefitted immensely had Basil’s twenty-five minutes been added to its running time.  You really need the full exposition to feel the effect.

At the time, I wondered whether the change from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker might signal the end of the Christmas omnibuses.  Added to that, Season Thirteen had begun not around Christmas 1975 but back in autumn of that year and so was a little past mid-way by Christmas.  There was no longer a need to refresh viewers’ memories and whet their appetites after a six month break.

Butchered 

And yet I was pleased to see Genesis of the Daleks appear in the schedules for 27th December in time honoured fashion.  But with approximately 65 minutes removed, it was the most excised of the omnibuses.

The tough cut was presumably to meet the demands of a crowded schedule.  In retrospect, it perhaps suggests the BBC losing interest in the idea of Christmas omnibuses.

Changing times

Even as an eleven year old comparing my memory of the episodic broadcast nine months earlier with this butchered version, I was aware that dramatic impact had been sacrificed.  For the first time, Igenesis-of-the-daleks-byline felt less than entirely satisfied.

Having made the change from primary to secondary school three months earlier, in retrospect, my more critical response also seems like one which prefigures adolescence.  Three or four years earlier I’d have been grateful for anything.

Added to that, by this time my parents were ignoring Dr Who, my father not being a fan of Tom Baker’s more ironic, send-up style (he really should have seen this though).  Watching alone and being in a new house I didn’t warm to took away something of the cosiness.

Stopgap Who

In Radio Times, Frank Bellamy’s artwork is captioned: ‘The most important mission the Doctor has ever faced – can he prevent Davros creating his Daleks?’ and depicts all three ‘Ds’.

8.5 million viewers tuned in compared to an average of almost 9.6 million for the spring screening.

The ITV Network runs with ski-ing and wrestling as part of its usual Saturday afternoon World of Sport package.

This was the only time an omnibus was screened on a Saturday.  The Genesis omnibus was used as a stopgap as there was no Dr Who serial later that day with The Android Invasion’s final episode screened on 13th December and Brain of Morbius not commencing until 3rd Jan 1976.

 


1976:
Bank Holiday Monday 27th  December 

1.25 [Racing from] Wincanton
2.34 Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland
4.20 The Superstars

5.30 Evening News – with Richard Whitmore

Tuesday 28th December 

1.00 Racing Grandstand 
2.35 The Nutcracker
4.20 James and the Giant Peach

5.15 Evening News – with Richard Baker

christmas-1976-radio-times

 

And so to my bitter disappointment on discovering that The Seeds of Doom, my favourite Dr Who story since The Green Death some three years earlier was not to be comped come December.

A repeat was planned but then dropped for unknown reasons.  What those were, I can’t imagine. Seeds of Doom even had snow!

Scrooges! 

The unexplained absence marked the missing of a much-loved tradition.  Christmases felt truncated, colder even, accentuated for me by a passing from childhood innocence to self-aware adolescence

1976, aged twelve, was the last year I had a Christmas stocking.    

Cold, cold Christmas 

Perhaps the omnibuses ended because Dr Who seasons no longer ran January- June.  Perhaps new producer Philip Hinchcliffe didn’t favour the format, preferring episodic repeats which became a fairly common feature of the mid-late 70s when scattered across the early-evening weekday schedule usually as summer filler.  Or perhaps there were changes to BBC senior management come 1976.

Had the tradition continued, both Seeds of Doom and especially 1977’s Dickensian/Holmesian The Talons of Weng Chiang, with its fog shrouded London streets and mysterious magic cabinet, present1976-dr-who-byline themselves as obvious high calibre candidates.  I struggle once we reach The Invasion of Time (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979) admittedly.

For whatever reason, the Christmas feasts were no more.  Inextricably bound to the early-mid 1970s and coinciding exactly with my remembered childhood, the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had become a magnetic, essential part of my Christmas and still engenders feelings of great warmth forty years on.

Ever since 2005, Dr Who has had a Christmas Special shown on Christmas Day, as if that somehow picked up on a longer established tradition which, like many mythologies, was actually never the case.

A Christmas toast

So perhaps at about 3pm on Tuesday 27th December 2016, I’ll sit down to Seeds of Doom on DVD with a glass of ginger wine and a mince pie or two.

Until then, in the words of William Hartnell in 1966’s The Feast of Steven (the only old Who episode actually broadcast on Christmas Day): “A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

img_2523


Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 1
Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 2
Scraps of Dr Who
Dr Who: 1976 and all that