Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Welcome Back To Yarm… Mr James Place!

Those of you who stuck with this blog throughout the whole of last year are probably still emotionally scarred by the relentless day-by-day reliving of my 1984 Diary, and I think some of you are still receiving counselling after inadvertantly catching a glimpse of the opening titles to Robin Of Sherwood.

But hey – it was brilliant fun, and one of the lovely things about the whole strange adventure was the way that several of my old 1984 chums – grizzled veterans of Levendale Primary School to a man and, less frequently, a woman – chanced upon these ramblings and decided to get in touch to say hello.

However, one old friend that seemed to have vanished from this mortal plane of existance (leaving behind just a smoking pair of Start-Rite trainers and an unwound TDK D90 containing a dodgy copy of Manic Miner) was James ‘Placie’ Place. In the hazy, sepia-tinted summer of 1984, Placie was a good mate of mine, and featured regularly in my diary. Here he is, aged 11, posing shamelessly on a school trip to York on Monday 16th July 1984…

And you can read about a few of our exploits in this entry here… 

Like me and all of my contemporaries, Placie made the terrifying journey to Conyers secondary school in September 1984. But, within a couple of years, his family had upped sticks and moved to some exotic, far-flung realm of the Commonwealth (Leicestershire) and I never saw or heard from him again. And, as I’ve pointed out on here before, back in the 1980s that was – quite simply – the Natural Order of The Universe. Kids came and went from your school, and that was life… any attempt to ‘stay in touch, hey, we can even write, like proper pen-pals’ was a sign of pitiful feebleness likely to see you branded – brace yourselves – a ‘bloody big nancy’. And that was just from Mr Ledgerwood.

And then, in February this year, I got an e-mail that made my heart leap, my nerves jangle and  ‘James Place has commented on your blog’. WHHATTTTTTT? True though, and it’s on this entry here…

For the next few months, a flurry of e-mails zipped back and forth between us. We talked, naturally, about the same weighty matters that occupy the minds of 37-year-old men the world over.  The Commodore 64 version of Sabre Wulf, whether to aim for ‘Mission’ or ‘World Dom’ when playing Risk during the summer holidays, and the rainy afternoon on Conyers playing field in Winter 1985 when the entire class received a mass order mark from Mr Nielson for – in Mr Place’s own words – ‘a truly piss poor performance’. 

And – get this! – he also revealed that he’d moved back to the North-East in 1992 and was now resident in Northallerton, a mere ten minutes train ride away from our old stamping grounds! (Not that we ever did much stamping when we were kids. ‘Slouching Grounds’ is probably more accurate, or even ‘Kicking Clumps Of White Dog Shit At Christopher Herbert Grounds’)

And so it came to pass (I really need Charlton Heston to read this bit) that, on Saturday 3rd July 2010, JAMES PLACE RETURNED TO YARM. A date in NO WAY selected to coincide with Levendale Primary School summer fete, enabling us to gain full access to our old alma mater and have a good snoop around the classrooms while reminiscing idly about pink custard,  sliced volleys over Mr Strike’s bungalow and the day that Philip Slack told the entire Middle Band that a tarantula had escaped from the local zoo and was loose amongst the coats in the cloakroom outside the boy’s bogs (twenty minutes of blind panic and frantic recitals of the Lord’s Prayer ensued before Mr Millward pointed out, sagely, that Teesside doesn’t actually have a zoo. I was halfway through ‘Forgive us our trespassers’ in front of Mrs Parker’s cupboard when the all-clear came. I had to hurriedly pretend I’d been looking for my R2D2 rubber on the floor). 

It was 24 years since since Placie and I had last met, but – amazingly – we clicked so quickly back into the old rapport that it was a matter of minutes before we were reviving our 1984 plans to organise an all-night ghosthunting stake-out in the old railwayman’s hut at the top of Snaith’s Field. If Christopher Herbert had walked past, we’d undoubtedly have kicked a clump of white dog shit over him, just for old time’s sake. Within five minutes we were back on our old playing field, possibly taking slightly TOO long to wonder whether the sight of two 37-year-old men filming each other at a school fete made us look, well… just a little bit dodgy… 

And yes, as far as Levendale Primary School is concerned, Mr Place and myself are indeed now civil partners. ‘Are you a family?’ asked the nice man collecting the entrance money on the desk in our old school reception. ‘It’s £1.50 each, but only £2 if you buy a family ticket between you’.  

‘Yes we are’, said James, clearly a man with an eye for a bargain. And yes, he put my name down on the signing-in form, just in case things kicked off over the tombola stall. Mind you, with such a heavy police presence, a contre-temps over the PTA raffle seemed a fairly unlikely possibility (Notice the helicopter in the above clip! Nothing as exciting as that ever happened in 1984. The nearest we ever got was pulling our parkas over our heads and walking like giant, zombie bats into the Force 10 hurricane blowing in from Enterpen Close).

It was both amazing and surprisingly intimidating being back inside the school. So much of it is utterly unchanged, and we instantly reverted back to our 11-year-old selves, striding purposefully around the hall, cloakrooms and fields with barely a second glance to get our bearings. And yet all the self-consciousness of pre-teen childhood returned as well… as James says on the video, we felt a bit unnerved being back inside the school, as if – at any moment – a twelve-foot Mr Hirst was going to loom over the top of the library shelves and bellow at us for smearing mud over the Fourth Years’ crepe mosaic of the Tomb of Tutankhamun.

And you know what? This is without a doubt the most utterly predictable thing I’ve EVER written on this blog (and blimey, there’s some stiff competition) but the whole school was just TINY on the inside. Classrooms that – in my mind – were great, sprawling cathedrals of learning now seemed barely big enough to contain a pile of Nina Bawden novels and a BBC Micro computer on a trolley. Still, the hall at least is clearly Grade 2 listed… it hasn’t changed in the slightest since 1984…

You can see the legendary PE ‘apparatus’ on the back wall there (with a few remnants of Gareth ‘Gazzie’ Jones’ tattered fingers still smeared liberally across the top of the sliding rope) and the school dinner serving hatch where a gleeful Doug Simpson once attempted to explain the mysterious of sexual intercourse to me as a sour-faced Mrs Gallon slammed a solid lump of goulash into our plastic trays.

And, on the far side of the hall, the location for my triumphant Christmas 1983 performance as Good King Wenceslas, ‘last looking out’ over a sea of parents in acrilyc cardigans on ‘the feast of Stephen Mason’.

Brilliant to see you again anyway, Mr Place, and – needless to say – we spent the rest of the day (and night) in a succession of Yarm’s finest pubs (and a couple of rubbish ones as well) before attempting one final assault on the old railwayman’s hut at the top of Snaith’s Field. Sadly, neither of us can remember whether it was ‘Mission’ or ‘World Dom’ we were aiming for, but – whatever it was – it seemed to have scared the ghosts away.

And the hut, for that matter. But such is life.

High Force Will Be With You… Always

Death!!! Explosions!!! Sexual depravity!!! None of these things feature whatsoever in the next few paragraphs, it’s just the customary nostalgia-obsessed rambling, but I thought at least that might grab your attention after a few months away from regular blog duties. My absence has been down to a tumultuous six months of domestic upheaval, emotional trauma and some pretty hardcore wallpapering, with the occasional SMALL explosion thrown in for good measure. Anyway, we’ve got some catching up to do.

Regular followers of this nonsense (and hello to both of you) might remember me  mentioning, during several sessions of intense regressive therapy, a 1981 school excursion to this place…

Yes, High Force. A bloody big waterfall (as I believe it’s described in this quarter’s edition of the National Trust newsletter) located at the murky source of the River Tees before the Asda shopping trolleys, empty Carlsberg cans and floppy rubber johnnies kick into play about three miles west of Portrack.

In October 1981 – when I was eight – I joined the official Levendale Primary School expedition to this scenic, awe-inspiring death trap, my parents having signed the customary ‘Loco Parentis’ form (which Stephen Mason ALWAYS insisted meant your parents had given their permission for you to travel on a steam train) and packed me off with a blinding white egg sandwich stuffed into an airtight Empire Strikes Back lunchbox, expertly timed to reach dangerous ‘eggy whiffer’ critical mass just as our Compass Royston coach passed through Barnard Castle. The resulting build-up of farty, salad cream-fuelled fumes were enough to remove the eyebrows of any unsuspecting child careless enough to open it in a confined area. I think Christopher Herbet’s crab paste doorstep, shouldered by Geoff Capes into a tiny rectangle of pickle-stained tupperware nearly three decades ago, is still surrounded by sandbags and kept under armed guard by the Green Howards in a cordoned-off area somewhere on the outskirts of Cotherstone.

Two amazing things happened on this fateful day nearly 29 years ago…

1. I managed to eat almost half my Orange Club biscuit before Stephen Mason grabbed the remainder, shouted ‘ACHTUNG, SCHWEINHUNT!!!!!!’ and lobbed it, hand-grenade style, into the cascading waters below.  

2. Each member of our school party was – and there’s no easy way of putting this – taken to the brink of the waterfall by two of our teachers, and ‘encouraged’ to lean over the edge of this sheer, slippery precipice to ‘admire the glory of nature (whether you like it or not)’ with our arms loosely restrained by said teachers to prevent us from plunging, screaming, 120 feet down the jagged cliff face into the roaring, foaming rapids beneath.

We established on this blog last year that one of these teachers was all-round good egg, top bloke and upstanding pillar of the community Mr Hirst, entirely unpeturbed by the prospect of his sensational David Bowie quiff being ruffled by the foam-dotted backdraft (and the odd floppy rubber johnny) from the violent River Tees. I’d long since suspected that the other teacher was his long-term partner-in-crime Mr Millward, but when I met the genial Mr M last year, he denied everything (although, in all honesty, it took a pair of thumbscrews and the threat of Christopher Herbert’s crab paste doorstep to get to admit that he’d ever been a teacher at all)

So I’m now wondering if my long-suffering form teacher Mrs Moore was the other guilty party? Whatever, enough waffling… inbetween the emotional trauma and wallpapering this summer, I went back to High Force and made an uncannily accurate reconstruction of this traumatic formative experience…

Alright, I admit it. Put the crab paste doorstep away. Even as a worldly-wise 37-year-old who can eat a brace of Orange Club biscuits in his own freshly-wallpapered house at his own leisure, I was still decidedly nervy at being allowed to wander idly around the top of such a dangerous-looking precipice. So imagine how I felt, at the age of eight, when I was frogmarched to the the slippery rocks tentatively filmed in the below video, and given a closer look at the glory of nature than I’d ever previously deemed necessary…

In retrospect, I’m only amazed that I didn’t make the 35-mile journey back to Yarm rocking gently back and forth like a shattered Vietnam veteran (‘You don’t know, maaan… you weren’t there….’) and squelching uncomfortably in heavily-soiled Marks and Spencers school trousers. Although I suppose the latter might have come as light relief from the still-overpowering whiff of egg sandwiches and crab paste doorsteps on the bus. Still, it was nice to go back and discover that High Force is still as terrifying and downright dangerous as it as ever was, relatively unscathed by the wagging finger of Health and Safety. Although I’m sure this little nugget of public information wasn’t available for our perusal back in 1981…

TRANSLATION: ‘YOU MIGHT WELL DIE UP HERE AND IF YOU DO, IT’S YOUR OWN STUPID FAULT’. Nothing about throwing half-eaten Orange Club biscuits off the top of the waterfall, though… so, reluctantly, I’ve had to shelve the impending Fischer vs Mason legal action.

Up The Cleveland Way

Hello all,

A cheeky request, as I know you’re nice people… me and my friend Wez (as featured in at least three chapters of ‘Wiffle Lever!’) are walking the Cleveland Way this week. It’s a 110 mile walk across the North Yorkshire Moors and down the coastline, and we’re trying to do it in five days solid. Neither of us have done anything like this before, so it’s a bit of a challenge for us both! (Especially as Wez has dodgy knees)

To spur us on a bit, we’ve decided to raise a few quid for charity while we’re out there, and our two chosen causes are the RNLI and the RSPCA.

Don’t suppose any of you would be kind enough to chuck a couple of quid to either or both of these noble causes? We’d be very grateful!

I’ve set up a Just Giving page for each charity. It’d be nice to raise a similar sum for both charities, so if you’re not bothered which one you donate to, then pick the one that looks like it needs topping up a bit! 🙂

RNLI – http://www.justgiving.com/fischerwezclevelandway2
RSPCA – http://www.justgiving.com/fischerwezclevelandway

Thanks so much for this… setting off first thing tomorrow, wish us luck!

I’ve been…

…a bit crap at updating this really, haven’t I? Sorry I vanished, it’s been a strange and hectic and slightly traumatic few months. I’ll be back properly soon, and I have exclusive footage of my first meeting with my former Levendale Primary School friend James ‘Placie’ Place in over 24 years. We were standing in a field when a police helicopter suddenly landed fifty yards away, and I spent a couple of minutes genuinely wondering if he might be on the run.

In the meantime, here’s Neville Wanless to wish you all a heartfelt goodnight. Don’t forget to turn your PCs off before you go to bed.

Mr Millward and Mr Hirst… Reunited!

Here’s a little treat for all you Levendale Primary School veterans of the 1980s. I’m afraid – for reasons of national security – that I’m unable to reveal the exact date and location of this meeting, but I recently found myself in the same room as our former teachers Mr Millward and Mr Hirst! The first time such a gathering has taken place since July 1984, when I was sent grumbling down to Middle Band to ‘help Mrs Keasey take the staples out of the walls’.

I did indeed comment that our mini-reunion was like seeing John Lennon and Paul McCartney back together again, although this probably means that Mrs Keasey is George Harrison and Mrs Mulhern is Ringo. And I’m not convinced that either of them would be entirely chuffed about that. Anyway, here you go…

I should probably send out a little apology to Glenn Conroy – he was a perfectly pleasant young lad from my school year who just happened to crop up in conversation a couple of times that night! Glenn, if you ever see this, and you require expensive therapy to deal with it, just send the bill to Mr G Millward, c/o Levendale Primary School, Mount Leven Road, Yarm…

Nuggets from the Loft… Volume 2

As threatened, I’ve been rummaging in the loft again, and this time I’ve unearthed two long-lost early 1980s artefacts that would have the Antiques Roadshow team… well, let’s be honest, they’d be rolling their eyes and muttering ‘for f***’s sake’ under their breaths. But, to me, these antiquities are as priceless as any dusty oriental remnant. After all, who wants a Ming vase when you can have a Ming The Merciless Weetabix card?

Weetabix… breakfast cereal of choice on the Planet Mongo! Found rattling around the bottom of cereal packets along with stray offcuts of mouldy biscuit, these cards were – of course – a shameless marketing tie-in with the BRILLIANT Flash Gordon movie that the velvet-curtained fleapits of Britain were showing during… well, thereby hangs a tale. The official US release date for the film was December 5th 1980, but I’m convinced it can’t have hit the UK until at least Spring 1981. The impeccably-researched evidence that I’m using to back up my theory is that I remember swopping some of the above cards with Andrew ‘Stan’ Henry on a bright, breezy summers day at Levendale Primary School, with the sun blazing through the grubby window pane upon which Paul Frank and I had recently made a bloody awful pig’s ear of painting the Loch Ness Monster.

Presumably Stan, like me, was attempting to gain the full set by eating seven Weetabix for breakfeast every morning (‘Burppp… farrrt… keep ’em coming Mum, I’m REALLY hungry today… blurrrp’) before arriving at school with a waistline like the Michelin Man. And a complexion to match.

Anyway, it’s a great film. Now remembered chiefly for Brian Blessed’s towering performance (‘GORDON’S ALIVE??!?!?!?!?’), but it also contains the sobering sight of nubile twentysomething Italian sex siren Ornella Muti (a woman once voted the world’s most beautiful, and reputed to have insured her all-conquering breasts for $350,000) snogging Howard from Ever Decreasing Circles.

All of this passed me by at the time, naturally, although I was intrigued by the fact that Flash Gordon himself was a professional footballer, as he didn’t bear any resemblance to any professional footballer I’d ever seen in 1981. Where was his bubble perm, moustache, beer belly and permanent haze of Lambert and Butler smoke? Amateur.

Anyway, I lied, it isn’t a Ming The Merciless card at all. It’s actually dedicated to his sidekick, the slightly dubiously-named Klytus…

As portrayed, splendidly, by former Jason King lothario Peter Wyngarde. ‘Klytus, I’m bored… what plaything can you offer me today?’

‘Well Masterful Ming, I’ve got a slightly rusty badge* featuring one of the Weetabix skinheads…’

(*stop giggling)

Yes, this is today’s second Nugget from the Loft. This was Weetabix’s other concerted early 80s attempt to win the hearts and minds (and waistlines) of gullible eight-year-olds.. a gang of loveable, cuddly Weetabix skinheads (or ‘Bovver Boys’ as they were often affectionately known at the time). I think these came a little later than the Flash Gordon cards, possibly in 1982, and you can see them in full action here…

Again, they bore little resemblance to the ACTUAL skinheads that I’d seen in 1982, who were usually to be found gently inserting barbed wire into innocent bystanders near the perimeter fence at Ayresome Park. I’m guessing the Weetabix Frontline were mainly influenced by Madness – who were EVERYWHERE in 1982 – although I’d like to think there’s a little bit of Ian Dury and the Blockheads in there as well. And, equally, you’re perfectly entitled to think that I should get out a bit more and stop contemplating this rubbish in such detail. As my former Levendale teacher Mr Millward once said to me with a flabbergasted glare, ‘Do you not sometimes think you’re a little bit… anal?’

I’d like to pretend this happened 25 years ago, but it was actually this Tuesday night, when he and Mr Hirst joined me for a cheeky pint (more on this to follow soon)

Anyway, ‘Brains’ was the intellectual giant of the Weetabix skinheads, and we knew this because – obviously – he wore glasses. Early 1980s optical science had proved beyond doubt that ALL specky four-eyed freaks were DEAD CLEVER, like.  It was all that swotty book-reading and squinting down microscopes wot did it, although admittedly there was ONE OTHER WAY in which it was possible to lose your eyesight in the early 1980s. This was – as any self-respecting fishcake-toting mother would tell you – ‘sitting too close to the telly’.

I spent most of the first ten years of my life being warned repeatedly about this. ‘Get away from that telly, you, or your eyes will go bad and you’ll have to wear glasses when you’re older’. I’d get this at least three times I week as I pressed my face up against the concave screen of our four-channel, wood-panelled Granada behemoth to drool over Sarah Greene. I’m now 37, and I’ve still yet to join the intellectual specky elite.

I need closure on this… is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that watching TV from a short distance can have a detrimental effect on the eyesight? Surely it’s no different to looking at anything else from close-up? Will my ‘eyes go bad’ if I also sit ten inches away from the front room wall and stare at that all night instead? The other Saturday I caught 15 minutes of ‘Celebrity Mr and Mrs’, and was sorely tempted to do exactly that.

NB For the record, I’ve spent most of the last 37 years talking absolute bollocks, and my tongue has yet to split either. Although those who’ve met me in the flesh could make a reasonable case for the wind having changed, and me staying like that.

A Little Chat With… John Craven

In early 2007, me and my BBC Tees co-presenter Shack launched a radio feature called ‘Little Legends’… basically tracking down some of our childhood heroes and persuading them to chat live with us on the wireless. I thought it might be fun to transcribe some of these genial ramblings for the Wiffle blog, and so – kicking us off – a chinwag with Newsround and Country File broadcasting legend MR JOHN CRAVEN. Shortly before we spoke to him, John had been reunited on TV with his former Swap Shop colleagues Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin and Maggie Philbin for a special BBC2 theme night…

Hello John! It was really nice to see you on TV over Christmas, reunited with the rest of the Swap Shop team. Was it fun to do?

It certainly was. It’s quite amazing really that we’re all still alive, we’re all still in the business and we all still talk to each other! We keep in touch, and I have dinner now and again with Maggie or with Noel, and it was fantastic to get together again on TV. We all walked in the studio the morning it was being recorded, and they’d rebuilt the set just as it was thirty years ago, there was Posh Paws sitting on the desk, and when they played the theme tune we all just about burst into tears… (laughs).

I do remember the shock I got as an eight-year-old when, on the very last episode, you were revealed to be the master puppeteer behind the Lamb…

That’s right! (laughs) That all came about because something went wrong – as it often did – during the show, they couldn’t run something that they’d intended to, and we were told that they were coming back to the studio for ten minutes and we’d have to fill. And round the desk we used to have all these soft toys… so I grabbed one, popped under the desk, and stuck its head in the air so Noel could talk to this thing. And it was a lamb… so Lamb became a bit of a Little Legend! And he had to be adapted so I could put my hand up him properly…

You weren’t tempted to pass the duty onto somebody else after the first occasion?

No, I liked doing it! I should have been a bit more streetwise, I think, and patented Lamb. I could have made a fortune out of him…

Do we recall you as a Bee Gee at one point as well, or have we imagined that?

No, I walked down the staircase with a funny wig and sang Massachussetts. The things we did… and I was supposed to be the sensible news man on the show! Of course when Swap Shop first started, there’d never really been anything like that on TV before, a three-hour live entertainment programme. The longest running programmes previously had been the sports programmes, but there’d been nothing like this in the studio. So they were a bit concerned that three hours of froth would be a bit too much for the children, and they wanted a bit of grit as well… and I was dropped in as the grit. And although we kept that grit – we had people like Margaret Thatcher on after all – we had a lot of fun as well.

You’re from Leeds aren’t you…?

I am, and I very nearly worked for the BBC on Teesside at one point…


Yeah, because I started off my BBC career in Newcastle for regional radio… and I think BBC Radio Teesside, which was the forerunner of your station, started in about 1970. And I was invited to apply for a job there, but at the same time I was offered a definite job with the BBC in Bristol. So not wanting to take a chance I went to Bristol. But who knows what might have happened if I’d gone to Teesside instead…

There should be a plaque here to commemorate you…

Yes, “John Craven Was Almost Here”!

You must work with the current generation of young journalists at the BBC these days, do you meet people who have been inspired to enter the profession by watching Newsround throughout their childhood?

It’s actually true, that. And it’s great to know. A lot of people tell me they got their interest in current affairs from watching Newsround, and that watching me made them want to be a journalist or broadcaster. Which is nice, because at the time you don’t think that you’re having such an influence, it’s just a hectic job – it was a live show, we were a very small team, we had to put it together quite late with no time for rehearsal. And you’re so busy concentrating on getting it right and doing it properly that you don’t really think about the impact that it’s having on the other side of the screen. And so it’s great now that a whole bunch of people in their… I guess their thirties…?

That’s us, yes!

You’re all my children! (laughs)

Was it a tricky balance to strike? You want to get important news issues over to kids, but without patronising them…

That’s right. I didn’t want to appear to be like a teacher, which is why I rarely sat behind the desk… I always sat in front of the desk, or perched on top of it – which was a bit awkward at times when the scripts fell off my knee! But I wanted to be relaxed – maybe not quite as relaxed as they are these days, but then television has changed enormously since Newsround began. And so has Newsround itself, obviously. I was always a bit ‘Sit down, be quiet and listen to this,’ I think… (laughs)

Have you seen Newsround recently?

Yeah, I keep an eye on it from time to time. And I went back to do the thirtieth anniversary programme a few years ago. But mostly these days I’m in the fields in my wellies, and I don’t get to see much children’s television.

How long is it now since Country File began?

It’s coming up to twenty years. It started without me, and I joined after about eighteen months – I left Newsround on the Friday, and started with Country File on the Monday.

What made you fancy the move?

I think I was getting too old for children’s television. The old grey hairs were starting to come along, and it’s a very bouncing up and down business – you’ve got to be young and fit, and there doesn’t seem to be a role these days in children’s television for the‘uncle’ figure.

Which I think is a little bit of a shame… I remember when I was a kid, even the Blue Peter presenters – John Noakes and Peter Purves, must have been well into their thirties at that point…

Yes, and then you had people like Johnny Morris and Tony Hart, who were kind of grandfather figures, really – and I think that’s important for children.

Are you an outdoor kind of chap, then?

Oh yes, absolutely. Country File is a dream job for me.

Did you get marooned in snow anywhere last week?

No, we were lucky actually – we were in Ironbridge in Shropshire, and snow was forecast, but it seemed to go over the top of us and missed us completely. But I have been snowed in many times over the years.

I guess it’s an important programme to be presenting on TV these days, with environmental issues so prominent in the news…?

That’s right, and rural affairs as well, of course – with all the food scares we’ve had, and concern about the accountability of where our food is coming from… so yeah, it’s amazing that we can do all that and get nearly three million viewers on a Sunday morning.

It’s a great programme to start the day with. I watch it while I’m doing my ironing.

Do you really? (laughs). Well, we’re getting a magazine soon as well, you know… there’s a Country File magazine being published by the BBC from the Autumn, so look on your supermarket shelves for that…

Will you be contributing to it?

I hope so! I’ll have words to say if I’m not!

So Country File’s been on air for nearly twenty years, and Newsround for eighteen before that, do you have any other ambitions left to fulfil in the broadcasting world?

Well I don’t know, some people would say I’d not been very ambitious – if you include Swap Shop, that’s only three jobs in thirty five years! Although I was trying to think the other day actually, I’m not sure many other people have been on BBC1 almost every week for that length of time… and I’ve just signed another contract to do Country File for another year. We live from year to year in this business, don’t we?

Month to month for us John, if we’re lucky

(laughs) At least it isn’t day to day…

Country File is now on Sunday evenings on BBC1, and BBC Countryfile Magazine can be found at www.bbccountryfilemagazine.com. Thanks to John for the chat!

Nuggets from the Loft…

During a fleeting forage in the loft last week, I couldn’t help but notice that the teetering piles of treasure-filled cardboard boxes up there were starting to get a little bit damp… threatening the myriad of priceless antiques (251 issues of Whizzer and Chips and at least seven Star Wars Annuals) up there with irrevocable damage!

As a result I’ve spent my day off today transferring everything up there into proper, plastic storage boxes, and – in the process – have unearthed a couple of delightful little nuggets. I think I’ve mentioned before that I spent most of 1978 scribbling incredibly convoluted depictions of scenes from Star Wars, and – brilliantly – here’s the evidence…

(Click on the picture for a larger version!)

I think I’ve managed to indentify all the characters and spaceships in this, but I’m happy to offer special (and utterly worthless) Wiffle Points to anyone who can put names to them!

The picture was actually tucked inside a Mr Men Acitivity Book, and one of the activities required me to enter the date… which I’d done, in shaky pencil handwriting – Saturday 3rd June 1978. So I’m guessing my drawing dates from around the same time, that strange transitional period when my allegiances were transferring from the cosy, sepia-tinted snuggliness of my early childhood (Hello Mr Tickle! Hello Bungo Womble! Hello Rupert Bear! But bugger off Raggety the Twigman, you creepy wood-faced bleeder…) to the lightsabre-filled adventure of my early 80s school years. I was five years old in June 1978, reaching the end of my first year in ‘reception’ at Levendale Primary School, and lustily embarking on a life of heartfelt geekdom.

(Except, of course, I wasn’t. There was nothing geeky about Star Wars in 1978, it was as mainstream as it was possible to get. EVERYONE I knew – boys and girls – loved Star Wars and Doctor Who, and it was only when I reached my teenage years that a fascination for all this stuff began to mark me out as something – ahem – special. But that’s another story… and let’s face it, I wrote a whole bloody book about it…)

My other little Nugget from the Loft today is an hilariously sexist bit of comic strippery from Christmas 1979…

‘HOW’S THIS FOR A CHRISTMAS CRACKER?’ Fantastic. A cover clearly drawn by Jack and Stan from On The Buses in a quiet moment down the depot, making ‘Phwoooar’ noises and suggestive gestures with their forearms as a legion of mini-skirted ‘clippies’ slink by. I showed this to my other half today, and she asked me – in all sincerity – ‘is this real? Was it actually made for kids?’

I can only assume the Christmas 1979 edition of Bunty comic didn’t have a hairy-chested, cartoon John Travolta in skin-tight jeans bursting out of a pink Christmas cracker.

More priceless Nuggets from the Loft coming soon!

Dear Parent/Guardian…

Alright, you asked for it… actually, no, scrap that. You didn’t. But I did mention that, amidst the Ker-Plunk accessories and spider droppings in the loft, I’d found another priceless artefact from my 1980s school days. And – excitingly – here it is…


Yes, a bona fide letter! Signed by our shiny-domed headmaster Mr Metcalfe and distributed to the grotty footsoldiers of 1CW by Mrs Bush during morning registration. Chris Byers and I hadn’t quite cranked up our ‘Statler and Waldorf’ routine by July 1987, so we’ll have had to sneer and grumble about Mr Metcalfe’s words of wisdom from opposite ends of the classroom. In fact, in 1987, I was forming an unbelievably annoying double act at the front of the class with Chris Selden… tousle-haired Douglas Adams-obsessed genius and the star of Chapter Six of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’.

I’m still quite proud of the fact that, by July 1987, we were quoting The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy SO MUCH that Mrs Bush – on the verge of a nervous breakdown – actually had to ask us to stop. We were 14, and would respond to her every utterance by smugly whispering ‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has this to say on the subject of…’ before giggling into our ski jacket sleeves. I think it was the Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s opinion on Mr Ledgerwood that finally forced her to snap.*

(*’Mr Ledgerwood is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how mind-bogglingly big he is. I mean…’ etc)

Anyway, that letter…


Something like that, anyway. Note: When I found Mr Metcalfe’s letter last week, it was tucked inside the front cover of Tricolore 4, in which Jean-Pierre and Marie-Claire visit La Rochelle to buy a Croque Monsieur for their ‘oncle’.  

2. ‘Some parents may be unaware that their child is leaving the site at lunchtime and going into Yarm instead of staying for school lunch’. Something of an understatement, I think… by 1987, if you wanted to find a Conyers School pupil between the hours of 12 and 1pm, then the LAST place you wanted to be looking was Conyers School. The main dining hall was actually serving tumbleweed and chips during this era (possibly literally, actually… I once caught of a glimpse of a cottage pie that looked like it had blown in straight from the streets of Dodge City) 

My house was less than five minutes walk from the Conyers gates, so I didn’t head to Yarm… I just went home. There was no requirement to tell anyone, I just wandered off, and no-one cared.  I didn’t eat a single meal on the school premises between Christmas 1984 and January 1991, when – as sixth formers – me and my snooty, indie snob mates decided there was a hilarious ironic coolness in staying for school dinners, and would sarcastically tuck into spam fritters, chips and semolina while giving each other knowing winks and thumbs up gestures. All done in the most insincere, post-modern fashion imaginable, of course, while quoting endlessly from Vic Reeves Big Night Out (‘You ‘ad to mention Spam Fritters, didn’t yer? YOU WOULDN’T LET IT LIE!!!’) and singing Chesney Hawkes ‘The One and Only’.  

In July 1987 though, I was still enthusiastically tramping home, and my staple diet was a cheese savoury sandwich (bought by my Mum the previous day from the Three Cooks bakery in Yarm High Street) and a packet of Tudor cheese and onion crisps. Sometimes my Dad – working shifts at RAF Linton-on-Ouse by this stage – would be at home, other times the place would be empty. If my Dad was there, we’d invariably watch the telly for an hour, and throw ourselves into the splendidly tatty lunchtime revue that was ‘The Tom O’Connor Roadshow’.

From what I can remember… basically a live variety show broadcast from selection of provincial theatres around the country, with a sparkly-eyed Tom introducing local bands (of the safe ‘sounding a bit like The Shadows’ variety rather than grotty oiks in Half Man Half Biscuit T-shirts), theatre groups and occasional quiz contestants onto the stage. I think ‘former Miss Great Britain’ Debbie Greenwood – a powerful teenage crush of mine – might have been involved as well. We’d giggle sarcastically at all this over industrial-strength pots of tea before – just before I went back to school – I was able to catch the first five minutes of Going For Gold. 

‘The heat is on… the time is right… it’s time for you… TO BUGGER OFF BACK TO SCHOOL, YOU’VE GOT GEOGRAPHY WITH MR MOORE IN FIVE MINUTES’ 

If my Dad wasn’t there, then – inevitably – I would crank up the ZX Spectrum within nanoseconds of walking through the door and throw myself into Match Day or Sabre Wulf while an ageing Poggy Doggy snuffled around the carpet looking for crisp droppings. I’m eternally proud of the fact that I once missed an afternoon registration with Mrs Bush because I was still in the front room at 1.10pm playing Lord of the Rings. I’d sent an SAE and a postal order for £1.99 to an address in the classified adverts of Your Sinclair magazine, and received – by return of post – a full walk-through solution to the game, all printed out on shiny grey ZX Spectrum printer paper. I ate my Three Cooks cheese savoury sandwich on the ferry across the  Brandywine Bridge, and was determined to get to Rivendell before I had to head back for double Physics with Mr Dillon. I failed.

3. ‘Plans have been submitted for alterations to the lay-by’… I have no recollection whatsoever of the parking lay-by at the front of the school ever changing shape during my time at Conyers, so I assume the application was unsuccessful. The Hitch Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy has this to say on the subject of unsuccessful planning applications… it’s a bypass, you’ve got to build bypasses… I’m game, we’ll see who rusts first… with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’… you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest, they’ve got a page for people like you… etc… etc…

(Actually, all of this Hitch Hikers stuff has reminded me to post this fabulous piece of work by my friend Andrew Orton, which is – frankly – so bloody good it makes me want to throw all of my feeble lifetime achievements into a skip and set fire to them. Take it away, Mr O…)

If You Like A Lot Of Chocolate On Your Biscuit…

…then you’ve probably got self-esteem issues and a weight problem. Alternatively… join our club! Huge thanks to my former Levendale Primary School compadre (and Conyers class 1CW veteran) Chris Byers, who I met up with last week for the first time in years. We spent a leisurely Wednesday afternoon discussing our school days in scarily obsessive detail, and I’ve now discovered that not ALL of my schoolmates were taken on that legendary 1981 trip to High Force waterfall, during which Messrs Hirst and Millward gleefully dangled each grotty schoolboy in turn over the edge of the precipice.  No, on the same day, Chris and a busload of other unfortunates were taken to see… wait for it… the Cleveland Potash Terminal at Tees Dock!

On reflection, I think I got the better deal, even if I still occasionally have nightmares about plummeting headlong onto the Whin Sill rocks in an orange cagoul, as a shower of Trio biscuits and Hula Hoops cascade into the foaming waters around me.

Anyway, Chris revealed – tantalisingly – that he was still in possession of a genuine Levendale Primary School artefact. In 1981, Chris – along with our classmate Tim Scott and my future partner-in-crime Doug Simpson – joined ‘The Famous Five Club’. Yep, THAT Famous Five, the Enid Blyton bunch, whose names I can never remember. Off the top of my head… Dick, Anne, Beaky, Mick and Titch. I think that’s right. I’m guessing this was a fan club run by Puffin Books (or whoever), prompted by the 1978 TV version that I vaguely remember playing warm-up to vintage Leslie Judd-era Blue Peter.

Chris was sure he still had his Famous Five Club membership card somewhere, and – fantastically – he was right…

And on the reverse…

And yes, that’s Doug’s signature. It feels incredibly strange seeing his handwriting again, and brings back a little giddy rush of nostalgia… swimmy-headed memories of reading each others’ rambling stories and random scribblings on cold January mornings in Mrs Keasey’s form room nearly THIRTY SODDING YEARS AGO. Yikes. Chris was wondering why Tim Scott didn’t sign the card as well, but if you look closely at the scan – and I’ve only just noticed this – I think Tim HAS started to sign it, on the line below Doug. There’s definitely a ‘T’ and and ‘I’ there, but it looks like they’ve been written in pencil and then rubbed out! No doubt with a filthy grey rubber containing at least one snapped-off pencil nib embedded into its battle-scarred torso. Maybe Tim had second thoughts, or maybe there’s a darker story to tell here (probably involving a smugglers’ cove, a gypsy girl and one of Uncle Quentin’s strange experiments…) 

I think the only club I ever joined as a kid was – predictably – the Star Wars Fan Club, which I hastily signed up to sometime during my Skywalker-obsessed Summer of 1978. I don’t think I got much for my £3.95 annual membership fee (hey, it was a lot of money in those days) but I remember…

1. A Star Wars knee patch for my trousers (which never got used… I kept it pristine in a shoebox under the bed for years. It’s probably still in the loft somewhere, immaculate and untouched)

2. An ‘iron-on’ transfer for a T-shirt. These were all the rage in the late 1970s, the theory being that you took a plain white T-shirt from your wardrobe and relentlessly pestered your poor, overworked mother to iron the lurid, sticky-backed Star Wars transfer onto the front, thus transforming your drab garment into – HEY PRESTO!!!! – a brilliant, colourful Star Wars T-shirt that would look fabulous for about twenty minutes before Darth Vader’s helmet started to peel off at the edges, then dissolve into a pile of sticky, lurid mush at the bottom of your Mum’s twin-tub washing machine the following Sunday. 

3. A newsletter containing all the LATEST, EXCLUSIVE GOSSIP ABOUT THE STAR WARS UNIVERSE!!! I’ve had to frantically squeeze my brains over the bathroom sink to recall this, but it was called ‘Bantha Tracks’ and had a nice, homespun fanzine quality to it. I’ve probably still got these somewhere as well… I really must get round to sorting through the 2,546 cardboxes boxes of assorted guff in the loft, but I’ll need to take a month off work. Probably worth doing before it all comes through the landing ceiling, though.

I DID find an exciting artefact from my schooldays yesterday, however, but I’ll create an air of entirely unconvincing suspense by waiting until later in the week before posting it on here. Consider that a cliffhanger… (albeit a rubbish one, in which the camera just zooms into my cackling face before the credits roll)

(Utterly pointless bit of true but useless trivia about this advert… it’s Derek Griffiths playing the bongos. There, you can all sleep safely in your beds tonight…)