On Friday 1 July 1960 at 7.30pm, BBC Television (no BBC1 or BBC2 then) broadcast a one-off comedy programme starring a big personality. Big in every sense. I would like to say that it changed the world and influenced all comedy that followed, but I can’t. Fred Emney Picks A Pop was shown once, then forgotten completely. No recording survives. The show’s production file almost certainly resides at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, and possibly even contains a script. I’ve not visited Caversham for a while, but it’s on my ‘to do’ list. All I have right now is a photocopy of the programme as broadcast (PasB) sheet, which tantalises with details of the cast and the music used.
Why should I be so interested in this show, as Westengland asked on Twitter the other day? It’s all down to Mark Lewisohn. When his Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy came out in 1998, I, like most of my archivally-inclined ilk, devoured it, marvelling at its thoroughness and its kindly constructive criticism of the shows. One entry stood out. On page 255 of the first edition (I didn’t buy the second, largely because it had Ricky Gervais on the cover, and also because the entirety of its text was on the BBC Comedy website – happy days. As it happens, I didn’t buy the first edition, either. Shortly after my arrival at Publishing News in August 1998, my colleague Roger Tagholm received a complimentary copy, which I scrounged off him.), there it was. “A one-off spoof on the pop business, written by and starring the larger-than-life Fred Emney,” said Lewisohn. The first time I saw it, I broke out into a fit of the giggles. The second time, too. In fact, nearly 15 years on, I can’t look at that brief summary (naturally, the book falls open at that page) without smiling to myself.
It turns out I was not alone. My old friend Phil Norman had chanced upon the entry and become equally fascinated with the whole venture. Later on, that nice Tim Worthington revealed himself to be similarly in the thrall of a programme none of us had a cat in hell’s chance of ever seeing. It seems to have been the sheer unlikeliness of the exercise that got us. In 1960, Emney was already 60 years old, and sexagenarians then were not the hip old gunslingers most of them are now. Pop in 1960 was all about coffee bars, whereas, to the likes of Emney, coffee was something you had after a good lunch at your club.
That’s how it appeared, at least. Emney looked and sounded like an old buffer. In fact, he was a joyously subversive comic force. Years later, when he appeared on the quick-fire panel game Jokers Wild, he refused to play along in any meaningful sense, his civil disobedience becoming the joke. When the other comics had to nominate another contestant to take the “Hot Spot” and tell a minute’s worth of jokes on a given subject, they chose Emney, who took the full minute to get from his chair to the microphone. The comic timing of his shambling progress was exquisite.
Peter Sellers had already satirised the music industry extensively on his Best of Sellers and Songs For Swinging Sellers LPs, with sketches like ‘The Trumpet Volunteer’, ‘So Little Time’ and ‘Puttin’ On The Smile’. What could Emney add? The mind raced with possibilities.
This, then, is why Fred Emney Picks A Pop is my holy grail of lost archive television. At worst, it would be interesting. At best, it could be great. For years, I assumed it had gone out live, but the PasB revealed that it had been recorded the week before on video tape. However, with video tape then being regarded as a reusable commodity, the tape was wiped after transmission, and I’ve found no indication that a film ‘telerecording’ was ever made from the tape. All I know right now, apart from the information contained in Lewisohn’s book and that PasB, is that the show contained a spoof of Juke Box Jury, because Clifford Davis of the Daily Mirror said so on his TV preview page the day the show went out.
A while back, when searching newspaper archives, I found another layer of significance for Fred Emney Picks A Pop. As a long-standing Tubby Hayes fanatic, I had seen a BBC show called Tempo 60 mentioned in the multi-instrumentalist’s discography. The producer of Tempo 60 was Stewart Morris, and I asked him about the show when I interviewed him in 2005.
“What a musician, he said of Hayes, “He could play a xylophone, marimba, flute, anything, and play them to world class standard. I loved that. It was, unfortunately, I think too early. Modern jazz. It didn’t take off, so I was cast back into the pop world and specials. I did Juke Box Jury – two a day and in those days we did a series called Something Special, which literally meant we could only sometimes get an artist over from the States, in the days when there were stars in the States, and offer them a package of their own special, without commercials. To the real big ones that was a major selling point. Then of course we could make sure their record ended up on Juke Box Jury.”
What I didn’t realise, until I came across the above cutting from the Daily Mirror of Friday 24 June 1960 was that the show had been cancelled in mid-series, light entertainment bosses having regarded it as an interesting experiment that had failed, and that Fred Emney Picks A Pop had been put in as a stop-gap. From 8 July, Armand and Michaela Denis took over the slot with their Safari to Asia. Had it been commissioned and written in a hurry? Given that Morris was also the producer of Juke Box Jury, was he being sent up by his own department for failing with Tempo 60? My fascination has deepened even further as a result of this discovery, as the whole enterprise now connects three men whose careers are of great interest to me.
Fred Emney Picks A Pop causes a conflict within my soul. Like most of Emney’s television work, it is lost. He is represented in the BBC television archives by an incomplete edition of his 1950s series Emney Enterprises and the appearance he made on a wonderful series called The Old Boy Network shortly before his death in 1980. The greater part of me hopes that one day a film can will turn up, containing a copy of Fred Emney Picks A Pop. Another part of me hopes it never turns up. It can go on being my perfect TV moment, without the disappointment of reality encroaching.