Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Catweazle - The Future Holds The Most Terrible Adventure of All

Catweazle, Geoffrey Bayldon, Childrens Television, Seventies Television, British Television

When growing up in Seventies Belfast some of the children's comics I remember reading regularly down at my grannys on Saturday included The Beano, Knockout, Krazy and Whizzer and Chips. In one of these there used to be a strip called Toad-in-the-Hole. It was basically about an English village that time forgot. So your average chirpy whistling milkman venturing into it - circa 1975 and looking for bored housewives out of the corner of his roving eye - would be faced with loads of people in English Civil War-period garb and idiots dressed like Captain Hook or Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General spouting Olde English riddles. In hindsight the idea was probably lifted totally from Catweazle. The name in turn being a cheeky wordplay on Cotswolds villages such as Stow-on-the-Wold or Moreton-in-Marsh.

I was watching some retro British television over the past few weeks and LWT's Catweazle starring Geoffrey Bayldon has certainly stood the test of time with a vengeance - let alone in comparison to some particularly leaden and lazy ITC Entertainment content I ploughed through. Richard Carpenter's story is basically about an English wizard who escapes marauding Norman soldiers by time-travelling through to modern Britain with his toad familiar Touchstone and where - in the course of his crazy adventures - he finds the technology around him to be clear manifestations of paranormal hokuspokus subterfuge afoot.

There were two 13-part series made and broadcast in 1970 and 1971  - these were filmed in Surrey and Hertfordshire respectively and had separate storylines. The first series was set at Hexwood Farm and the second at Lord and Lady Collingford's country mansion King's Farthing - a provisional third series would have returned to the first location. There is a fair amount of commentary on the series available including two wonderful overviews Under the Wizard's Spell and A Magical Spell in the Countryside by Alan Hayes and Paul Pert.

In certain respects the figure of Catweazle shirking in terror from "electrickery" is a bit of a precursor to the modern Everyman - banjaxed and bewildered by both the scale and speed of technological change and the clear fact that every socio-economic dynamic in our maxed-out society is irrevocably geared towards rank bedlam in the very near future. Like for so many of us as well, the melancholy subtext to the programme is that the Anglo-Saxon Catweazle - minding his own business with mediaeval chemistry in his wee man-cave before becoming accidentally sucked into a cosmic vortex - feels he belongs nowhere and just wants to go home. Both storylines end on bittersweet dramatic notes.

Personally I see the show as the clear British qualitative equivalent to The Banana Splits and HR Pufnstuf as utterly perfect children's television. There is wonderful casting - Jon Pertwee turned down the lead role just as Bayldon passed over the part of the first Doctor Who - and the script is tight, pacy and genuinely funny. The animated credits and theme tune remain literally bewitching to this day and every single publicity still I have ever seen of the Catweazle character himself is pure iconographic perfection.

I am not sure if there were any toy or game merchandise produced beyond what appears to be a hand-held finger-manipulated "bendy doll" Catweazle head but Puffin Books published novels by Richard Carpenter for both series - an eponymous title and Catweazle and the Magic Zodiac - and there were three Christmas annuals released by World Distributors Limited. There was also a black and white strip based on the show in both the Look-In and TV Comic magazines of the period. I have seen images on the internet of some long-playing German vinyl records with Bayldon on the cover which I suspect may be a reading of the novels with musical accompaniment. A set of Catweazle magic cards providing trick instructions was also given away with one breakfast cereal in the UK.

The late British professional wrestler Gary Cooper from Hexthorpe near Doncaster based his entire comedic fighting persona on the Catweazle character following ribald crowd catcalls to that end. He replicated the fictional character down to unkempt facial hair styling and entering the ring in a brown sackcloth with a plastic frog.  Luke Haines of The Auteurs included a song about him I Am Catweazle on his 2011 concept album 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s and early 80s.

In very old British vernacular "Catweazle" would be used to reflect upon a lack of male sartorial elegance blended with generic or even slightly malign oddness. In fact in some respects there is a definite folk horror tinge to the series alike quite a few children's programmes of that strangest of decades such as Lizzy Dripping, Worzel Gummidge and even Ken Dodd's sinister-looking Diddymen (whose Knotty Ash gang incorporated an aggressive Irish member Mick the Marmalizer alongside his English better Nigel Ponsonby-Smallpiece).

The programme retains a very healthy public cult appeal to this day though on a sadder note in respect of the first series all four of the main male actors have now passed away - the crazy wizard and his boy protector alongside the father and the farmhand. However no finer compliment can be passed on Catweazle than that it remains a lovely warm dimension of time and place to even briefly revisit  - both in itself as a creative narrative and as a memory of simpler and more contented days in Britain.

The first episode - The Sun in a Bottle - transmitted on the ITV network at 5.30pm on Sunday 15th February 1970. I was just over four years old then and Northern Ireland would have recently entered a year of complex political flux where - devolving to the world of real history - the outplay of rolling hatred and horror lieing ahead were not as yet foregone. Three nights after the first transmission a loyalist bomb destroyed a 240-foot high radio mast across the Irish border at Mongary Hill, Raphoe, County Donegal which had increased the reach of RTE television coverage into Northern Ireland.

As we finally leave the deadness of winter and head towards Beltane and the greening of our island home be sure to revisit the world of Catweazle and those fleeting days he walked amongst us - ritual, magick, spells, merriment and wonder - as soon as you possibly can.

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