The Cult TV Club: The Joy Of Painting With Bob Ross

Waking up very early in a stuffy Berlin hotel room a few years ago, I flicked on the TV and came across an amiable-looking guy doing some painting in an extremely quiet, small, uncluttered set, with just an easel and palette for company.

He talked through his technical processes almost in a whisper, with a pleasingly down-home manner and vocabulary. He seemed a gentle, kind soul, not dissimilar to Fred Rogers. I was an immediate fan. This guy was obviously a superb painter, and a knowledgeable and engaging host to boot.

What have been your lockdown TV favourites? Alongside reruns of ‘Cheers’, ‘Columbo’ and 1980s snooker and football classics, you can put me down for Bob Ross’s ‘The Joy Of Painting’. With America currently catching hell, the show feels like it’s beamed in from a completely different world. When Larry Owens’ Earl Klugh-meets-Dave-Valentin theme music kicks in, Bob o’clock is always Happy Time.

‘The Joy Of Painting’ ran between 1983 and 1994 on PBS, mostly out of Muncie, Indiana (shades of ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’!). It featured Bob doing a superb wet-on-wet painting in real time for just under 30 minutes, with seemingly little or no editing.

He made it look very easy, but what he didn’t tell you is: a) he’d done his 10,000 hours and then some, and b) to paint like this you’ve got to learn how to study nature. For hours.

But when’s a painting finished anyway? You may sometimes be shouting ‘Stop!’ at the screen, wondering if Bob has over-egged the pudding, but he never has, and the final result occasionally looks pleasingly like something Mati Klarwein (see right) might have concocted.

Just the sound of Bob’s voice can soothe the weariest of souls, and then there are those recurring phrases: ‘Happy little clouds/trees/bushes… Like so… Titanium white… Shoot… Look at that… No mistakes… Son-of-a-gun… Beat the hell out of it… God bless… Easy as that… Load the brush… Let’s have some fun… Just drop it in…‘ You could easily just podcast the audio – people probably already do.

But what about Bob? He spent his young life as a master sergeant in the US Air Force, based in Alaska. According to legend, after years of being a ‘mean’ guy getting people to do things they didn’t want to do, when he left the military he made a vow never to raise his voice again. Many of his paintings are reportedly held by the Smithsonian Museum, and there are classes all over the world that can help you learn the Bob painting method. He died in 1995.

And it turns out that there’s been somewhat of a Bob cult building up recently. Teenagers are discovering ‘The Joy Of Painting’ and there was even a recent BBC radio programme about the mental-health benefits of watching the show. Makes perfect sense to me. I’ll miss his happy little shows when the current season on BBC Four ends, but you can always catch them all on YouTube.

 

Moonlighting Strangers: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis & Al Jarreau

Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’

What music delivers for you a headrush of nostalgia, fills your heart with a warm glow, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?

For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.

Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had been focusing his energies instead on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.

‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.

For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!

I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.

Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.

It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season! That works out at around ten days per shoot.

But back to the music. ‘Moonlighting strangers/Who just met on the way’. What a lovely line. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its brilliant rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10. And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.

Whistle Test: Best Of The 1980s?

What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night (UK readers can watch it again here until 23rd March). The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.

The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.

Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen. The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):

8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)

Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.

7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)

One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.

6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)

Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.

5. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)

One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.

4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)

The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong.

3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)

Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.

2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)

One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.

1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)

Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.

David Bowie Stars In Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shone a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work made between 1978 and 1989 – including David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, ‘Baal’ was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances, a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (cosy Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen.

According to producer Louis Marks, Bowie jumped at the chance to portray the ultimate street punk, and was already a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly completely undemanding, modest and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’ in ‘Baal’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic alienating Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing about Bowie’s performance, but their comments make for fairly amusing reading these days.

It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after ‘Baal’ was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would dare take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly

From The Comic Strip to Castle Donington: An Interview With Nigel Planer

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Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986

If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.

Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more. He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.

neil-young-ones

Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’. He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.

I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.

MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?

NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.

We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?

Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.

Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period? 

It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.

Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip’s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?

I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…

You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.

It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.

‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?

I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.

In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?

Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.

In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?

We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.

You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?

It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.

In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?

None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.

What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…

I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.

Thanks Nigel.

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Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011