No facts, no figures, no records broken.
In this new musical diversion, the sounds of today echo back nostalgically from a loophole in time.
So began the Radio Times' listing for The Innes Book of Records, which debuted on BBC 2 on the evening of the 17th of January, 1979.
Musical funnyman Neil Innes had become known to British audiences through his work with the anarchic Bonzo Dog Band, who had released a string of LPs, appeared on Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Magical Mystery Tour, and scored a bona fide hit single (1968's McCartney co-produced I'm The Urban Spaceman) before puttering to a halt in the early 1970s as the cycle of booze, bickering and squalid touring conditions finally became unsustainable.
After the Bonzos, Innes (after a few false starts) continued as a solo artist. His friendships with various members of the Beatles and the Monty Python troupe would lead to their paths recrossing several times over the years. Indeed, immediately prior to making the programme under discussion here, he had 'broken' America with a TV movie parodying the former co-created with a member of the latter.
By 1978, Innes, now 32, is thinking about the future. The Rutles has just been a cultural 'moment'. He has a growing catalogue of songs for which the recording industry has conspicuously failed to find a commercial niche. The director he's just worked with on Rutland Weekend Television (Andrew Gosling) has some unorthodox, ambitious ideas about using visual effects to present music on television in never-before-seen ways.
It's the perfect storm for him to try to make one really good TV showcase of his work before turning his talents to making adverts and kids' TV shows in the 1980s. (Though he would reappear from time to time to whistle, harmonise and issue writs somewhere in the background of the pop cultural landscape throughout the rest of his life.)
Innes, Gosling and producer Ian Keill pitch the BBC on the idea of a magazine series - essentially, the musical segments of Rutland Weekend Television as a stand-alone show, with the working title "Parodies Lost". As MTV is still a few years away and this programme sounds relatively inexpensive to produce, they accept.
The Innes Book of Records, as the show is wisely retitled, is produced by BBC Bristol. Each half-hour episode comprises five songs (some previously released, some written for the show) interspersed with linking material and guest acts. A few episodes have a loose overarching theme, but most are an assortment of items that vary unpredictably in tone and presentation style.
Throughout the series, Innes rarely appears on camera as himself. Most episodes feature one or more of a small cast of recurring characters.
Romantic ballads and the like are typically delivered by 'Nick Cabaret', so named as a nod to the character being very closely modeled on Joel Grey's master of ceremonies from Cabaret. Slice-of-life songs about domestic tedium (and the fantasised escape therefrom) become the backdrop to the life of 'Nobby Normal', a pencil-moustached everyman character (a fixation of the Bonzos since My Pink Half of The Drainpipe). Appearing slightly less often is an un-named folk singer character who delivers Dylan-esque protest songs ("I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn..."), a persona Innes often assumed for live shows.
The show usually avoided making direct reference to the subject of its parodies, or at least then-living ones - Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers are authentically recreated. (Schubert, not so much.) Innes also appears as various other stock characters as the songs demand, including punks, teddy boys, superheroes, politicians and drag queens.
One of the show's objectives was to explore how special effects techniques could be used outside of the niche of science fiction. The director Gosling had been a pioneer of mixing live action and cel animation (his earlier efforts possibly inspiring Richard Williams to try to get Who Framed Roger Rabbit? produced) and of green screen effects. A good showcase of what they managed to achieve is the segment Say Sorry Again, where Innes portrays Chico, Harpo and Groucho Marx performing the song live and composited seamlessly together into the same shot, executed in a manner which still holds up today. (A much cruder version of this idea was filmed for Rutland Weekend Television, going a long way to explain why Eric Idle was so frustrated with the meagre budget he'd been given for that show.)
Another aim seems to have been to document as broad (in terms of professionalism, if not demographic diversity) a range of guests as possible. Familiar British TV faces of the time (Johnny Morris, Michael Palin, Zena Skinner) shared a bill with street performers and amateur singing societies. Over the course of the three series, the focus gradually shifts away from capturing field recordings of local oddballs and on to trying to smuggle eccentric cult performers (Ivor Cutler, John Cooper Clarke and of course Vivian Stanshall) onto mainstream TV.
Innes also gets to indulge his penchant for putting strange characters in front of an unsuspecting public and filming their reaction (as the Bonzos had previously done - see Shirt). It becomes apparent as the series goes on that most of the folk singer characters' appearances were filmed at a real gig for a bemused audience of pub clientele. Lie Down And Be Counted sees Innes campaigning in various public places as a candidate for the Apathy Party, and we even get the odd football terrace or bingo hall crowd being encouraged to sing along. There is nothing so confrontational as a 'prank' in any of these segments, but you can be sure that a young Chris Morris was taking notes.
Sadly it's not all good clean fun. As is to be expected from a BBC programme made in the late 1970s for airing late in the evening, a small amount of material is not appropriate by modern standards. There are a few instances of blackface and the odd bit of creepy sexism and gratuitous female nudity. It's unlikely that the series will ever see a home video or streaming release unless in an edited down or heavily disclaimered form, which is probably not worth the trouble from a commercial perspective. In the discussion of each series below I've made a note of episodes that can be safely skipped (or at least watched with a finger on the fast forward button) to best enjoy the show today. There's enough good stuff remaining to furnish a couple of Sunday tea-times' worth of light entertainment.
(For what it's worth, I don't think Innes was an ardent racist or misogynist, just perhaps a bit guileless and preoccupied with making the show fit contemporary audience expectations. This was the era of loud vulgar comedy as popularised by Kenny Everett, Noel Edmonds and Chris Tarrant, and when The Black & White Minstrel Show had only very recently been taken off the air.)
Series 1 (1979)
The framing device used for all episodes of the first series involves an astronaut exploring a dusty, rodent-infested abandoned house and finding a box set of vinyl record albums labelled "The Innes Book of Records". While this is a rather gloomy joke (implying the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust or similar catastrophe), the show does function, decades later, as a record of Innes' body of work for posterity, as well as being a time capsule of life in late-1970s England and the topics that he was preoccupied with at the time.
This series is front-loaded with the best material - perhaps this was seen as necessary to hook viewers from the outset in the era before re-runs and home video. It also feels a touch more witty and urbane than the later ones.
The first episode opens with perhaps the solo effort Innes is most famous for (How Sweet To Be An Idiot), segueing into a breezy Noel Coward pastiche (Where Does A Dream Begin), and then to the show's first guest slot, Sir John Betjeman giving a beautiful reading of his poem Indoor Games Near Newbury. (And this is just the first ten minutes. It would be entirely impossible to predict where the second half of the show goes based on this, though perhaps there is a thematic throughline of nostalgia and innocence.)
Innes has spoken about wanting to make the show evoke the almost zen-like "intermissions" that the BBC would play between programmes in the early years of television. (A typical example: several dialogue-free minutes of a potter's wheel set to light music.) The first show exemplifies this, offering a simple proposition for anyone tuning in. If you give us half an hour of your attention, we will give you something to go away with. This show is for everyone and is about everything. You may not like all of it, but it will all be made as well as we can make it.
I won't give a blow-by-blow account of each show as the element of surprise is part of the appeal, but suffice to say the first three episodes maintain this level of quality with only one or two segments that feel like filler that could be trimmed out with minimal detriment.
Episode two gives us the aforementioned Marx Brothers routine (I've seen some sources claim this song was cowritten by Eric Idle, and lines like "How many dodos do you know? They're not even put on display" certainly have his cadence), as well as introducing the Nobby Normal character with the gorgeously bleak Three Piece Suite.
By episode three the show feels like it's gotten fully into its stride, with Innes blowing raspberries at organised religion (Immortal Invisible), dropping the clowning for more emotionally vulnerable songs (including one dedicated to his wife), then circling back to mix these two themes together with the inspired God Is Love. (Which explores the funny - and then still somewhat fresh - idea of the eponymous bathroom graffiti actually causing the reader to have a religious epiphany - "Which one of the apostles had owned a ballpoint pen?")
The back half of this series is mostly a bit dull and laboured, with a few bright spots. Episode four (featuring cartoonist Ralph Steadman in his studio and a brief skit about disagreeable backing singers) just about rattles along. Show five can be skipped - the opener (Caveman's Dream) is a cute idea but most of rest is weirdly creepy and misogynistic, each item on the broad topic of 'women' being somehow more cringeworthy and dated in it's attitudes than the last.
The last of the six is somewhat better (although the conceit of Early Morning Train is a bit iffy) but definitely feels like it's composed from any remaining scraps they could muster. Betjeman reappears (twice), we have another Rutland Weekend do-over (Shangri-La), and most of the rest of the running time is given over to corny ABBA-esque pop that Innes was presumably offering to his record label around the time in a stab at commercial appeal.
By Jukebox Jury scoring methodology, I make that three hits and three misses so far. But having now presented some of his best songs, not to mention showing us a man swallowing a cigarette, taking a drink then bringing it back up still lit, where could Innes go from here?
Series 2 (1980)
The immediate answer that Series Two gives us is "erm, downmarket". All the ingredients of the first series (the characters, the special effects, the off-kilter documentary element) return, but they're applied to markedly rougher and weirder subject matter much of the time with wildly inconsistent results. Arguably the overall best and worst episodes of the entire run appear here (aired in subsequent weeks).
Structurally, this series bumps down the number of discrete items per episode from eight to seven - with more time given over to the framing device (this time around there's a unique one per episode).
To get the recommendations out of the way: watch episodes 3, 4 and 5 of this series and skip the rest.
The series gets off on the wrong foot with a Lone Ranger parody featuring Innes in brownface as Tonto. There's a decent variety of items presented on the loose theme of loneliness, with lots of outside filming and some mixed cel and live action animation, but none of the songs are particularly memorable.
Worse is to come however. Episode two includes a segment so impossibly ill-conceived that it explains why the series has been largely consigned to the archives since.
For some reason Innes decides that it's a good idea to deliver the George Formby-esque UFO Shanty accompanied by a chorus of schoolkids, and dressed as The Doctor (Tom Baker era) from Doctor Who, which is all well and good until he steps out of the TARDIS in full 'Minstrel Show' blackface.
The initial reveal of this feels like a Fast Show or Harry Enfield sketch about how racist the BBC was in the 1970s. But then it keeps going, and going, and you realise that there's no clever twist coming.
One could speculate that there's some long-forgotten context for this segment that the programme makers felt justified its inclusion, but the more likely and depressing explanation is that the cast, crew, script editor and executive hierarchy under which it was made were virtually exclusively white and didn't see a problem with it. (Nor can we dismiss it as a product of its time, sadly, when both mainstream and 'alternative' British television comedy continued to unthinkingly make up caucasian performers as other ethnicities for a cheap laugh up to the turn of the century and beyond.)
I can easily understand how someone watching the series in order would abandon it at this point. But this would be a shame as the very next episode is for my money the best of the entire run.
Episode 3, Series 2 of The Innes Book of Records
This was the episode that introduced me to the series (more on this in the footnotes below), and was a favourite of the programme makers.
All the show's key strengths are shown off to their best here. The parodies are forensic in their accuracy. The opening pub-punk pastiche Catchphrase feels like it was lifted straight from a bad Old Grey Whistle Test episode. Later on, Amoeba Boogie is presented as a dead-on Talking Heads style parody, as uncanny as The Rutles' mimicry of The Beatles.
We get another wistful glimpse into Nobby Normal's world with Etcetera, which takes in ballroom dancers, Kid Jensen as a supermarket PA DJ, and beautifully rendered rotoscoping in a clip that Michel Gondry would probably have been happy to have turned in during his MTV years. We do also get the teensy bit problematic and extremely silly Ungawa (Innes as a 1950s teenage rebel Tarzan, complete with corny Beano-style stereotypes of cannibal tribesmen) which is (ymmv) too amiably stupid and scattershot to be genuinely offensive, and is inexplicably capped off with TV chef Zena Skinner demonstrating a casserole recipe.
But it's the closing number that leaves the greatest impression. Nick Cabaret delivers a maudlin You'll Never Walk Alone-like song (Down That Road) in a clip that owes something to Terry Gilliam. I don't want to spoil it, and urge you not to look it up on YouTube (where the description and comments inevitably will). It's a perfect, perfect visual gag, and wraps up a half hour that completely triumphs in realising Innes' ambitions for the series.
Episode four doesn't quite hit the same heights but keeps the momentum going. Highlights include The Spieglers swearing their way through a Bach fugue and Nick Cabaret's delightfully bonkers spoof Eurovision entry ("What a lot of weather we've been having lately..."). There's also a long scene of Nobby Normal going to the doctor which has no payoff, as Innes starts to toy with how far he can stretch the viewer's patience with the character's domestic mundanity.
Episode five is packed solid with good material. A very young Rowan Atkinson gives a brief lecture on church organs. A tour guide at Speedwell Cavern spins a spooky yarn as we float along an underground canal. We get another punk parody with Paranoia (which would have seemed quite edgy at the time - it would be a few more years before punk was considered domesticated enough to be the regular target of lampooning in The Young Ones, The Kenny Everett Video Show et al.) and the very Lennon-esque Just Another Story accompanies Nobby Normal doing the washing up.
(This clip contains a nice callback to the earlier Three Piece Suite, as Nobby hesitates for a moment to take off his wristwatch, having broken his last one washing his car in the previous clip. This joke would have been for Innes' own amusement, referring back to a show that had aired over a year before in an era before VCRs were commonplace. Alas it's too late to let him know it was appreciated now.)
The last episode, as with the season before, feels a bit like a collection of dog-ends. There's a corny cod reggae song delivered by a scarecrow (Human Race) and another Rutland reheat (Boring). The framing device at least is notably strange, with a phony drivetime disc jockey introducing each song before revealing their terrible secret at the end.
After two series Innes has maintained his hit rate with three triumphs and three stinkers. Does he have enough good songs left in the bank, and enough sense to not keep following his bad instincts, to improve on this as the show enters the 1980s?
Series 3 (1981)
Innes and his collaborators pull out all the stops this time around - it feels like they've already decided it's the last series they're going to make so they might as well use everything they have in reserve.
The first episode opens with the enthusiastically vulgar paean to tabloid anti-intellectualism Imagination, where classic paintings are recreated live with gratuitous nudity, horrible teeth and (sigh) a smidgen of blackface again. Michael Palin appears throughout the episode as his Eric the Policeman character, harassing the hapless Folk Singer (here giving a busking version of his best tune, Protest Song) and delivering a deranged three minute monologue to camera. And because it had to happen sooner or later, Innes gives us the Bonzo's lone hit I'm The Urban Spaceman, as the invisible man.
This all sounds (mostly) terrific so far, but frustratingly both of the first two episodes in this series are marred by some racially insensitive rubbish that could so easily have been left on the cutting room floor. The problem is that Gosling has come up with a striking effects shot allowing Innes to play a trio of 1950s backing singers (there was a 1950s revival in full swing in the early 1980s in the UK). And, well, three guesses how they've managed to make this unbroadcastable by modern standards. (Really you only need one.)
They're evidently so pleased with this shot that's it's used in three separate segments (a spoof "On Next Week's Show" trailer and the final number I Give Myself To You in ep 1, and the opening Now She's Left You in ep 2). It is a real shame as with the exception of this, almost everything in these episodes is great, and there's nothing as obviously egregious in the rest of the series.
With that caveat in mind (just skip the first three minutes or so), the second episode is another ambitious (and downright weird) one. We see the troubled dreams of a man who misses his wife and has fallen asleep in front of the television, the programmes he has been channel hopping through winding their way into the narrative in queasy ways.
Innes (and possibly an uncredited Terry Jones?) appears as the spokes-housewife of Tabbi-Snax cat food (Cat Meat Conga), give us an extremely dubious attempt at an American accent (One Thing On Your Mind), a spoof of Spaghetti Westerns (predating The Comic Strip's Fistful of Traveller's Cheques), and John Cooper Clarke snarling out (a mildly bleeped) Evidently Chickentown. The episode closes with the best style parody of the series, with Elton John and Bernie Taupin perfectly sent up in the musically sweeping and lyrically nonsensical Godfrey Daniel.
Episode three has some more good bits (and thankfully no more 'dodgy' bits). Schubert invents rock and roll and promptly dies (Blue Suede Schubert), and cult Scottish poet and humorist Ivor Cutler performs Gruts for Tea. There's also a weird extended sequence where Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock beam down to a disco and encounter Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, which I assume will be inexplicable to people who didn't watch broadcast television in the early 1980s, where every 'action' show had some trademark special effects sequence that would happen every week without fail, letting the viewer know that something exciting was about to happen.
Episode four is a bit of a puzzling one. Two alternate cuts exist, each reusing material from episodes from the first series (either Lady Mine or How Sweet To Be An Idiot). It's the only episode with no special guests (with the exception of a formation dance troupe in the opening number), the framing device instead using long passages of newsreel footage, and still the running time comes in quite short. The notional theme of the episode (according to IMDB) is "erotica" - did the original edit contain something too spicy for the BBC's censors? Or perhaps it was something more mundane like a rights issue. In any case, it's probably the weakest of this series.
(Vivian Stanshall, actually)
We then hit a real humdinger of an episode. We join special guest Vivian Stanshall (in full terrifying coastal hermit mode) on a trip to the seaside. ("The water's fine to walk on, the water's fine, provided you're bearded and divine, and full of faith and very brave... oh god, there goes another wave...") Nobby Normal and his wife are serenaded by Nick Cabaret while a mermaid tries to tempt him. Then some aliens land and give an animated recap of the evolution of life on Earth (Bill Mather's short film, Them).
And then... and then. Okay. A Scottish Frankenstein's Monster lives in a cave with a backing band made up of skeletons and shop mannequins. He performs the song Humanoid Boogie as a Scottish reel before being discovered by a group of neolithic children and beaten to death. The cave-children then perform a Bugsy Malone-esque trad jazz song (Momma Bee). Further down the beach, a man called Michael Banks (another light entertainment phantom who evades any internet record of who they were or what their deal was) shows us their performing jellyfish. And then it's time for the shipping forecast. And then> -
It's fun to speculate how exactly this programme happened. Did Innes give Stanshall free rein to suggest crazier and crazier things, or did Stanshall's involvement motivate Innes to come up with suitably weird ideas for his eccentric contributions to bed into? Whatever the back story, it's easily the stand-out episode of series three.
And so we come to the final episode, which is somewhat less of a rag-bag than previous series' end pieces. It is, ostensibly, a Christmas episode, with the overarching theme of War. Opener Concrete Jungle Boy sees another punk youth (maybe it's the same one from Paranoia) persuaded to join the army to the concern of his parents (Time to Kill). Drifting away from the theme we're treated to Stanley Unwin quizzing himself on Mastermind, a Laurel & Hardy parody, and an extremely funky ode to the laundromat (Frontloader).
The episode ends with the punk returning for Christmas to find his elderly parents hiding in their fallout shelter (slightly predating When The Wind Blows), and the lighting of their Christmas pudding coinciding with the destruction of the world. (Merry Christmas!) Immediately following the production of this series Innes became more involved in the peace movement as (understandably) at the height of the Cold War the threat of mutually assured destruction was at the forefront of his and many other peoples' minds.
In the intervening 40 years, television viewers' expectations have risen substantially, but even judged by modern standards (and after we've set aside the more awkwardly dated parts), a surprising amount of The Innes Book of Records still stands up. If you're willing to give it some time, I would recommend the first three episodes of the first season, and if you like it, episode 5 or series 3 and episodes 5 and 3 or series 2 (in that order) as a second course. Alternatively the whole series has been chopped into its individual songs on YouTube, if anything described above takes your fancy and you want to avoid any potential boredom or awfulness (although you won't get the full effect in some cases).
It's a shame the show hasn't been seen more widely. It's not as much of a shame that Innes never had the chance or inclination to make more of it, as it pretty thoroughly explores its remit and bows out before a severe dip in quality gets a chance to creep in. I can't really imagine a programme like this being made today - and not in a tedious, ooh-it's-political-correctness-gone-mad kind of way - I just can't think of any modern performer who quite fits into the same niche. (Or any network/service that would take a gamble on it.) A lot of the songs and accompanying films are played straight which helps balance it out. (30 minutes of 1970s-vintage novelty songs and wordplay would quickly grow wearying.) I think an act like The Mountain Goats or the Magnetic Fields, or even Weird Al Yankovic (although that would set up some preconceived expectations in viewers' minds) would be able to build something on the same format, but it would of course be a very different beast.
This writeup has been a long time coming. I've been a lifelong fan of the Bonzo Dog Band, and had often heard in comedy nerd circles that The Innes Book of Records stood alongside Vivian Stanshall's autobiographical speedrun Crank as the best TV work any of the gang had produced. However for a long time there simply wasn't a practical way to actually see it. The series has never been released on home media or streaming (in addition to the unpalatable material mentioned above, music rights issues were also a problem), and what there was of it on YouTube (in years past) was incomplete and ripped from terrible quality VHS recordings.
It wasn't until 2010 that I got to see an episode shown in full at pristine archival quality at a BFI celebration of Neil Innes's work - where it brought the house down. (It was Episode 3, Series 2, which I still maintain is one of the most extraordinary half hours of television I've ever seen.) And it was only last year that by complete chance I learned that the entire series had finally been uploaded in acceptable quality (ripped from DVD transfers of the archive tapes) to the Internet Archive, and as such I could finally sit down to watch the whole thing in order. (With some extra raw footage to boot.) Phew!
In addition to the Internet Archive materials and my recollections of the BFI event, there are some more interesting bits of Innes and Bonzos material at Some of The Corpses Are Amusing (sotcaa.org), the fansite neilinnes.media, and Chris Welch and Lucian Randall's Vivian Stanshall biography Ginger Geezer (ISBN 1841156795).