The history of popular culture; 10 Basil Brush

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The Independent Culture
Har, har, har, har, har, har, har...boom boom. OK, so the stuffed fox who enlivened the odd Saturday tea-time in the mid-Seventies isn't going to make anybody's list of the 500 most significant figures of the 20th century, but in a week in which Sooty has been sold for more than a million, it's worth asking why Basil, an infinitely more entertaining puppet, is hanging around on street corners selling copies of the Big Issue.

Hubris. That's what did for Basil. It is television's deadly sin, and more calculated to ruin a promising career than drink, narcotics, or being caught by the News of the World in flagrante delicto with the entire woodwind section of the Dagenham Girl Pipers. Simon Dee, Roland Rat, Danny Baker, and others too libellous to mention, have been laid low by an overweening and sometimes bellicose self-confidence, which may initially have some justification, but ultimately gets right up the noses of the suits who run the business. Chris Evans? The nation waits.

Sooty, you see, knew his place. Never for a moment did Harry or Matthew Corbett sit opposite the head of programmes thumping the table and demanding a prime-time grown-up variety show for, with top guests and girls with clipboards. It would have been pointless, since Sooty not only had no voice but little else beyond a naughty, somewhat vacuous charm and a water pistol. Truly, the Anthea Turner de nos jours.

But Basil was something else. Basil had an edge. He was funny, self-reverential, even satirical occasionally, in a way which convinced his creator and voice Ivan Owen that the fox could hold down a more adult slot. Owen was probably right. It was his misfortune to be pre-post-modern. Nowadays the TV groans under the weight of the cheeky chappy shows just made for Basil - Basil's About, Basil's House Party, Thank Fox it's Friday - but back in 1980 the BBC failed to share Owen's vision of a vulpine entertainment future, and the fox and the Corporation parted company.

Ironically, when Roland Rat rode to the rescue of TV-am in the mid-Eighties he was wearing many of Basil's clothes. What is even spookier is that the Rat's career only hit the skids when David Claridge, the eminence grise behind him, insisted Owen-like on an adult future for his creation.

Roland was probably less well prepared for his eventual fall than Basil, whose humble beginnings and long apprenticeship gave him ample opportunity to observe at close quarters the vagaries of television.

Basil was born in 1964 for a show called The Three Scampies, when Owen, a BBC floor manager with a career in puppetry going back to Yoohoo the Cuckoo in 1953, and designer Peter Firmin created a fox with a voice modelled on Terry Thomas as a sidekick for Wally Whyton's Scottish hedgehog puppet Spike McPike.

Basil got his own BBC show in 1968. Over the 12 years of the show, the character changed from standard children's TV fare in the Muffin the Mule tradition to something approaching the sophistication of American cartoon animals like Bugs Bunny. Basil's human companions, Rodney Bewes (yes!), Derek Fowlds, Roy North, Howard Williams and Billy Boyle, were skilful but subsidiary elements, Gaby to Basil's Chris. Ground-breaking in its day, certainly, but when Basil crops up occasionally as a guest manager on Fantasy Football League it is clear the moment has passed. Slightly less of an edge, and that fox could have been a contender.

No doubt when he bumps into Tony Blackburn, Jan Leeming and Diddy David Hamilton in some satellite TV green room he reflects on what a funny, cruel old world television is.

MARTIN KELNER

Thanks to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford.

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