So the Olympic Games are over, and Britain can for once be proud. Not only did we do well in our regular “Toffathlon” specialties like horse-riding, rowing and Mixed Blondes Womens’ Sailing, we also scored a major upset in the much bigger, tougher team event of Not Ballsing it Up In Front of the Whole World. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did not bore people to death. Bus, Tube and passport control workers did not go on strike. And, in what was arguably the biggest upset, our Young People found themselves in the news for winning contests in something other than Pop Idols.
Now, though, barring the Paralympics later this month, there’s a collective back-to-school-for-the-autumn-term sense. The fun is nearly over, the euphoria will soon wear thin, and the long hard slog must begin once again to nurture new generations to glory. So how do we do it? The Prime Minister wants schools to have “a cultural change in favour of competitive sports,” while the Duke of Cambridge has urged more people to get involved in their local sports clubs. Me? I say bring back the Record Breakers, the top BBC childrens’ telly show from the 1970s. Or, to be more specific, bring back Dedication, the song that the show’s presenter, the late Roy Castle, used to sing at the end of each programme.
For the benefit of those Young People who are too young to remember, I include a link to a YouTube clip of Dedication here, although it doesn’t really show Castle at his best. In fact, given the general nostalgia frenzy on the internet for 70s children’s telly, there is a surprising scarcity of Record Breakers footage out there on the web. It’s as if the Beeb has tried to wipe it from history, and while I don’t believe they probably have done, Record Breakers probably isn’t the kind of show I can see ticking many of the right boxes with today’s average commissioning editor.
For a start, it was unabashedly elitist. As its name implies, it invited kids to marvel at the superlative in all and any walks of life: the Fastest Man on earth, the Strongest Woman, the tallest building, the most poisonous snake, the most powerful earthquake, and so on. Then there were Castle’s sidekicks, twins Norris and Ross McWhirter, two white, middle-aged men who would wow the audience with their Wikipedia-like ability to answer questions about any record under the sun. And then there was Castle himself, a man of middling years but seemingly limitless energy, who broke several world records himself on the show, including setting a world tap-dancing record and playing the same tune on 43 different musical instruments in just 4 minutes. Oh, yes, and prior to Record Breakers, he had been one of Britain’s best jazz trumpeters and a film actor. Compare and contrast, please, boys and girls, with today’s children’s TV presenters, many of whose on-screen vigour seems to come from snorting record-breaking lines of coke.
But amid the fun items on Record Breakers like the world’s largest pizza, and the tallest and shortest men (another thing Beeb execs would probably deem too “circus freak show” now) there was a serious message. It came at the end when Castle would suddenly produce his trumpet from nowhere and launch into Dedication, a song that millions of British kids of the 70s will never forget.
“Dedication, yeah yeah, dedication, yeah yeah, dedication, that’s what you need. If you wanna be the best, if you wanna beat the rest, oh-oh dedication’s what you need. If you wanna be a record break-er…
The words speak for themselves: if you want to well in life, kids, there’s no substitute for hard work. At the risk of sounding like a bad Media Studies lecturer, it made Castle the neat cultural opposite of that other childrens’ telly favourite of the 70s, Jim’ll Fix It: while Jimmy Saville would sit you down on his armchair and do it all for you, Castle urged you to make your dreams come true yourself.
Quite why Dedication was included in the show, I am not exactly sure – it’s more the kind of message you can imagine the more wholesome Blue Peter wanting to put out. Nor do I have I any idea of how effective it was in getting its junior audience to break world records, although there was always a sense that the message was not just about breaking records, but excelling, or at least trying hard, in any walk of life. I myself am proof of that: as a kid I learned the trumpet, and watching Castle hitting those high C notes in his trumpet solo at the end of Dedication was always inspirational.
Sadly, the original presenters of the Record Breakers are no longer with us. Ross McWhirter was shot dead by the IRA in 1975 after putting up a £50,000 reward for the arrest of the men who would later become known as the Balcombe Street Gang. Off-screen, when not editing the Guiness Book of Records, he and his brother had been founders of the Right-wing National Association for Freedom, a libertarian, anti-Brussels organisation, whose modern incarnation, The Freedom Association, still has support among some of the Tory Right today (once again, it’s hard to imagine BBC commissioning editors letting people with such views anywhere near a childrens’ studio today).
Castle, meanwhile, died of lung cancer in 1992, something he famously blamed on passive smoking picked up while playing in smoky jazz clubs in the 1960s. On which note, I close this blog with a clip of his trumpet playing from the 1965 film classic Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. In the film (which I thoroughly recommend for all horror buffs), he plays a jazz musician who sneaks into a voodoo ceremony in the West Indies and plagiarises the voodoo house bands’ music for a new song to play back in London clubland. Predictably, the vengeful voodoo gods then come after him. Once again, it’s a bit politically incorrect, but once again, there is a wholesome message there: you shouldn’t try to getting to the top by cheating. Or, as Castle would no doubt say, Dedication’s What You Need…
PS In the interests of journalistic balance, and lest anybody be wondering when my next gig at Ronnie Scott’s is, I should confess that I gave up playing the trumpet at the age of 13.