TV blog: Tom Jones’ 1950s

Benjie Goodhart / 14 April 2016

Sir Tom Jones looks back at the 1950s, while Robson Green follows the restoration of the Flying Scotsman train. Plus, more TV highlights for the week ahead.

Tom Jones’ 1950s: The Decade that Made Me, Saturday 16th April, 9pm, BBC Two

The popular misconception about the 1950s is that they took place almost entirely in monochrome: a decade filmed through a grey filter, a time of economic austerity and social conservatism, where everyone wore dark suits and smiling was forbidden. Of course, I wasn’t there (if I had a byline photo you’d be able to appreciate my youthful good looks) but I can’t believe it was all like that, any more than I believe that everyone spent the 60s blissed out on dope and free love. (My mother, for example, was diligently pursuing a civil service career at the Ministry of Agriculture, about as far removed from Woodstock as it’s possible to get.)

Ask Tom Jones how boring the 50s were. Born in 1940 and growing up in Pontypridd, for him it was a decade of wonder, as this gloriously nostalgic wallow into the era vividly illustrates. In this one-off film, Jones revisits Pontypridd, where he grew up, and recalls the events and influences that went towards shaping a musical icon whose career is still going strong almost 60 years later. He also talks to other musicians from the era, while there are further contributions from other children of the 50s, including the ever-watchable Joan Bakewell.

This is a keen insight into both the 50s and Jones himself.  In 1952, aged 12, he contracted TB, and had to take to his bed. For two years. For me, aged 12, being in bed for an hour was hard enough, but two years? Instead of careering around the mountains with his friends, he was in the parlour, with the radio, and latterly the TV, for company. Radio Luxembourg, with its championing of popular music disavowed by the patrician BBC, was his station of choice. Meanwhile, TV gave him his first sight of stars including Frankie Vaughan and gospel queen Mahalia Jackson.

As for his own approach to singing, Jones was emphatic: Choirs were not for him. “I didn’t like singing in choirs because I couldn’t shine.” The swagger was already there, then, waiting to be unleashed. When Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock was released halfway through the decade, Jones recalls “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t believe it. That was the beginning.”

The 1950s, then, was the decade rock’n’roll was born. It was also the decade of Teddy boys, of Elvis, of denim, of the explosion of television as a medium (yay!), of US servicemen with chewing gum and comics, the end of sweet rationing, a decade when Britain came blinking out of wartime existence into the sunlight of post-war possibility. It was the decade that Jones met his wife. When she became pregnant, they married, aged just 17, and were together for 59 years, until she died earlier this week, giving a bitter poignancy to this charming programme.

Related: 19 things you didn't know about Tom Jones

Flying Scotsman with Robson Green, Friday 22nd April, 9pm, ITV

Steam engines. Dirty, noisy, labour intensive beasts of burden, relics of a bygone age. And yet we love them. There is something undeniably romantic about an old steam engine, bringing to mind The Railway Children, Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, The Lady Vanishes, the Hogwarts Express, even the Fat Controller and his retinue of rolling stock (I can name every engine even now, the legacy of a Thomas-obsessed son whose interests, today, have sadly moved on to computer games and Marvel superheroes). Up and down the country, old steam engines have been lovingly restored and brought out of retirement to run weekend services on little private railways.

It seems strange, then, that the most famous engine of them all, the Flying Scotsman, was so nearly lost to history. But for two separate interventions by wealthy enthusiasts, this invaluable piece of railway heritage would have been scrapped, or abandoned and left to rust. Sometimes our cultural vandalism takes the breath away!

Luckily, today things are looking up somewhat. More than ten years since she last ran, The Flying Scotsman is being restored to its former glory by a dedicated team of pros working in an engine shed near Manchester. Actor and presenter Robson Green, a lifelong enthusiast who saw the engine as a kid, follows the progress of the restoration, and delves back into the engine’s rollercoaster history (thankfully not literally – things never got quite that bad…)

Built in a Doncaster workshop in 1923, the Flying Scotsman could carry travellers at speeds of 100mph from London to Edinburgh, as they enjoyed the on-board cocktail bar, fine dining, and hair salon. It was the last word in glamour. But after a 40-year career, the engine was due to be scrapped in 1963. Green looks at the benefactor who sacrificed everything to save her, before taking her on wildly eccentric British trade tours of the United States. Such folly couldn’t last, and but for the intervention of another benefactor, the great Flying Scotsman would have ended her days rusting away in a California siding.

Today, the engine is owned by the National Railway Museum, which has spent £4million on her restoration. It’s a lot of money. But what price a slice of our heritage? She is, after all, perhaps the most famous locomotive engine of all time, and with a story worth listening to. Progress is all well and good, but it helps to remember where we’ve come from too.

Related: Flying Scotsman commemorative cover

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest

Saturday 16th April

Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, 7pm, BBC One: The likeable and upbeat comedian returns with his likeable and upbeat show, the high point of which is the brilliant Celebrity Send to All, which sees him messing with former Spice Girl Geri Horner’s phone, to the confusion of some of her famous friends.

Sunday 17th April

The Fearless Chef, 7pm, Channel 4: Chef Kiran Jethwa is, I am reliably informed by a drooling female friend, something of a dish himself. Not only that, he’s an action man too, risking life and limb in some extreme locations to find some of the world’s most unusual ingredients. Oh, and he can cook too, ladies. I. Hate. Him.

Monday 18th April

University Challenge, 8pm, BBC Two: A bunch of students, who are wasting their time at University actually learning, compete to show who knows more about molecular physics and the work of Proust.

Peter Kay’s Comedy Shuffle, 9pm, BBC One: The wildly-successful Bolton comedian looks back over his career, and resurrects some much loved characters. I like Kay a lot, but why he warrants a whole series of career retrospectives when he’s nowhere near retirement is anyone’s guess.

I Want My Wife Back, 9:30pm, BBC One: Ben Miller stars as Murray, whose wife Bex (Caroline Catz) announces she’s leaving him at a pretty inopportune moment. Not that there’s a good time for such things, mind. As with all sitcoms, it will either be fabulous, or almost unwatchable.

Tuesday 19th April

Fierce, 8pm, BBC One: Steve Backshall, fresh from his extraordinarily dangerous climbing trip to Venezuela, is on a mission to get up-close-and-personal with the fiercest animals on the planet in this new six-part series. Who insures this man?

Tribal Teens, 9pm, Channel 5: Two of the world’s most unfathomable groups come head to head, as British teenagers are sent to live with remote tribes to learn a new way of life. Will they survive without Instagram and Facebook? Will they tidy their rooms?

Later… LIVE with Jools Holland, 10pm, BBC Two: The maestro is back with his eclectic mix of musical styles in a new seven-part series. Tonight, I am sure you will be thrilled to hear, he is hosting one of the country’s foremost Grime MCs, Kano. Yeah! Also performing is some geezer called Paul Simon.

Wednesday 20th April

24 Hours in Police Custody, 9pm, Channel 4: The award-winning documentary series returns, following the police and their suspects in a variety of cases, proof that you don’t need guns and car chases to make what the police do both fascinating and, at times, heroic.

Thursday 21st April

Elizabeth at 90 – A Family Tribute, 9pm, BBC One: Infuriatingly unavailable for preview (it’s not like they didn’t know this was coming…) this is a look back at our Queen’s glorious life, using old family cine film, and interviews with family members.

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