Tuesday, 27 October 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 24 October 2015.

Psychedelic Britannia: Friday, BBC Four

SAS: Who Dares Wins: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

A kaleidoscopic tapestry of wonderful archive footage, seasoned talking heads and mind-blowing music, Psychedelic Britannia paid bewitching tribute to one of the most colourful periods in British pop history.

It chronicled those forward-thinking years between 1965 and 1970 when bands such as Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds and yer Beatles swapped their beat/blues roots for experiments in jazz, classical, the avant-garde, Indian drones and holy modal chanting. It was a time of studio experimentation and long, wiggy improvisations, where anything went and usually did.

It was also a time of drugs. Lots and lots of consciousness-expanding drugs. After all, that's how the genre got its name and most of its untrammelled vision.

One of many choice interviewees, Yes/Tomorrow's Steve Howe, aka the librarian ghost from Ghostbusters, said he once played his guitar for ten hours continuously while on acid. Time, alas, hasn't archived this marathon.

Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt claimed that one of the reasons they played endless jams at London's legendary UFO club was because they didn't allow any gaps for the crowd to boo. They were probably too zonked to care anyway.

Wyatt also revealed that he barely knows what a CV is. “I was too young to take any notice of that crap,” he chuckled. Wyatt was typical of the many young hairies who dropped out of conventional society to form a bohemian counter-culture steeped in a unique British fusion of pastoral Edwardian whimsy and cultural revolution. Within months it had infiltrated the mainstream.

Of course, not everyone from his generation was impressed by this new Arcadian Age. One of the programme's many great finds was a clip of a young mod at Alexandra Palace's 14 Hour Technicolour Dream. A BBC reporter asked him what he was expecting. “Sumfink better than this,” he sniffed. It was pure Quadrophenia.

I was always going to enjoy this beautifully assembled programme, as British psych is one of my favourite genres. But I was particularly impressed by the way it managed to gently mock its sillier excesses, while simultaneously treating it with respect. That's precisely the right approach, as the pie-eyed eccentricity of British psych is one of its defining and most charming characteristics.

Even the choice of narrator, Nigel Planer, alias Neil from The Young Ones, was inspired. His affectionately droll script correctly argued that this is when British pop found its first truly original voice.Only 60 minutes long, I can excuse its exclusion of the lesser-known, one-shot acts that gave British psychedelia much of its quirky identity. Only an hour, but it was quite a trip.

It's probably safe to assume that “Turn on, tune in, drop out” isn't part of the SAS handbook. But what does it take to join this rock hard military unit? SAS: Who Dares Wins attempts to explain by following a group of ex-Special Forces soldiers as they put 30 civilians through a recreation of the gruelling selection process that they once endured.

Despite the insight it affords into this grimly serious world, it's basically a generic boot camp show of the type we're all familiar with. It even finds the judges/trainers sitting around a table to decide which of the contestants/recruits should stay in the competition/process: The Great British Bloke Off. On that point, why aren't there any women involved?

Such mysteries aside, the programme does at least reveal that psychological strength is essentially more important than physical fitness in the SAS. Alpha males aren't necessarily welcome. And for the shallower among us, we can all get a kick from the fact that the chief instructor has clearly modelled himself on the classic bearded Action Man.

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