Thursday, October 9, 2014

Outriders and UFO's

I remember the coming of color television during the hip 1960’s. Strange how pop culture parallels everyday life, and how a show from those years can hearken back to citizens living before I was born….

Last month, in connection with the Invictus Games, —more on the games later—Prince Harry was “in distress” that one of his motorcycle outriders was killed. Car crash. If the prince had been of my generation then maybe, like me, from watching the television series UFO (filmed 1969-70) he would have sworn off using motorcycle outriders. I surely have—protocol be damned! A man who dated Princess Margret, Harry’s great aunt, was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. This chap, Peter Townsend, had a comment on outriders. He said they are a ceremonial callback to the use of horsemen riding in front of a formal procession. I just wish they would stop using them—To me the motorcycle riders seem so vulnerable. My father was a motorcyclist in the war, he carried dispatches: He wasn’t expected to defend anyone traveling behind him.

While Townsend was juggling fuel and vectors, trying to intercept incoming squadrons of the Luftwaffe, my dad was serving in Canada, having enlisted when war was declared. Dad transferred overseas after he found himself, to his disgust, serving with folks who had been conscripted, or, in U.S. parlance, drafted.

Last night I thought of Dad. I was up in the Bow Valley Club downtown. There was a mannequin across from the reception desk, modeling upscale fishing gear, with an arrangement of snaps and buckles that allowed for two small packs, front and back. Seeing the mannequin I remembered something from back when I was a boy watching interceptor pilots on TV try to stop incoming UFOs. I remembered my dad; one day I saw him feeling distressed, losing his temper, at a proposal that soldiers have such an front-and-back pack arrangement: No! When those poor guys are under fire they need to be as bloody close to the bloody ground as they can get!

From this, I think Dad would feel as protective towards outriders as I do. My feelings came from watching UFO. On the big box in the basement I saw an outrider: A UFO comes up flying closely overhead—thunderbolt! The car behind the cyclist holds a British cabinet minister, a general and an American, Colonel Straker, with his briefcase chained to his wrist. In the original outtake, the outrider’s face is shown after he lies dead, and Straker is shown coughing blood after being thrown from the car. The car rolls and burns, killing the minister. Of course this grim outtake was never aired on TV.

After Prince Harry’s experience I sent away for the old series, viewing it for the first time since boyhood. I hadn’t realized how affected Straker was by the incident: in one episode he fiddles with a handcuff and short length of chain—something he has kept as a reminder of that day.

In our everyday real life, as I see it, any healthy society requires a certain justice, a certain honoring of those who serve in harms way as outriders, aircrew or sailors. Hence Prince Harry opened the “Invictus Games” last month: Picture a movie trailer for Invictus that played at many British cinemas: We see strong man with short hair going up and down out of the camera frame, wheezing and sweating. The camera moves back to reveal he is doing chin-ups, pulls back still more to reveal he is a legless veteran. Disabled veterans from all over the world, keeping their sense of purpose in life, were invited to come to Britain to compete in athletics.

We civilians, in our escapist TV viewing, aspire to reminders of good conduct—We with our plain lives are encouraged to be heroes, even if only on an old basement TV set. Now, as a grown up, I am finally seeing UFO in color!

In UFO Straker, once a colonel, is a commander described as having “a monkey on his back: …dedication.” With all due respect to cabinet ministers, Straker is determined to defend the earth from UFO’s without regard to politics. That old show, long forgotton, was, as noted on the web, a series where, unusual for sci-fi TV, the endings were seldom satisfactory to the characters—but at least they would manage to stop the UFO. 

While the BBC at the time was doing some adult shows intended to be aired in order, UFO was surely intended for the U.S. market (cars drive on the right) and the episodes were as unconnected as every show was in the U.S. back then, (not counting soap operas) shows such as, say, Star Trek: a three year series (1966-69) that ended the year UFO was filmed in Britain—I forget when UFO aired in Canada. Now I’m enjoying seeing the episodes I never saw, as well as ones I still partly remember—and always will.

A good series speaks to it’s own generation: Baby boomers would vaguely know that Eisenhower had commanded SHAEF, while Straker commands S.H.A.D.O. Boomers would be familiar with uniformed women moving models on a great table during the Battle of Britain, where “never… have so many owed so much to so few,” while at S.H.A.D.O. some women man radar/computer desks. “Man” a desk? In 1969 women’s liberation had not yet dawned. It would be May of 1971 before Helen Reddy sang I am Woman.

A good series speaks to it’s own years. The S.H.A.D.O. logo is like the logo in the spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E; hiding S.H.A.D.O. below a film studio is like the secret headquarters in U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond flics; the banter with the secretaries in the pilot episode—which was dropped—is straight out of the spy shows of the day.

As for the liberation movements of the 1960’s, before feminism, movements such as Students for a Democratic Society, (SDS) the new left and the Black Panthers—in all of them the captains and lieutenants were male. Women fetched coffee. In the case of the Black organizations, when the 1970’s dawned, as I have often read in historic documents, Black women faced a dilemma—Black men needed all the self confidence and manhood they could get: Was it right, then, for Black “sisters” to displace or “harm” their “brothers” by claiming their own equality?

We forget what the world was like just one year before the feminists raised their own consciousness, and then helped the rest of us to understand. The Star Trek crew of 1969 wore miniskirts, but no one remarked on it; on UFO the camera actually follows retreating female posteriors, in close up. The women of SHADO wear very form fitting uniforms; the men wear something like loose overalls, reminding me of the coming 1970’s disco era. I remember reading in a newspaper during the 1960’s that any clothing would sell for men; everything was in fashion as long as it wasn’t normal… wasn’t from the straight, unhip, uncool 1950’s. For a brief time there were even fishnet shirts, or undershirts, I forget—which surely inspired the shirts worn by the S.H.A.D.O. submarine crew.

I should note the commander of Moonbase is female, and women in the control room wear diamond stud piercings near their eyes, just like young people today.

Nice production values: The sets are gorgeous, especially by comparison to the cheaper sets on Star Trek. And where did they ever get the money to have so many actors in every episode? Very unlike Star Trek.

On UFO tape recorders and computers have big reels, and there is miniaturization; (Stemming from the Apollo moon program); futuristic telephone handsets cover a conventional rotary dial. (I remember it bugged me, watching as a boy, how the headset microphones were as small as stir sticks) The exciting future is expressed by simply gathering up new exciting 1960’s furniture and mod interior decorations; all the men have longish hair and wide side burns, while still having their ears fully showing. The idea seemed to be: The sixties, just like rock and roll, will never die.

But people do. Die, I mean. The guy who played Colonel Foster is described on the web as having died just six days after his co-star, Straker. “Foster” was so unlucky: although he made a record number of test screenings to be the next James Bond, he was never picked for the role. The other colonel at S.H.A.D.O. was a self-made actor, starting his career at age 35. He’s dead too. And so is RAF pilot Peter Townsend. And so is Princess Margaret. She was persuaded to stop dating Peter, give up on marrying him—solely because he was divorced. The royal family, in those years before no-fault divorce, thought they needed to set an example against social decline. When times changed, it was too late for the couple.

It’s become too late for a lot of people I have known. And me? This weekend I had medical tests, and needed two days off work. Yes, I’m mortal and no, I won’t ever have my mid-life crises; in fact I like to joke about missing out on it. Meanwhile, in my own quiet way I am doggedly getting on with my everyday life, and thinking about my place on earth. Never mind.

Filmed a decade before Star Wars made “special effects” a household term, UFO managed without any computer-generated images. (CGI) The trick was using scale models: UFO was made by the same folks who “filmed in super marionnation” to make Stingray and Thunderbirds.

UFO of course, takes place in the future: …1980.

Sean Crawford
October 2014
~I’m sorry for lives missed.
Here is a quote from page 78 of a book on communication, Why We Don’t Talk to Each Other Anymore by John L. Locke:

During the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in June of 1953, most eyes were trained on the royal proceedings. But some people saw the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, flicking some “fluff” from the coat of Group Captain Peter Townsend. When word of this got out the next day, the ordinary newspaper-reading public suddenly knew something with absolute certainty—the relationship between Margaret and Captain Townsend was intimate.

~I should point out that last week’s light piece now ends with heavy footnotes: I added the notes days later.
Colonel Foster was Michael Billington
Colonel Freeman was George Sewell
Commander Straker was Ed Bishop
The “folks who made” Thunderbirds and UFO were Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
SHAEF was Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force
S.H.A.D.O. was Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization


  1. Tomorrow I have two doctor's appointments, before and after my important weekly writer's group. I am looking forward to the challenge of keeping my concentration on what I am doing, during my two hours of writing and discussing, and thinking of how I can help others there. To me that is a good life.

  2. Hopefully, everything went well for you today.I'm very lucky that I have chosen a profession in which I make it my duty and commitment to help others. Remember your topic "One thing to be remembered for?", well, I would like to be remembered for being helpful, kind, patient AND funny. Have an enjoyable long weekend! Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I am amused at myself, at how I feel as much frustration as acceptance at the background clicks of radiation in my life. Let me rejoice, for today I have dodged a bullet of depleted uranium. It's a good day.

    We are alike in what we wish to be remembered for. In the near future I look forwards to revisiting the question. I think I like role modelling not being afraid of society, not at the expense of being authentic. Yet I am considerate that others can't handle visible gratuitous difference. I don't disturb others if I can help it. Being nice helps people feel safe that I am not criticizing them by my choices.

    Today I did not blab to my fellow writers but a retired nurse friend who knew about my health and knew me outside of the writing group talked with me before class and then sat beside me, so that was nice.

  4. I had to do some research on "depleted uranium" and yes, it is a GREAT day.

    I'm sure that anyone who reads your blog (How are the "If you skim, you're dim" t-shirts coming along??) will be thinking of you after reading this last post, but let me be the first to say on here.........loud and clear..... (I'm a poet and I didn't even know it!)

    "I'm thinking of you, Sean Crawford!".

    Get some turkey in you this weekend and enjoy some time with loved ones. Cheers!