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Life's a Cavalcade - Glen Michael

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Genre: Biography / Author: Glen Michael / Hardcover / 224 Pages / Book is published 2008-09-18 by Birlinn Ltd

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

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      15.06.2011 15:38
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      A disappointing autobiography

      There are some people you remember from chidrens' TV who are guaranteed to make you smile. My daughter, for instance, still chuckles at the concept of "The Teletubbies" - and Tinky Winky in particular - even though now she doesn't believe me when I tell her how obsessed she was with it as a baby and toddler.
      This is of course a generational thing and when I told her the memory of John Noakes gave me a warm glow; she did, of course, look at me as if I had two heads before asking who on earth he was.

      Another childhood hero - albeit a less adventurous hero than Noakes - was Glen Michael, who for 26 years fronted "Cartoon Cavalcade" on Scottish Television. The show ended in 1992 but of course I had stopped watching it around 1980 when I was 16 and way too cool for it.

      What the show brought in those days of 3 TV channels and very limited entertainment for children was a ray of sunshine - especially on Sundays when TV seemed to have a far more religious bent than it does now. Of course that could be an illusion - with only 3 channels you couldn't do what you would do now if worship isn't your thing and just find an alternative because a lot of the time there was no alternative. You also have to remember just how boring Sundays were in the 70s - almost everything was closed (apart from church) and I am absolutely convinced it rained every Sunday then too.

      I am unsure if "Cartoon Cavalcade" ever aired on the entire ITV network. Back in the 60s and 70s regional programming was encouraged more than it is today - no doubt because it was more profitable - and I always felt drawn to the show because instead of being asked to send letters to London W12 or Teddington, Middlesex, "Cartoon Cavalcade" viewers were given an address in Cowcaddens, Glasgow. This made the show somehow seem more accessible even though the vast majority of the programme's content originated even further away in America. It has therefore always been my assumption that the show remained a Scottish anomaly, a bit like "Late Call" and the depressing 70s Scottish soap opera "Garnock Way".

      As the title suggests, the show was based around cartoons - and it was through "Cartoon Cavalcade" I was able to enjoy the Roadrunner cartoons starring Wile E Coyote which never failed to have me crying tears of laughter, along with Bugs Bunny and Foghorn Leghorn.

      Recently I spied Glen Michael's autobiography in a charity shop and thinking I would learn all about his life, what making the TV show was like and what he did once "Cartoon Cavalcade" ended, I picked it up.

      ~~The Book~~

      "Life's a Cavalcade" begins with a foreword by Mark Millar, the comic book author. This is a great choice as Millar openly admits to being deeply influenced by "Cartoon Cavalcade" as a child growing up in Coatbridge and clearly has a great deal of respect for Glen Michael. "Cartoon Cavalcade" introduced Millar, and me for that matter, to "Spiderman".

      Once the book commences we start at perhaps what one would expect to find nearer the end - the filming of the very last episode of "Cartoon Cavalcade" and then Glen Michael starts to tell his story which starts in Paignton, Devon in 1926 and takes on a tour of a chaotic childhood which in spite of bouts with poverty always remained resolutely middle class. The book then moves on to adulthood and how Glen found fame on TV in Scotland.

      ~~Thoughts~~

      I must admit to being rather surprised at learning Glen Michael is English. This may sound silly but as a child he sounded Scottish to me (if a bit "pan loaf") and he only ever seemed to appear on Scottish TV so my childhood reasoning concluded he was Scottish and it's a conclusion that has remained with me for 40 years. I also thought his name sounded a bit Scottish - certainly the "Glen" part fitted the bill. It wasn't until I read this book that I learned his real name was actually Cecil Buckland.

      I also, at the risk of sounding a bit rude, didn't realise when I was a child just how old he was - he was 82 when the book was published in 2008 and is 85 now. As a result it makes for some memories from Michael which even I - as a bit of fan of films from the 1920s and 1930s - found hard to relate to.

      Glen grew up with a father who seems to have had a short attention span. He failed in business and then decided to drag his wife into domestic service with him following the death of their eldest son when Glen was just seven. She would act as housekeeper and cook while her husband would be butler. Due to what can only be described as an inherent air of superiority which never seems to have left him, Glen's father rarely lasted in jobs very long.

      The chapters describing Glen's childhood are fairly interesting. It seems incredible to think he never had a home to call his own in childhood as his parents moved from live in job to live in job. Sometimes the employers wouldn't permit children in staff quarters and this would sometimes lead to Glen being cared for by different families, and he describes one family who he believes had him on a "trial basis" with a view to adopting him. This adoption never came to pass and Glen's chaotic and unsettled childhood continued with him living in all corners of England with his parents or close by.

      The thing that strikes you in his prose is how lonely this existence could be for him, and also how he didn't get much of an education through the constant movement. This sense of loneliness began with the loss of his brother . What brought an escape for Glen in childhood was the cinema and it was through his visits in the 1930s and the escapism it brought that Glen decided he wanted to "go on the stage".

      By the time he left home to embark on a theatrical career we were at Chapter 7 so this gives you an idea of how long it seems to get anywhere in this book. Michael's prose is enjoyable but there's a certain air of verbosity which perhaps should have been reigned in.

      I really did find the book started to drag a bit when Glen discusses his early days trying to break into show business in 1940s London. Like so many ambitious young performers of the era he got his break through ENSA - the organisation set up in 1939 to entertain troops during the war. He strikes up a fairly lasting friendship with Peter Sellars in this period but it quickly becomes apparent when discussing his own performances that he quite simply isn't the same league as many of his peers.

      Where I really struggled with the book was reading about Michael's career in the 1940s and most of the 1950s - it seems to have been very limited and you realise just how little he did outwith variety theatre when a very small role in the 1949 film "The Blue Lamp" is portrayed by him as the highlight of his career at the time. That it didn't lead to more film roles isn't discussed.

      It isn't until chapter 16 - which is about three quarters of the way through the book that Michael manages to get to the part where he reaches Scotland and frankly at the risk of sounding parochial, it was only here that the book got interesting for me.

      Glen started his career north of the border working as a straight man for Jack Milroy, who is something of a comedy legend north of the border. I must admit I was unaware of the work he did with Milroy until I read the book - and also the work he did with Milroy's comic partner Rikki Fulton in a TV show they did for Scottish Television featuring their comic creations Francie and Josie.

      I was fortunate enough to see Milroy and Fulton perform on stage in Glasgow as Francie and Josie in the 1980s when they did a theatrical comeback and it's very interesting to read of the shows Glen did with the characters - especially in light of the sad fact that none of these TV shows exist in the Scottish Television archive.

      Glen also writes about shows he did throughout Scotland before finally getting his long standing role as presenter of "Cartoon Cavalcade" - a show which had several titles over the years with the one I remember best being "Glen Michael's Cartoon Cavalcade".

      I have to say I was rather disappointed when we finally got to the show I remember him so fondly for as there are a mere two chapters devoted to a Scottish TV institution which ran for 26 years! Glen does recall Paladine, the talking lamp, and Rusty the dog - along with other dogs Rudy and Casper. He seems to take a great delight in revealing all the dogs belonged to him and lived with him, with a little dig at "Blue Peter" along the way.

      And then - as "Cartoon Cavalcade" comes to an end - so does the book - with nary a word about what he has done in the 19 years since the show ended, leaving me feeling somewhat deflated.

      I suppose I should have realised this might be the case from the photographs included in the book. Nearly all are from Glen's youth or photos retrieved from the STV archive. The most recent photograph seems to be from the late 1980s and while Glen recalls that Mark Millar asked him to film a scene for a cameo role in "Kick Ass" which sadly ended up on the cutting room floor - there is nothing else mentioned about what Glen did once his TV show ended. I did a Google search and managed to find one relatively recent picture of Glen taken at the premier of "Kick Ass" and it has to be said he's aged very well so I don't really know why he hasn't included one more recent picture in the book.

      There is also a rather irritating amount of name dropping in this book - with not a bad word said about anyone. Now don't get me wrong - it's admirable that Glen doesn't wish to speak ill of people he has encountered over the years with the most critical comment being a barbed reference to how Peter Sellars "changed" with fame. However this turns the book into something of a luvvie fest with it's nadir being an entire chapter devoted to a visit Sean Connery paid to the family home whilst golfing in the area with Rikki Fulton.

      Perhaps I should have realised the book would be like this from the dust jacket which reads "Glen has worked with hundreds of legends of stage and screen and here includes personal recollections of stars" with the jacket then listing a somewhat sublime to ridiculous list which ranges from Vivien Leigh to the Krankies.

      Glen does come across as an inherently decent person - which figures as he always came across that way to me on TV - but his story isn't a particularly exciting one - more a little plodding and at times a little dull. He has undoubtedly lived a good life with a long and enduring marriage and a family he is justifiably proud of but at the end of the day this isn't an autobiography that discusses a really colourful life and his inability to even discuss his work after his TV show ended suggests he didn't actually do much else apart from a mention of "primary school tours" he did with his wife.

      I bought my copy in a charity shop - which seemed to have rather a lot of copies it has to be said. The list price is £14.99 for the hardback and wasn't published in paperback - which is a bit telling. I would recommend you only read if you find it second hand or in the library because overall it's a bit dull and at the risk of sounding ageist, would appeal more to someone perhaps over the age of 60.

      I really get the impression that Glen Michael should have written his autobiography just after "Cartoon Cavalcade" ended for it to have had more impact. Waiting almost 20 years really is a case of leaving things too late.

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