26. That Old Black Magic

That Old Black Magic

25 February 1973

‘That Old Black Magic’ continues along the Series 3 line of aiming forward while looking back. The episode resonates most obviously with Series 1’s ‘Cecily’. Not only does Tim reprise his Nanny voice (as a tremulous fortune teller), the would-be spooky tableau is arranged with over-the-top, suspenseful music and a manifest, deliberate hokeyness in the props department. Graeme’s plunge into power-crazed madness constitutes a deranged echo of his Fearless Leader transformation of ‘Radio Goodies’. There’s also a flashback to Series 2’s ‘Gender Education’ when Witch Hazel arrives unexpectedly for the seance:

Tim turns and is surprised to find Witch Hazel has arrived.  Tim: Now, remember what we rehearsed. When she puts you under the influence, you play along with it while Bill gets down—  Bill: I feel a presence in the room.  Tim: Not yet. The silly old bat hasn’t come along yet— yes she has!  Many episodes earlier, the same scene plays out with Mrs Desiree Carthorse.

The lads of course retain their fondness for visual gags (Hazel’s snakeskin handbag) and corny wordplay (“Long noses run in our family”). Indeed, much of the ‘black magic’ humour derives from fatuously associating ‘magic’ and ‘conjuring’ with parlour tricks.[1] Graeme’s throat-seeking vampire bat (‘Kitten Kong’) makes another prestidigitatious appearance!

The episode plays out quickly, yet there is a lack of movement between locales. Gone are the usual comings and goings (no trandem!) and half-time mock commercials. Instead, we’re given three consecutive office sequences (Hazel’s arrival; the seance; Graeme’s ketchup-smeared lair) followed by the Clapham Common showdown (in the dead of night, presumably the witching hour) and subsequent gibbon chase (in broad daylight!) and then back to the office. The lads here are experimenting with longer scenes, testing their ability to hold viewers and keep them laughing without constant shifting about… and without musical accompaniment.

Ten months later, the Goodies would deliver their first genuine bottle episode in Series 4’s ‘The Stone Age’.

The other notable development is in the area of female representation. Patricia Hayes (beloved elderly owner of three small dogs in A Fish Called Wanda) is a powerful presence as Witch Hazel.[2] Her cackling laugh is so resoundingly, infectiously, wholeheartedly unhinged that she immediately establishes her authority—a looney, to be sure, but one to be respected! She charms and disturbs in equal measure, bringing every bit as inexorable a personality to bear as did Deputy Commissioner Butcher (‘Give Police a Chance’) or the Music Master (‘The Music Lovers’). As if in response to her presence (or my observations last episode!), the lads appear ready to overhaul, at least a little, their attitude to women.

Bill, for example, can be seen at the start of the episode reading not a girlie magazine but rather Woman, a periodical that in the 1970s was aimed primarily at housewives. To be sure, Graeme’s magic act still requires the presence of a scantily clad assistant (Miss Betty[3]), but her presence passes unremarked (save for Bill’s initial, “Ahh! She’s dead! She’s dead! Look— oh, no she’s not.”) and serves neither as overt titillation nor the basis of any ‘rude bits’ humour.

In fact, the lads seem rather to make a point of being more subtle in their sexual references. Firstly, they disparage the witchcraft book’s Sunday-papers styled nude picture and headline (‘a bum in the coven’), even though they’d earlier fallen over themselves at Bill’s near identical pun (‘Turned black? That’s because they’ve been in the coven too long!’). Then Graeme, having impressed but slightly shocked Tim and Bill’s virgins by referring to the ritual’s ‘dreadful and terrifying climax’, is interrupted mid-summoning and complains petulantly of a ‘ruptured pentacle’. These are shifty, sly allusions, as is the phrase ‘opportunity knocks’ (noun or verb?) and the earlier ritualised witchcraft where, instead of nude dancing, the participants engage in a more-silly-than-bawdy rendition of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’, a song that in its ruder interpretation has connotations of sexual coupling, but here is given the ‘what a rotten song / what a rotten singer’ refrain that speaks to jolly self-mockery.

Which isn’t to say the lads had become suddenly averse to unsubtle humour…

…but they were starting to choose their moments![4] As was so often the case, the episode peters out to rather a lame ending (Graeme restored, Tim and Bill possessed); yet within this we’re given a sublime touch from Patricia Hayes (as realisation dawns, inertia nevertheless has her rip one last page from the now much-needed spell book) and the delightful notion that, as it was Hazel’s incantation to restore Graeme (“Iggledy-biggledy-boggledy-boz, we want him back the way he was!”) that afflicted Bill and Tim, their true selves mustn’t be human at all but rather, respectively and true to character, the spirits of a dog and a chicken!

Jacob Edwards, 25 February 2023


[1] There’s also an unfortunate touch of blackface as Graeme indulges (albeit briefly) in a “Swanee, how I love you, how I love you…” black-and-white minstrel act. This isn’t as problematic as later minstrel references, and in context is a throwaway reference gag commensurate to Tim’s equating the ‘living dead; those lost souls on the other side’ with Thames Television, or Graeme summoning the ‘Lord of Darkness, leader of lost souls, all powerful one!’, aka David Frost.

[2] Just as zookeeper is the default occupation for all who have gone astray in life, so too is Hazel first name out of the hat when the lads have female clients.

[3] Played by Patricia Gordino (uncredited), who had appeared on Doctor Who as an Axon Woman in ‘The Claws of Axos’ (1971). According to an article in the Daily Mirror (13 March 1971), she did actually come from Clapham.

[4] The slippery banana peels would come to the fore again during the Eurovision Raving Loony Contest of Series 5’s ‘Fleet Street Goodies’, another episode with a strong female guest star. Perhaps it was the ladies who inspired the Super Chaps to monkey about?

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