The BBC TV documentary exploring the rise of the psychedelic underground in 1967.
Man Alive was one of the BBC’s flagship documentary strands in the 1960s and 1970s – the sort of series that is, if not already extinct, then certainly on the endangered list today. The show would examine – in a rather non-judgemental, observational way much of the time – cultural issues of the time and dug into little-explored aspects of society. Today, such shows tend to be pre-conceived conclusions looking for evidence and have a cynicism and smug self-awareness to them – just look at the BBC’s own series of ‘investigations’ by non-journalists that explore a current ‘issue’ in a simplistic and contrived manner.
Things were very different in 1967 when the old world of BBC paternalism and the new Age of Aquarius would meet in sometimes uncomfortable encounters where mutual misunderstanding abounded. In this edition of Man Alive, the filmmakers attend the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, perhaps the cultural high point of the psychedelic era in London. Taking place on the 29th of April at Alexandra Palace, the event was a fundraiser for the counterculture newspaper International Times, which was somewhat under the cosh of The Man at the time after police raids and general harassment. Put together quickly by Barry Miles, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, David Howson, Mike McInnerney and Jack Henry Moore, the event was a spectacular psychedelic circus of art and music, headlined by Pink Floyd and featuring The Crazy World of Arthur Bown, the Soft Machine, Tomorrow, John’s Children, Pete Townshend, The Deviants, The Purple Gang, Graham Bond, Savoy Brown and many others performing alongside poets, performance artists, painters, jugglers, dancers, underground film shows and more. Yoko Ono did a piece, witnessed by John Lennon – the pair were not yet a couple. It was, by all accounts, quite the spectacle and of course was never fully documented – while Peter Whitehead‘s film Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London was shot at the event and gives a hint of what it was like, you had to be there, man.
The BBC were there too, shooting in black and white – which I’m guessing doesn’t really capture the vibe of the event – and trying to work out just what this psychedelic underground thing was all about. The resulting half-hour documentary is a fascinating look at the emerging counter-culture and the bafflement of those left behind (including a bunch of disgruntled mods, confused at how they had suddenly become yesterday’s men). The documentary does a decent job at capturing the chaos of it all, but manages to leave a lot out, as you might expect – cramming 14 hours into thirty minutes is never easy. Most notably missing are Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn had yet to be released and it’s entirely possible that the BBC crew didn’t think it was worth capturing their 3am performance.
Clips from this show turn up all the time in documentaries about the era – but the full show has remained oddly unreleased officially. We should, I suppose, be glad that the BBC didn’t wipe the tapes to record a game of bowls or something equally important.
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