Herb Alpert – Brass, Bopping and the Battle for BBC Four

It’s 8:35 on a Sunday evening and I am ironing. Only television can make this experience tolerable. But what shall I watch? I flick idly through the channels, until I come to the most spectacularly incongruous and unexpected sight; Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass!

Not only Herb Alpert but also his Tijuana Brass

Somewhat unbelievably, whoever it is programming BBC4 spotted a 25 minute gap in the schedule on a Sunday night in August in 2011and decided that the most obvious thing to fill this with would be archive BBC footage of Herb Alpert and co from the 1960s apparently miming to a selection of their light jazz hits on a set made to look like a beach scene but is quite clearly actually a draughty warehouse on an industrial estate in Slough.

So – is it any good? Well, most of Herb’s fellow band members look like accountants, used car salesmen or unholy mustachioed cross-breeds of both. Large parts of the set look prone to collapse at any moment. Festooned around it are glamour girls quite possibly plucked from the typing pool to gamely bop along. Herb himself seems to alternate between knowing hipster cool and huge embarrassment at the fact that his jazz legend dreams seem to have dissolved into delivering horrendously bad scripted puns about Mexicans whilst miming along to pre-recorded bilge like Spanish Flea.

Strangely, I wrote this blog before I found this picture. Cosmic, man.

To answer the question – yes, it is BRILLIANT. The bad bits are hugely entertaining and a welcome antidote to the po-faced, tedious “all about the music, man” attitude that seems to have a hold on modern music problems. Jools Holland, I am looking straight at you. And speaking of Jools Holland, Herb Alpert’s “presenting” makes Jools look like Melvyn Bragg in comparison. But the music, unexpected, is superb. There is little in the way of razzle-dazzle, besides the set. The band simply plays nice tunes in smart suits and Herb tells us a little about each song in between. There are no winks to camera by clueless shrieking presenters in Motorhead t-shirts that have probably been bought from Top Shop half an hour ago (Fearne Cotton, come on down!), no vox pops with witless audience members bussed in and pumped up with Red Bull, Smirnoff Ice and god only knows what else. It is Proper Music on a Proper Television Programme. I know I have essentially become my dad here but I remain unbowed – how sad it is that all of these things have become a novelty in music programming? A programme where one is simply allowed to enjoy the music?

Plus, there’s a wider point to be made here. This is on BBC4. Where else is this being broadcast? I accept the point that there are channels like Sky Arts but I don’t want to watch only what is “cool” or “worthy” and I don’t want to have to pay some communications-tampering Australian in order to do it. I want to watch it on my television, like I just have done. I want the opportunity just to stumble on these things without planning first, to get the singular pleasure of really enjoying something you would probably never have planned to watch in a million years – which I just have done. The BBC has tons of this archive footage. I don’t want to go to an archive or even go online to view it – it should be enjoyed on television, as it was originally designed to be.

The BBC has seemingly cottoned on to this. BBC4’s music programming is unrivalled. Its Jazz, Prog, Folk Britannia series have been rapturously received. Its Friday evening schedules are filled with amazing music documentaries and concerts that have been gathering dust for years.

So WHY are the BBC thinking of scrapping BBC4? I know there has been a fierce online debate about whether it’s acceptable to want to save one channel whilst scrapping another and I know I have moaned about BBC3 before. But unlike other aspects of the BBC’s output, BBC4’s use of the BBC’s mind-boggling array of archive footage, its fascinating documentaries about airports and Nordic crime writing and children through history, simply aren’t catered for elsewhere. The BBC’s role as a public broadcaster is to do just that – to give the public things that can’t be found elsewhere in the commercial world.

I’m aware that this has essentially been a Party Political Broadcast for the BBC4 Party and feel free to ignore me if you disagree. But if , like me, you’ve found a load of stuff on BBC4 that is unexpected, brainy and odd but still accessible, enjoyable and brilliant and the thought of losing it makes you want to give up your licence altogether and hide under your bed (actually I can’t because there are drawers in the bottom of it but that’s not the point) then you could do worse than to join the campaign here. It’s run by the same people behind Save BBC6 Music –which resulted in a doubling of the channel’s listenership and rightfully saved its future. Fingers crossed lightning strikes twice.

Posted by a kitsch-loving, oddly impassioned Velocity Girl.   


Filed under Documentaries

8 responses to “Herb Alpert – Brass, Bopping and the Battle for BBC Four

  1. inkface

    Well said VC. I too love BBC Four too. It takes me where I didn’t expect to go too. Possibly not to Herb Alpert, but you never know.

    • Thanks Inky. To be fair, I suppose if one really wants to go to Herb Alpert, then it actually requires little more than a trip to one’s local charity emporium. But still, go BBC Four!

  2. Corumba Love


    Thoughts are flicking about this chap’s head like a spanish flea on speed. My mother bought Alpert’s greatest hits way back and I’ve been enjoying that 12 inches of guilty pleasure ever since. My favourite has to be his theme to Casino Royale – the 1967 David Niven/Peter Sellars mess, not the Daniel Craig essence of cool – and I have a soft spot for Zorba the Greek because Favourite Elder and Younger Sons remember it as the perfect background to me chasing them around a giggling kitchen table in ever more frantic circles. I guess it’s their own guilty listening now.

    As for BBC4: entirely with you and I wish it was next to BBC1 & 2 on the programme guide so that I could stumble across stuff more often. I think it fulfills the function that BBC2 used to before multi-channel television: somewhere to try stuff out that may not be commercial but is always interesting to someone.

    One final thought. Alpert is married to the singer Lani Hall (they still perform together) who sang a cover of Cat Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You.” The original is ok but Hall’s version is one of the most beautifully haunting songs of love lost or yet to be found that I’ve heard. I’ve never been able to buy a legitimate copy but here’s a link to Youtube:


  3. pauseliveaction

    Well said, VG. I love the quirky things that turn up on BBC4 and I’d miss it a lot if it wasn’t there.

    • Thank you kindly, PLA.

      Perhaps I ought to modify my rant slightly. Apparently latest plans are for BBC Four to keep its arts and archive stuff. HOWEVER, everything else is to be cut. Meaning that we can wave goodbye to its superlative documentaries, drama etc. Who else would have shown The Killing? Nobody – even Channel 4 wouldn’t touch it until the American remake!

  4. pauseliveaction

    Isn’t “Herb Alpert” a brilliant name?

  5. Paul

    I didn’t know they WERE thinking of scrapping BBC4. Why would they do this? It’s brilliant – these days I am mostly watching the Proms on that channel. But in recent weeks I have also watched “The Story of Maths” – and tonight I’m recording a programme about childhood in the Middle Ages, which if I understand correctly is part of the same series which included the programme about Margaret More’s education (and Tudor education in general) that I watched a couple of weeks ago.

    You’re damn right that this sort of mix of interesting music shows (Karen Carpenter in 1973 a couple months back too) and documentaries, with the occasional Mark Lawson interview is not catered for anywhere else. BBC3 hits like Gavin and Stacey would eventually surface on BBC2 in the old days, and transfer to one of the main channels when they work (and disappear without trace when they don’t) – I don’t think I’d miss it if it went (do we really need same-evening repeats of every EastEnder’s episode, and next-week repeats of Doctor Who, though I admit I’d miss Doctor Who Confidential if there were no BBC3) – But hands off BBC4!