My interiors life: weaned on the small screen

My formative years and future tastes in all things were formed by 1950s and 1960s television

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

For me, it was all down to what I saw on the box (which was a lot) — and this extended too to the arenas of action: a fantastic littering of such beautiful and extraordinary interiors, not one of which had I ever set foot in, nor even so much as glimpsed at first hand. And I yearned to haunt and inhabit every single one of them.

I was highly covetous of all I saw — I suppose because I was an only child doomed to walk this earth in short trousers and Start Rite sandals and inhabit a bedroom which sported only a divan, my mother’s dressing table (which I didn’t understand either) and a wardrobe surmounted by suitcases and unexplained and mysterious, never opened, dusty and lumpish brown paper parcels, baled up with rough twine and knots. 

I was also idle, and therefore more than content to feed upon whatever happened to come my way. I still believe to this day that had I been the scion of fantastically rich, indulgent and stupid parents, I would never have done a single day’s work throughout my life, but would instead have spent every waking moment lolling about in a revolving succession of all these miraculous places that television had allowed me to peep into. 

These days, such a lifestyle would elevate me to the much envied and highly regarded status of an “influencer”, trailing in my wake the commensurate millions of “followers”, each quite lost in lust and desperate to emulate my every vacuous action. Back then, of course, I would have been seen only as a spoilt and feckless spendthrift — bound sooner or later, when the cash was cut, to come a cropper. 

But I was simply a wide eyed and avaricious kid with no prospects of anything. Television, though — ah! It allowed me, urged me, seduced me to gorge on the endless and delicious array of interiors and all that might have been.

The saloon was always at the heart of the main drag in westerns

Nearly all of the programmes which I initially watched were laboriously historical (or, at least, after a fashion: whatever the period, the actors would have 1950s quiffs, the actresses thick and alarming false eyelashes). In Robin Hood, it quickly became apparent to me that I had not the least desire to live like an outlaw — for the eponymous hero and his band of Merry Men (who I felt sure just had to be faking it) had eschewed an interior altogether in favour of being exposed all year long in the cold and dripping Sherwood Forest. 

As ever, it was the villain who had not just the best clothes and accoutrements, but also the most desirable pad: the Sheriff of Nottingham lived in a castle with turrets, battlements, portcullis and (best of all) a drawbridge over the moat. I could see it might well be a tad draughty, but there was always some docile serf on hand to lob onto the already blazing fire a further tree trunk, while the torchons on the massive stone walls appeared to work as well as floodlights.

There were thrones to sprawl on and, come mealtimes, just look at the vast oak tables piled high with not just rather horrid things like the head of a pig, but also roast chickens and cascades of grapes. Silver goblets (could even be gold — hard to tell in black and white) would be charged with wine from a ewer, while tapestries and velvet cushions would blunt the hard edges.

The Sheriff at Nottingham Castle

I could see from The Buccaneer that a life on the ocean wave was pretty bloody awful — but only if you were one of the barefoot crew dressed in tatters who, when not taking grog or being flogged, were constantly exhorted to climb the dizzying rigging in order to peer out into infinity from the crow’s nest, or else might be found just swabbing things. But the captain’s cabin was a lovesome place — very cosy indeed, with its dark panelling and leather bindings, a spinning globe, the tantalus and ship’s decanters, and of course that multi paned bow window (though why this very prominent rear feature was never the first thing to be blown to smithereens by the enemy’s cannon I could never really fathom).

I thought the interiors in the plethora of westerns to be rather more the thing — though unless it was Ben Cartwright’s place in Bonanza (all deep buttoned leather, stone and timber fireplaces and ornamental bison horns) they were generally rather basic, but not without a rough hewn charm. 

There was the general store with sacks of grain, cowboy boots, frilly bonnets for Daisy May, not to say Betsy Lou, and liquorice sticks and sarsaparilla for all those intensely annoying gap toothed, freckled and whining kids in check shirts and capacious dungarees (“Oh gee, maw …!” “Now you just hush your mouth, Bobby Joe.”). A rudimentary church, where the preacher could frighten people from the pulpit, a bank which existed solely in order to be robbed, and the sheriff’s office, which I very much liked.

The first thing anyone would do was make for the booze

The interior was hardly more than a desk, a pot bellied stove upon which there constantly simmered a pot of caw fee, the walls adorned with a comely rack of Winchester rifles and a dusting of boldly lettered posters depicting a series of hirsute desperadoes wanted for various heinous crimes — dead or alive, the US marshal was never too pushed either way. There were a couple of barred cells to the rear, one of which would be occupied constantly by a supposedly lovable and prickly faced old drunk, the other by an arrogant young buck whose father (“paw”) owned all of Arizona and a fair deal of Texas and would soon be pulling strings with the corrupt mayor and judge to get his boy sprung. 

Outside on the sheltered porch were a couple of chairs which the lawmen could tip back as they rested their legs on the hitching post, and draw down their stetsons in order to catch up on some shut eye while enjoying a cee gar. But it was the saloon that undoubtedly was the epicentre of the main drag in Cowboytown, with a huge semi circular sort of entablature fronting the street (all the imposing though thoroughly phoney facades were just one plank thick and twice the height of the buildings) proclaiming that establishment to be something along the lines of the Silver Dollar (the Golden Nugget) or else a name a little more risqué, such as Miss Kitty’s, or Jessie’s Place. 

It was those ubiquitous half swing doors that were just so irresistible, of course, with such very clever hinges: whoever walked through them — the baddie in black, the card sharper, the drunken doc, the filthy cowhand who had just come from driving thousands of “beeves” across seemingly millions of miles of dust and rocks — those little louvred doors would creak and swing right back to their original position. Being not at all proper doors they kept out neither sun nor rain and therefore essentially were entirely useless, but it would be unthinkable to have a saloon without them.

And inside was rather glorious — the immense panelled bar with its heavy corbels, beautifully polished in order to facilitate the sliding of foaming beers the length of it, and the brass rail for hitching in your Cuban heel: we try not to notice the spittoon. There would be circular tables with a cluster of chairs where people could get plugged full of lead when accused of cheating at poker, an upright Joanna which would cease to be played the instant someone scary threw open those little swing doors. 

Then there was that all important smattering of extraordinarily seductive and painted ladies, all with boas, plumage, cleavages and beauty spots who would sashay up to a newcomer and say, “Howdy, stranger — wanna buy a girl a drink?” And he did, of course, and then said newcomer would be led upstairs by this scented Jezebel to one of the rooms with heavy flock wallpaper and a big brass bed which led off the gallery — whose balustrades were essential for people to crash through when punched, whereupon they would land upon a card game, and the table would splinter like the matchwood it probably was.

Pa Cartwright reads a Christmas story in Bonanza

There were lots of cop shows too, both home grown and American, but all the police stations (including Scotland Yard) were very dowdy indeed — simply a mass of typewriters, chunky Bakelite telephones, workaday furniture, box files, the odd dying plant, peeling paint and a bentwood hatstand: they need not detain us here. 

But then I began to observe interiors that were truly inspirational (not to say aspirational). It was these that I instantly coveted — and, I think, still rather do, in a wistful sort of a way. They fell into three main categories: the cool flat, the town house, and the place in the country. The cool flat would be either 1930s deco in a mansion block, largely characterised by curved walls, low deep armchairs, a glass and chrome fireplace, lots of mirror and the ubiquitous drinks trolley, or even a quilted cocktail bar. 

This whole business of drinks was common to all the desirable interiors I saw: the first thing anyone would do upon entering the room was make for the booze (“Fix me a drink, would you darling?”). Either a martini, gin and tonic or, if scotch, then Johnnie Walker (it always seemed to be Johnnie Walker: the studios must have had an arrangement). There were classy decanters too, and always a soda siphon, but of course, “just a splash, old man”. 

Usually, during the course of a play, or even a single episode of a series, the protagonists both male and female would sink enough grog to render them completely paralytic — whereupon they would blithely light their fortieth cigarette of the day and then roar off somewhere in a gorgeous drop head Jaguar. 

The 1950s flats were rather more “gay”, as we said at the time — chequered hard floors, coffee tables possibly decorated with images of bullfighters or veteran cars, with splayed legs and brass ferrules, a radiogram or portable Dansette, the patterned wallpaper hung with maybe a Spanish guitar, a raffia covered Chianti bottle and possibly Tretchikoff’s Green Lady or a Parisian streetscape in the style of Buffet. Ornaments might be in the form of seductive negresses with gold hoop earrings, white poodles with etoliated necks, or else similarly distorted black cats with Cleopatra eyes. 

My favourite flat departed from these standard norms: that of John Steed in The Avengers. A smart Adam style mantel flanked by arch topped alcoves lined in red velvet and hung with flintlock pistols. There was a brass bound military chest surmounted by a display of swords, miniature cannon, a red leather sofa and — a pleasingly eccentric touch — large yellow blooms (dahlias?) stuffed into an upturned tuba.

The town house was an even swisher thing: always in a Georgian Mayfair or Knightsbridge terrace or square, with two steps up to the front door. This would open to reveal a polished black and white marble floor, often with Greek Key border, fluted columns framing the hallway proper and fielded panelling up to dado height. Fresh flowers, always.

It transpires that merely idle daydreams allied with uncomplicated lassitude can actually serve one very well

The drawing room would have a mahogany pedestal desk in front of the lavishly pelmeted window, the curtains with tie backs, and upon its chased leather surface would be a telephone — red or white, because you could get them then — a silver cigarette box (cigars, sometimes — though these were proffered only by plutocrats or villains) a heavy table lighter, often onyx, and a lamp in the form of a brass Corinthian column, with pleated shade. Leatherbound sets in the bookcases to each side of the classical mantelpiece, full panelled walls punctuated by old oils in gilded rococo frames as well as prints hung in pairs (military, sporting or avian), possibly a baby grand, certainly the essential drinks table and yet more flowers, generally in Grecian urns. All of it deeply desirable, I thought.

The most quintessentially English of all, of course, was the place in the country. We were treated to regular and welcome glimpses of the cosy cottage with roses round the door, idyllically situated on the village green close to the thatched pub (The Crooked Man, The Cross Keys, The Hay Wain) and a red telephone box, offering a splendid view of the mediaeval church tower. 

Inside would be the range, a rocking chair, low beams, a mantel with a supply of tapers, a pipe rack and a jar of coins for a rainy day. But it was the rather grander sort of place that tended to dominate — and this could be anything from Elizabethan onwards with the must have sweeping and crunchy driveway: stone armorial lions to either side of the immense porch were generally seen to be a good thing. 

The sheer expanse of the interior was swooningly overwhelming, the grandness of the curving staircase, the scale of the fireplaces with the ingle frequently topping head height. Everything had been in situ for generations — the portraits of ancestors, the suits of armour, the roaring lion’s head protruding from the wall, the tiger skin or eviscerated polar bear gracing the flagstones or polished boards. Here was class, and let no one imagine otherwise.

The bay window would be stone mullions with leaded glass and built in seating, this enabling sensitive women to sit there quite endlessly as they contemplated the rolling acres through the falling rain, while smoking a contemplative cigarette, and unhealthily dwelling upon all that might have been. 

In the attic, there night well be a nanny surplus to requirements, mad or not, and in one of the many perfectly freezing bedrooms there could easily be lying an as yet undiscovered corpse. 

When not drinking, people would be changing their clothes for riding, hunting, church, lunch, tea and dinner, each one of these activities preceded and followed by copious drinks, with much more of the same during (maybe not in church, although you never did know). Everything, and most particularly the people, was splendidly worn and faded.

And then, of course, there was twentieth-century America, where nothing at all was remotely worn or faded. Those initial explosive glimpses of contemporary living in the United States, oh my goodness! But so vast, wonderfully strange and eternally Technicolor a planet as America demands to be treated quite separately, and in considerable depth. And so, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: I’ll be back. 

In later life, where did my huge and greedy eyes lead me? Did my materialistic lust for every one of these splendid places to live drive me into a relentless pursuit of all of them, either serially or even simultaneously? No, not at all, as things turned out. Including my formative years, when I was eagerly absorbing all of this wonder, I have only ever had four homes — none of them a cool flat, a Mayfair or Knightsbridge town house, and nor a place in the country, either cottagey or manorial.

The place I currently hang my hat is a small Victorian coach house which has suited my wife and I for the past 40 years. It transpires that merely idle daydreams allied with uncomplicated lassitude, quite unencumbered by money and determination, can actually serve one very well.

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