Even with Antrim blues legends on board 'The Show' could not go on!

WITH modern television saturated with programmes that seemingly delight in pushing boundaries for the mere sake of doing so - such as ‘Naked Attraction’ and ‘Sex Box’ - it seems few broadcasting taboos remain sacred.

Yet, as controversial elicit thrills give way to gaudy gimmickry, there is no denying that the power of the medium to provoke genuine outrage is steadily receding, flooded as it already is with graphic depictions of sex, drug use and violence.

With each new contrived stunt that hits the airwaves, audiences grow more and more desensitised to content that, once considered shocking, may appear almost quaint by today’s standards.

It is of no surprise that public tastes evolve over time - yet, amid the current staid state of play, it is all too easy to forget the times when TV shows, ostensibly devised to entertain, could instead ignite outright moral panic.

Enter ‘The Show’, BBC Northern Ireland’s short-lived 1989 effort to revolutionise Saturday night television with a heady injection of danger and deviance.

Boasting humour so near the knuckle that you’d need a microscope and a razor blade to separate them - and language that did not so much knock on the door of public acceptability as crudely kick it off the hinges - it was a culture shock for many.

In a time in which the altogether tamer comedic sensibilities of sitcoms such as ‘Allo Allo,’ ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Birds of a Feather’ continued to rake in enormous weekly viewing figures, the sight of an American performer singing in lurid detail about abortion and the use of the contraceptive pill - one of the most notorious sequences of ‘The Show’ - was considered by several to be obscene to an unacceptable level.

Furthermore, ‘The Show’s brazen political banter, which often took an aggressively satirical view of the ongoing Troubles, was also a major point of contention. Few people in 1989 were willing to see a funny side to the endemic violence that continued to stalk the province, particularly in a year which saw no less than four major bombings.

Yet, for all of profanity and provocative posturing the programme became infamous for, two local musicians - Jim Armstrong and Jim Gilchrist - are rightfully considered to have stolen ‘The Show’ with their scintillating live performance.

The two men, having met in the Steeple Inn, had a deep reverence for the blues and, forming the Jim Armstrong Band in 1988, routinely played to audiences all over Europe, eager to hear their unique take on the genre.

However, by the time Jim Armstrong and Jim Gilchrist came to perform on ‘The Show’, the former was no stranger to the protestations of those of conservative taste.

Van Morrison

Indeed, the Antrim guitar man had made his name in an era when even something so simple as a man growing his hair long was perceived as a defiant affront to the status quo - back in the 1960s, as the lead guitarist with Van Morrison’s seminal rhythm and blues band ‘Them’.

As such, ‘The Show’ was far from his first brush with moral panic and conflicting generational attitudes.

During the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here Comes The Night’ hitmakers’ 1966 residency at the iconic ‘Whisky-a-Go-Go’ club in Los Angeles, they were joined onstage by an up-and-coming band named the Doors for a lengthy jamming session.

“A young Jim Morrison decided to drink with us Irish lads,” the local guitarist remembered.

“He came off worst to say the least!”

Famously, a vortex of controversy often surrounded the hard-boozing, troubled Jim Morrison prior to his untimely death at the age of 27 in 1971.

It was not unheard of for the Doors frontman to be arrested onstage, most notoriously following a wild concert in Miami in 1969 for which he was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness.

Whilst with Them, Jim Armstrong also made the acquaintance of Frank Zappa after his bandmate, Ray Elliott, unsuspectingly slept with one of his girlfriends.

Ray’s wave of panic subsided when Frank shrugged it off.

“Yer man just says, ‘Come on out and hear this album I've just recorded’,” he later revealed.

And just like that, the band met Frank Zappa and became some of the first people in the world to hear his debut album, ‘Freak Out’.

Zappa would later introduce Jim to psychedelic siren Janis Joplin, herself by then a potent symbol of rebellion and hippie counterculture.

She revealed that one of her favourite songs was one penned by Jim, his eight-minute Indian-inspired raga ‘Square Room’ from the 1968 Them LP ‘Now and Them’.

Following his tenure with Them, the maestro - once voted the third best guitarist in the world after Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa - remained a musician in high demand.

Throughout the 1970s, he would go on to lend his skilled touch to bands such as Truth, Light and Sk’Boo.

An often-sought-after session guitarist, Jim was a regular on UTV and BBC television by the 1980s, making him an obvious candidate for inclusion as a musical guest on ‘The Show’.

However, the talent and proficiency of the Jim Armstrong Band alone was not enough to save ‘The Show’ from the massed pitchforks, and their performance on the programme became overshadowed as the rest of its contents became the focal point for a protracted and damaging unholy row.

Ulster Unionist James Alexander was first to condemn the broadcast, which he deemed a ‘satanically devised transmission’, whilst DUP man Maurice Mills - who would later find himself at the centre of a controversy of his own making when he argued that Hurricane Katrina and the AIDs epidemic were God’s revenge against the gay community - went a step further and suggested that ‘The Show’ was formulated in ‘the deep cesspool of sin by committed atheists and republicans’.

In modern parlance, these were fairly damning no-star reviews - and it was clear that many were equally convinced that ‘The Show’ should not go on.

In the modern day, when sex and swearing seldom raise an eyebrow and full-frontal nudity passes for entertainment post-watershed with not so much as an Ofcom investigation, such vociferous and unrestrained anger over a television programme seems a relic of another era.

As the furore died down and BBC Northern Ireland’s racy attempt at subversive comedy slipped further into distant obscurity, the Jim Armstrong Band played on, their hard-earned reputation unscathed.

Jim Gilchrist, who had helped scores of young people in Antrim polish their talents through the MADD musical collective at Clotworthy, was tragically murdered in Derry in 2005, but his musical legacy remains.

Jim Armstrong, meanwhile, continued to play and tour well into the 2010s before health glitches caught up with him and forced his retirement from public performing.

The local legend may no longer call Antrim home, having moved to Las Vegas in 2015, but he still remembers the town fondly.

And the legions of local fans who watched Armstrong and Gilchrist give their all at Madden’s Bar will never forget them either.

“I remember having lunch in Hall’s Hotel in High Street, walking through the Castle Grounds and down to the Lough,” he said in a recent interview.

“I don’t like cities and Antrim is still quite a small town and generally the environment is nice and friendly.”

With his vast back catalogue remaining in print and very much in demand, Jim’s love for the blues is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon - in stark contrast to the long-forgotten ‘blue’ humour of ‘The Show’ and the hysterical response it garnered.

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