The old walled city of York is famous for several things. It was a Roman fort and a Viking settlement, it has an impressive Gothic Minster and it was the birthplace of the actress Judi Dench. But the character most closely associated with York is Dick Turpin, butcher by trade, burglar and highwayman by profession, who is buried in the city¹.
The story goes that Turpin fled from the authorities in London, riding his horse, Black Bess, the 200 miles to York in a single day. Although no-one believes that highly romanticised account, Turpin did go on the run, leaving his stamping ground of London and Essex and taking up residence in Yorkshire under the alias of John Palmer. After an altercation in the street in which Palmer shot a game cock and threatened to shoot another man he was questioned by magistrates who decided he should be bound over. But Palmer refused to pay the surety and was sent to a house of correction where those “unwilling to work” were given arduous and demeaning jobs to do.
Suspecting that Palmer’s lifestyle was funded by criminal activities the magistrates made further enquiries bringing to light evidence that Palmer was involved in stealing sheep and horses. Horse stealing was then a capital offence so Palmer was transferred to the more secure prison of York Castle pending trial at York Assizes. While in prison Palmer wrote to his brother-in-law in Essex. Unfortunately for him an official in the receiving post office recognised the handwriting as Turpin’s and travelled to York to reveal Palmer’s true identity, claiming the reward offered after Turpin had shot and killed a man two years before.
Dick Turpin was found guilty of horse theft and hanged on 7th April 1739. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Georges Church, Fishergate and there is a grave there today marked with a headstone although there is some doubt about its authenticity.
I was reminded of York’s famous highwayman the other day. Mrs. Crotchety was flicking through the channels on the TV and came across a programme showing a guitarist I did not recognise. After watching for a while I was intrigued to see in the background the logo of an old BBC TV programme called The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Whistle Test, as it was known from 1983 onwards, was the only TV programme available in the UK in the seventies and eighties that broadcast rock and other non-chart music styles; it would have been my favourite TV programme had it not been on so late in the evening².
As we watched, ‘whispering’ Bob Harris, the DJ who hosted the Whistle Test from 1972 to 1978, came on. Although it’s 40 years since he last hosted that show he doesn’t seem to have aged a bit and a wave of warm nostalgia washed over me. For a moment I thought we might be watching a recording from the seventies but the images were too clear and the sound of Bob’s voice was too crisp. It was, in fact, a one-off, three-hour programme celebrating 30 years since the Whistle Test was last broadcast in 1988³.
Friday’s programme was a mix of recordings from the original 445 shows, interviews with musicians and BBC personnel, and live performances from both well-established and up-and-coming artists. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set all round but the clip that caught me by surprise was Albert Lee’s performance of The Highwayman. I knew Albert Lee as a guitarist, well respected in the industry and associated with artists like Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton. For this song, though, he was playing an electric piano and singing, live in the TV studio. Here’s a YouTube video from a few years ago that looks and sounds very similar.
The Highwayman is a pop song. It was written by Jimmy Webb, the American songwriter, composer and singer responsible for a slew of deceptively catchy songs such as By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Line Man and Galveston. It’s not rock music and it would be easy to dismiss the whole of Webb’s output as superficial twaddle churned out to satisfy the bean counters of the big-name record companies. But suspend your disbelief for a moment. These are well-constructed pieces. They have a tune that the grey-coated doormen of Tin Pan Alley could whistle after hearing them just once or twice. They have a harmonic structure that is both unsurprising and at the same time distinctive. And even the words have a spark of originality about them. The Highwayman, for example, lives, like the eternal soldier, in the past the present and the future.
There was one other item in the Whistle Test special that deserves a mention here. One of the promoters at Epic Records, Judd Lander, remembered a time when Jeff Beck was scheduled to be interviewed on the programme. Judd had received a phone call on the morning of the broadcast saying that Jeff had changed his mind and wouldn’t be doing the interview after all.
Not content with this, Judd had a company car drive him over to Jeff’s home. Determined to talk Jeff round Judd removed all his clothes in the car and when they drew up at Jeff’s front door Judd got out, naked, and played “Hi, Ho, Silver Lining”, loudly, on the bagpipes. A heated argument ensued but Judd refused to pipe down so, in the end, Jeff said he’d do the interview on one condition: that Judd would repeat his bagpipe stunt, unclothed, live on air. The first 30 seconds of this YouTube clip show the result of those negotiations.
It’s good to have a little nostalgia occasionally, don’t you think?
- When the Crotchety Couple moved to York in 1997 the house they bought had once been owned by a Mr. Turpin – George, not Richard, and not related to the highwayman as far as we know.
- This was long before the days of video recorders and catch-up TV – either you watched it live or you missed it.
- Apparently, the Whistle Test was axed by Janet Street-Porter when she took over as head of Youth Programmes at the BBC. The special shown on Friday, 23rd February 2018 is available for another 28 days on the BBC’s iPlayer service for those in the UK.