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Published: 2007/07/29
by Brian Ferdman

This Is Tom Jones

Time Life M19269slip

In 1969, variety shows were all the rage on television, although the networks had yet to figure out a way to fuse the disaffected youth audience with that of their more conservative parents. ABC thought it could find the answer in Tom Jones, the powerhouse Welsh singer who reveled in both traditional standards and current rhythm and blues. Jones also possessed a certain sexual magnetism that appealed to women of all ages. Sparing no expense, ABC teamed with the U.K.'s ITV to present This Is Tom Jones, a 56 episode series that was originally filmed in London before moving to Hollywood. Time Life has now released 8 of these episodes in a gloriously designed three-disc package.

At 28 years of age, Jones was an unlikely host for a television series, and his first episode displayed his uneasiness in the situation. As a matter of fact, nearly every single performer in the first episode looked horribly uncomfortable, even a young Richard Prior, who wasn’t very funny. Only screen veteran Peter Sellers seemed at ease, improvising his way through a humorous interview while Jones desperately attempted to cling to the script.

Nevertheless, Jones grew into his role and the show saw a vast improvement, thanks to some stellar musical performances. With Keith Moon pounding the drums so hard he nearly fell off the stage, The Who blazed through a frenetic rendition of "Pinball Wizard," weeks before Tommy would be released. In a rare television performance, Janis Joplin teamed with Jones on a real powerhouse take on "Raise Your Hand." As the show progressed, Jones made these duets a staple of the program, and the results kept getting better and better when he would pair his booming voice with Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, and Stevie Wonder, who also delivered one rather impressive drum solo. Speaking of Wonder, his episode was interestingly edited at the hands of an American censor, and this release enables the viewer to watch both the American and uncensored U.K. versions.

Jones' show also featured lots of comedy acts, and these sketches and vignettes serve as a time capsule for the era, proving that comedic standards have truly changed. Featured is a young Fred Willard, who when performing with The Ace Trucking Company proved that you didn't need to be funny to have a career in comedy in 1969. A youthful Howard Hesseman had slightly better results with his more cutting-edge group, The Committee. Crusty old Bob Hope, who was crusty and old even in 1969, faired better than the sketch groups, and Pat Paulsen really delivered with his dry and understated sense of humor.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of this show arrived in the second song of each episode. Here, Jones lip-synched a song while dancing in an outrageously choreographed and bizarrely costumed number. Often, these designs had absolutely nothing to do with the song, as evidenced by the odd Broadway-hippies-dancing-in-a-junkyard fantasy spin that was thrust upon “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” a borderline offensive constraint that probably caused George Gershwin to spin in his grave. Jones began “We Can Work It Out” as an overdramatic duet with Leslie Uggams before transforming it into a psychedelic dance number, complete with people in skin tight orange jumpsuits and cow-print costumes on a puzzle-themed set. However, if that concept seems as if it came out of left field, absolutely nothing topped the performance of “Help Yourself” in the first episode. Wearing a ruffled mod costume, Jones sang about inviting a woman to deflower him. Poor taste aside, the idea was not out of the ordinary until it became evident that Jones was standing on a space-age set with extremely lithe homosexual men operating large levers in a choreographed sequence. As if the inexplicable sensory overload were not enough, scores of women began dancing and their movements were shot from strange 30 degree camera angles from the floor. Indeed, much of This Is Tom Jones serves as living proof that cinematographers, costumers, and choreographers should not be allowed to touch LSD before going to work.

Then there was Jones, himself. What on Earth was the secret of the Welshman’s sexual aura? Well, the second episode gave some insight into this very question. Jones closed each show with a live performance in front of an audience, which was dubbed “The Concert.” Accompanied by a top-notch orchestra that could play surprisingly hip, Jones would shake his ass and wail on the mic. In this particular episode, Jones finished an explosive cut of “Turn on Your Lovelight” before diving into Otis Redding’s “Shake!” As the women screamed with every gyration, one lucky female received a sweaty handkerchief from the sex symbol’s brow. Then he boldly crossed the line, went down into the crowd, and sucked face with a woman old enough to be his grandmother. Yes, Jones’ ability to shamelessly whore himself was truly remarkable and a vital part of his persona.

These DVDs really do provide hours of unintentionally hilarious entertainment. Watching squares attempt to act “groovy” in 1969 is endlessly amusing, and observing the comedians bomb is a treat in and of itself. As a bonus, the music truly kicks ass, and these are three discs that will cause jaws to drop and heads to shake in disbelief on many wonderful levels.

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