After celebrating the joys of modern-day ‘flow’ television last month, this time round I’m going to take a (somewhat nostalgic, I admit) trip into the past. Television formed a major part of my childhood and teens, and I imagine the same is true for many of those who contribute to this site. The gradual changes in my viewing choices and habits over the years reflected distinct stages of personal development, in a way that simply doesn’t apply to my parents’ generation – if only because television was not something they were born into. When their wistful childhood recollections do get round to the broadcast media (which is not that often), they usually focus on Round the Horne or Worker’s Playtime. By contrast, I retain many and peculiarly vivid memories of specific TV moments: for example, my sense of frustration, at the tender age of eight, over Sybil incorrectly assuming that Basil was trying to ogle a female guest when he climbed a ladder to the wrong room; a thrill of anticipation when the very first egg whisk gun was fitted into a Dalek socket in 1975… However, one year in particular stands out in memory. As the era of Chernobyl, the Hand of God, and Fergie and Andrew, 1986 is not perhaps a year recalled with fondness by some. However, it also represented the fiftieth anniversary of BBC Television; a major event for small screen historians, if only because some wonderful archive programmes were given an airing, providing VHS fodder for many lectures to come, I’m sure. 1986 also has great personal significance because it represented the period when my TV viewing first began to shift from something done with the family – the choice of programming typically made by my father, who ruled the remote with a fist of iron – to a more selective, solo activity. This development was enabled by the fact that, the previous year (and to the utter incomprehension of my parents), I had spent around £50 of carefully husbanded pocket money on a portable black-and-white Ferguson TV, which now sat proudly in the corner of my bedroom. For the first time, I could watch my choice of programming whenever I wanted; albeit in monochrome.
1986 saw the Ferguson and I making several forays into hitherto undiscovered TV territory; programmes over which I would otherwise have had to fight for valuable VHS space, that I could now view as and when I wanted. Thus, a category that had hitherto encompassed mainly children’s television and Doctor Who (yes, I make the distinction) suddenly encompassed a whole new cornucopia of televisual treasures. In fact, my expanded viewing palette was due in no small part to the latter programme’s enforced hiatus, so indirect thanks for this blog are due to Baron Grade.
What has brought this exciting period so prominently to mind is my recent re-watching of a little-recalled serial from that year: Lost Empires. This seven-part Granada adaptation of the J.B. Priestley novel, chronicling the dying days of the British music hall in the months leading up to World War I, was broadcast over the darkening Friday evenings of late autumn 1986. One of its central attractions was the appearance, in the feature-length opening episode, of Sir Laurence Olivier, in what turned out to be one of his final screen roles. However, it is perhaps most notable today for featuring an impossibly young Colin Firth. Nearly a decade before his star was truly launched as Mr Darcy, Firth roughened up his vowel sounds to play Richard Herncastle, an aspiring Yorkshire artist who finds himself dragged into the illusionist act of his formidable uncle, Nick ‘Ganga Dun’ Ollenton (memorably essayed by gimlet-eyed John Castle), and through whose voiceover narration the story is related.
I’m not sure Lost Empires would be made now, when Downton Abbey and The Paradise are what presumably pass for quality period drama. For me, however, it was one of the crowning events in an especially memorable televisual calendar; 1986 was one of those years when even the repeats were good.
It all kicked off with Blackadder II. As one of the few viewers (it now seems, at least) who had actually quite enjoyed The Black Adder first time round, the idea of transforming the title character into a bearded charmer (proudly trumpeted in the New Year edition of the Radio Times) seemed a path laden with peril. I needn’t have worried, however; the decision to switch the programme to a cheap and cheerful multi-camera studio audience sitcom set-up proved the trigger for its eventual transformation into one of the most popular entertainments of the 1980s. By the time we watched Edmund and company go over the top in No Man’s Land a few years later, Blackadder had become a national treasure; at this point, however, it was still a hidden one, tucked away after Yes, Prime Minister on a Thursday evening – and therein lay its appeal. This was a show that teens like myself eagerly discussed at school the following day, but the grown-ups hadn’t quite latched onto yet (though they soon would – and, oddly enough, my grandfather always seemed to enjoy it much more than my parents). It successfully straddled diverse entertainment communities, mixing character actors and established ‘alternative’ stars like Rowan Atkinson (though whether he’d identify himself as such is a moot point) and Rik Mayall with emerging talent like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, all wrapped up in a reassuringly traditional – nay, cosy – sitcom format. I hadn’t seen The Young Ones, and had barely heard of Ben Elton, so this was all new stuff to me. Within a few months, however, many of the names associated with the new incarnation of Blackadder would become familiar faces via shows like Happy Families(remember that?), Friday/Saturday Live and the Comic Relief concert. This was sitcom zeitgeist – which it’s always smugly reassuring to feel part of, even if only by being aware that it’s going on.
The same could hardly be said of the next entry in my 1986 canon. Originally made and transmitted ten years earlier, I, Claudius was one of those shows I’d heard whispered of in awe, but knew very little about. The death in 1985 of Robert Graves, whose novels formed the basis for Jack Pullman’s adaptation, prompted a dusting-off of this studio classic between January and April. For the first few weeks I neglected to tune in, but was mesmerised by Wilfrid Josephs’ title music as my parents watched downstairs. Episode five saw me finally powering up the Ferguson, and though I had missed out on Augustus’ reign, I was immediately transfixed. I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but I, Claudius is one of those shows where all the elements work in perfect harmony, and this was probably the first time I had experienced such powerful TV. I still remember sitting, in rapt attention, through Livia’s (Sian Phillips) birthday party, at which, after his umpteenth goblet of wine, Claudius (Derek Jacobi) loses his inhibitions – and his stammer – to give his Machiavellian grandmother a sound grilling over the various murders she has co-ordinated or carried out in previous instalments. This scene still sends shivers up my spine today, and provides a robust riposte for anyone who denigrates the potential of ‘old-fashioned’ multi-camera studio drama; the entire series was made at Television Centre, without at any point looking like a three-walled set. Why wasn’t all TV drama like this? By the time Doctor Whomade its eventual return later that year, I was hoping for something akin to Claudius’s epic scope; by comparison, the 14-part ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ just seemed very long.
Claudius saw me through to April, when the BBC’s imported Easter ‘treat’, A.D. – Anno Domini (a US co-production with Italy and France), got everything wrong that Claudius did right. The lavish sets and exotic locations couldn’t save the stilted dialogue and performances (yes, I was beginning to develop my critical faculties), and James Mason didn’t hold a candle to George Baker’s Tiberius. But no matter; the following month brought A Very Peculiar Practice, former English lecturer Andrew Davies’ excoriating take on mid-80s university culture, as seen through the (skewed) lens of the fictional Lowlands University’s medical department. As one who had yet to enter FE, let alone HE, it was terrifyingly funny stuff, and I shared much of new doctor Stephen Daker’s (Peter Davison) perplexity at the altered priorities of the bizarre environment he now found himself in. The character who resonated most, however, was Stephen’s reactionary colleague, Bob (sorry; Robert) Buzzard; the frustrated Thatcherite who was never quite as unsympathetic as he should have been, thanks to the considerable acting talents of David Troughton. In the fourth episode, when the medical team come under pressure from Vice-Chancellor Ernest Hemingway (no relation) to publish or perish, Stephen protests that the care of their patients must surely be a full-time responsibility. Bob replies that this won’t wash; he might as well claim that the lecturers are there to teach their students. When Stephen counters that this is in fact what he believed, Bob’s response bears repetition:
Notionally, yes; notionally. But in reality the lecturers are here to avoid contact with students as much as possible. This enables them to write books and articles nobody will ever read, and swan off to conferences to give papers that nobody will listen to. And the more of that they do, the more time off they’re granted, until they get so eminent there’s no danger of them ever having to see another student.
That was back in 1986, of course. I’m sure it’s all very different now.
A Very Peculiar Practice was popular enough to warrant a second series, and an eventual sequel arrived in 1992 with the Screen One entry ‘A Very Polish Practice.’ However, the series now seems to have slipped between one of the many the cracks that populate television history. This is a great shame, because A Very Peculiar Practice is the easily the equal of Davies’ subsequent television work for sharpness of dialogue and depth of characterisation – and is also much funnier.
Also now largely forgotten is my next TV pick of ’86: the US series Moonlighting, which made its British debut in May 1986. Quite why this should be escapes me; although subsequent seasons lost narrative focus due to off-screen tensions between lead Cybill Shepherd and both co-star Bruce Willis and producer Glenn Gordon Caron, seasons one and two (combined over here into a single run of episodes) maintained a quality and wit that made for a welcome change from Dallas and Dynasty. Ostensibly a crime drama revolving around the ‘will they/won’t they?’ relationship between fast-talking agency investigator David Addison (Willis, in a career-making role) and his new boss, former model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd), Moonlighting in fact veered madly between genres, with many playful nods to Hollywood en route (Orson Welles made one of his final appearances presenting the introduction to noirpastiche ‘The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice’). The programme’s breaking of the fourth wall, while nothing new to anyone in the know (which I wasn’t), swiftly became its trademark style; David/Bruce and Maddie/Cybill even began addressing the audience before certain episodes to apologise for the lack of original content. For a time that summer, it seemed Moonlighting could do no wrong – unless, as numerous commentators observed, it actually allowed Maddie and David to consummate their unspoken passion. That, however, would not occur until the end of season three, transmitted over here in 1987; this wasn’t half as good a year, TV-wise, and need not trouble us now.
Moonlighting pulled off the very difficult trick of providing something outside the norm that still retained popular appeal (in its early seasons, at least); it therefore deserves a far more prominent place in television histories than it has thus far been accorded, aside of the odd mention in John Thornton Caldwell’s Televisuality (1995).
My next grand TV passion of 1986, however, proved to be thoroughly British fare. Brideshead Revisited, originally shown in 1981, dominated the schedule from June to August. As with I, Claudius, you’re almost certainly aware of it, but this was yet another personal eye-opener back in 1986, Granada’s lavish adaptation offering as strong a case for single camera film as Claudius had for multi-camera studio. I think I prefer the latter now, but the sight of Sebastian (Anthony Andrews) and his furry friend Aloysius will forever bring to mind a seemingly endless summer of bicycle rides in the sun-drenched Essex countryside, attempting to drape a pullover round my shoulders with the same degree of casualness exhibited by Jeremy Irons.
Brideshead whetted my appetite for further filmed period drama, which might explain why I gave Lost Empires such a warm reception when it arrived in October. However, the highlight of my viewing year – and certainly the production listed herein that is most often cited in television histories – was The Singing Detective, shown between November and December. I admit I’m cheating a little by including it here, as I actually watched downstairs with my parents, in living colour. I’d had it pegged as Ferguson territory, but my father was keen to hear all those lovely old songs… and, well, the rest is history. As noted earlier, it’s strange how stubbornly certain events can lodge themselves in one’s memory, and while I can remember a little of the storm of protest that followed the now infamous sight of Patrick Malahide’s bottom bobbing up and down in the Forest of Dean (no prior warning was given, meaning that Points of View was awash with complaints), what I recall with crystal clarity is the sense of awkwardness I felt watching a sex scene with my parents (for the first and, I hope, last time), mixed with the awareness that this was something really rather different. Not so much shocking (though I could certainly see how some people would be shocked), but powerful in a way that I wasn’t accustomed to expect from a Sunday evening drama. This was such a calculated use of TV that, for the first time, I found myself seriously reflecting on its potency as a medium. It’s not often that such programmes come along, I thought at the time, and it’s hard now to imagine a more fitting conclusion to what had proven to be (for me, at least) a seminal year of TV.
The programmes included here all made such an impression on me that (with the exception of Lost Empires) I have revisited them again many times on VHS and DVD. Back in 1986, when such options were not yet available, I tried to recreate them via other media, eagerly purchasing soundtrack cassettes and books. Thus, I was provided with my entrée to the worlds of Graves, Priestley and Waugh; who says television isn’t educational?
My whistle-stop tour is of course far from definitive. Others can probably cite major examples which passed me by at the time, and there were many other programmes that I still enjoyed in the living room bosom of my family (Lovejoy, anyone?). However, it is a list which, though brief, is I think notable for its variety. Such are the changes in the television landscape that the rich menu I so keenly devoured in 1986 isn’t perhaps as immediately available to the teens of today (and if it were, judging from my undergraduates, the chances are they would prefer a fast food diet of reality TV). If nothing else, though, television has the capacity to perk up and surprise us when we least expect it, and while I’m struggling now to put together a similarly impressive ‘greatest hits of 2013’ (The Fall? What Remains? Strictly?), who knows what I’ll remember when I look back in 2040?
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London. His PhD thesis, Acting for Auntie: From Studio Realism to Location Realism in BBC Television Drama, 1953-2008, was completed at the University of Nottingham in 2012. Recent publications include ‘Acting in the New World: Studio and Location Realism in Survivors‘ in The Journal of British Cinema and Television Volume 10.2. ‘Who is Matt Smith?: Performing the Doctor’ in O’Day, Andrew (ed.), The Eleventh Hour: A Critical Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era (I.B. Tauris), was published earlier this week.