Network’s 12-disc collection ITV 60: Celebrating Sixty Years of ITV is a curious exercise. A compilation of 60 ITV programmes to mark the channel’s sixtieth anniversary, its selections derive from three separate sources. The great majority comes from the existing Network back catalogue (they hold the release rights for most of the official ITV archive holdings, plus most Thames programmes from Fremantle), as well as few additions taken from ITV big hitters released by other companies (such as The World at War and Inspector Morse). The inclusion of these programmes might make the set a good birthday or Christmas present for a relative with a casual interest in old television. A third category comprises twelve new-to-DVD obscurities, included to induce the likes of me to buy the thing. The most exciting of these new titles are four programmes from the long-unavailable Associated Rediffusion archive, which has been held as an unlikely (and very dormant) asset by the building conglomerate, Archbuild. There is a tension between the two prospective audiences in the finished product, with the prospect of being able to see such forgotten shows as Mystery Bag or Our Man at St. Marks unlikely to be very enticing for casual buyers of ITV 60.
Reliance upon the ITV Archive and Network back catalogue gives the collection an unavoidable concentration upon certain types of programming. The most glaring absence is anything from the past 20 years, with Network’s ITV Archive agreement not covering the independent companies who make the bulk of the channel’s successful recent output. With most of the collection taken from already released Network sets, certain types of programme are heavily favoured, with the 60 shows consisting of 33 dramas, 11 sitcoms, 6 children’s programmes, 6 light entertainment-comedies and 5 documentaries, leaving no room for news, schools, religious programming or chat shows. More galling is the bias towards (retrospectively-defined) ‘cult TV’ with, for example, 8 episodes of ITC series, but only one single play included.
I would imagine that most owners of ITV 60 will cherry-pick the set for things that look as though they might be of interest to them, but took watching the entirety of the collection to be a personal challenge. I decided to view it in chronological order and take notes as I went along, perhaps picking up more emotional resonances as the programmes started be ones that I remembered from my own lifetime. One question reoccurred frequently during this process: What makes a ‘good choice’ of an episode taken from a series, is it representative or exceptional?
22 Sep 1955 ITV Opening Night Preview (ABC/ Associated Rediffusion)
The audience’s first introduction to ITV still does a good job of making the new channel look like something that you might enjoy watching. From sixty years distance the concentration upon the men in charge is jarring, but that’s how things were in 1955
26 Sep 1955 The Adventures Of Robin Hood: The Coming Of Robin Hood (ITC)
The b-movie production technique of the first episode of Robin Hood makes it still hold up well as an enjoyable tale.
29 Jul 1959 Mystery Bag: Lockhart Finds A Note (Associated Rediffusion)
Even when watched alongside contemporaneous things like Shadow Squad this episode of early police series Mystery Bag (one of two surviving) really is a bit primitive. Its not so much that the form is unsophisticated (you’d expect that) but that the tone is, too – there’s no real attempt at characterisation beyond people’s circumstances, and nothing surprising happens at all until the last minute. It’s still agreeable enough to watch, and seeing a fraud planned and enacted always carries a certain inherent interest.
01 Apr 1960 The Army Game: April Fool (Granada)
The studio audience of The Army Game were certainly excited and keen to laugh that week. With only very tiny adjustments, this could have been performed at commedia dell’arte 250 years earlier. Harry Fowler’s cheerful cockney trickster is a rather insufferable character, but its fun enough watching the rest of the company go through their tried-and-trusted personae.
01 Sep 1960 Four Feather Falls: Horse Thieves (Granada)
This ten minute early Gerry Anderson puppet western doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the inclusion of a song makes it more enjoyable. Disconcertingly, the only puppet to blink is the horse – a trait that the troll-like Mexican bandit with the bulging googly eyes could do with.
11 Sep 1960 Pathfinders In Space: Convoy To The Moon (ABC)
This children’s science fiction adventure is quietly impressive Scriptwriters Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice’s perpetual ability to achieve a certain convincingness of characterisation and surefooted storytelling within the parameters of whatever format they wrote for is well demonstrated. The British Space Programme has a cottage industry homespun charm that’s very sympathetic.
01 Oct 1960 The Larkins: Frightful Nightful (ATV)
22 Oct 1960 The Strange World Of Gurney Slade: Episode 1 (ATV)
I suspect (and hope) that this episode of family sitcom The Larkins might be atypical. Its mildly amusing and pleasant enough for the first ten minutes and then suddenly wholly unfunny from the moment that the guest stars arrive and disrupt the order of the Larkin home.
There’s a pleasing symmetry if you watch Gurney Slade (an experimental 35mm star vehicle for Anthony Newley that famously baffled its 1960 audience) immediately after The Larkins. Breaking out of the forth wall to walk out of a routine sitcom to talk with dogs by the Embankment and dance in the park with Una Stubbs and a vacuum cleaner does seem particularly liberating in this context.
30 Sep 1962 Armchair Theatre: Afternoon Of A Nymph (ABC)
‘Afternoon of a Nymph’ is terrific, if anything more powerful when viewed for a second time. Its not so much due to the script, which could have been heavy-handed if interpreted by other hands, but because of Philip Saville’s incredible direction; close, mobile, inventive, surprising, thinking as fast as the viewer. Some of Robert Muller’s other scripts that try to reveal inner lives of capricious sexy women come over as rather obsessive, but the well-drawn characterisation of the men that sniff around Janet Munro in this one makes it feel like Wedekind’s Lulu.
08 Dec 1962 The Arthur Haynes Show (ATV)
This edition hasn’t helped me make up my mind about Arthur Haynes, the comedian whose death in 1966 has left him unknown to subsequent generations. I do like him as a performer and his ‘shifty worker’ persona is a powerful archetype, but the actual material of the sketches does drag on. I worked out the punch line of the inheritance one in the first twenty seconds, and hoped in vain that it would be less obvious and funnier. This might not have been the highest-quality episode to include, perhaps chosen because of the incongruous star casting of Michael Caine.
19 Mar 1963 No Hiding Place: A Bird To Watch The Marbles (Associated Rediffusion)
Long-running police series No Hiding Place is certainly a work of greater sophistication that Mystery Bag was, taking quite a long time to establish the link between the various storylines, and with some interesting cockney local colour in the wake for the father criminal. Going by this episode, the series’ flaw was that the villains were a lot more interesting than the rather insipid police, who lack much in the way of distinctive character or detection skills.
25 Sep 1963 Our Man At St Mark’s: The Facts Of Life (Associated Rediffusion)
I am intrigued by Our Man At St. Mark’s, which certainly had potential beyond this first episode (one of two to survive). It’s a light comedy, rather than a sitcom, without a studio audience. The advantage of this is that it can run interesting comic situations without the need to provoke a laugh every minute. The plot of this one doesn’t take full advantage of this, with quite an interesting dilemma (should the vicar wear his dog collar to the party?) explored through some rather gratingly cutesy ‘facts of life’ conversations with children that run a risk of being distasteful. The youngish Leslie Phillips is surprisingly subdued. I’ve never seen him act like this before.
18 May 1964 Coronation Street: Episode 358 (Granada)
The first of the ‘new’ titles here that transcends curiosity value and that I know I’ll come back to again. It’s the episode after the notorious death of Martha Longhurst in the snug of the Rovers Return, and carries no other plots than responses to the death; Ena harsh, practical and honest (“You found her catty and nasty and don’t claim anything else, Leonard Swindley. She wasn’t the biggest comedian we had round here but she was good company for me”); sweet-natured Minnie Caldwell back from holiday and having to be told. As a bonus, we get the appearance of her daughter and son-in-law, played by Stephanie Bidmead and Henry Livings. It all rings true and avoids undue sentiment or sensation.
04 Jan 1965 Crane: A Cargo Of Cornflour (Rediffusion)
07 Jan 1965 The Saint: The Contract (ITC)
One of only two surviving episodes of the expatriate thriller starring Patrick Allen, and I hope that the other one was better than this. Many sinister Moroccans played by Englishmen, please to be helping you, effendi. The credits – footage of Allen in African crowds and groovy Sounds Incorporated beat music – make the show look exciting, anyway. I’ve now watched them ten times, but won’t ever watch the show again.
This episode of The Saint is supposed to be one of the worst ones. Like Crane it repeatedly uses the double-cross as a plot device, which makes it particularly tiresome to watch immediately afterwards (or in the same week in January 1965). The first five minutes – especially Moore’s to-camera introduction – are highly enjoyable, though, because there’s a playful tone that dissipates once the plot proper kicks in.
16 Sep 1965 Gideon’s Way: The Wall (ITC)
Gideon’s Way was the first filmed British 50 minute police series, a decade before The Sweeney. This episode is a great choice – no star performers or particularly diverting locations, but an arresting, exciting story. It’s convincingly gruesome, too, a regular feature of the ostensibly genial Gideon London. There’s something slightly miraculous about how well this little-known series stands up fifty years on. Everyone who gets introduced to it seems to really enjoy it.
30 Sep 1965 Thunderbirds: Trapped In The Sky (ITC)
This is the only programme on the set that I cheated with and watched most of it on fast-forward. I always find Supermarionation shows like watching someone else playing with a space-themed train set.
28 Nov 1965 Sunday Night At The London Palladium (ATV)
This particular edition must have been chosen because of the guest appearance of Sid James. Sadly, it’s too late to include the well-remembered ‘Beat The Clock’ (impossible tasks attempted by couples in the audience at high speed), which has dated incredibly well. Jazz duo Johnny Dankworth & Cleo Laine are probably the pick of the guests this week. The young Des O’Connor’s ingratiating routine (the ladies do this, the fellas do that, am I right?) reminds me of Michael McIntyre.
13 Dec 1965 The Power Game: The New Boy (ATV)
I’m surprised by just how many scenes this first episode of the phenomenally successful boardroom drama has got in it. It does a good job in the essential power dynamic by withholding the eventual meeting between the two opposing forces of rival company directors Caswell Bligh and John Wilder until the last scene, spending the rest of the episode showing alternating scenes of each man scheming and responding to events. The put-upon Peter Barkworth and Jack Watling are the greater points of sympathy and identification.
I watch those wonderful credits and sigh, wishing that St Pauls still dominated the London skyline like it did 50 years ago.
15 Feb 1967 The Avengers: The Winged Avenger (ABC)
I always have the same problem with Mrs Peel episodes of The Avengers. The surface is so pleasurable and well realised that I have great fun for ten minutes, but then it hits me that there really is no depth to this and it starts to drag. By depth, I don’t mean that it has to be profound drama, but I can’t find anything emotional to latch on to, be that some empathy for characters, or finding something of interest about how the world of the story operates. By something emotional, I don’t mean back-stories or overt emotional motivations (which can often be unconvincing and overly prescriptive), but just finding myself interested in how characters get on with each other (or don’t) and how they respond to situations.
So my reflections on this episode don’t seem to amount to very much; gosh, those Frank Bellamy illustrations are beautiful, if only the sixties Donald Pickering could have played David Cameron, etc.
24 Nov 1967 The Prisoner: Checkmate (ITC)
More ‘cult television’. The Prisoner is more rewarding when watched in a random episode a few years after I last saw it than watched systematically. I do find the essential plot of each individual instalment – How will Number 6 fail to escape this week? – a rather more interesting question than grander fan-obsessing interpretations of the series as a whole. And watching McGoohan barking angrily at some unfortunate woman every few minutes is something I always find really wearing. He’s at it again this week, and I found it frustrating that the most interesting part of the story – the woman who is programmed to be besotted with Number 6 – isn’t given any sort of conclusion. As always, Portmeirion looks absolutely incredible.
05 Feb 1969 Callan: Let’s Kill Everybody (Thames)
Unlike The Prisoner, shabby espionage series Callan isn’t improved by being watched as one isolated episode viewed out of sequential context, with the style of performance and narrative coming over as a bit odd and mannered when seen ‘blind’. Although my main problem is that, having seen this episode once before, I now know what happens so I can remember all of the surprising occurrences but not how they fit into the overall Callan story. So its the implausible or curious elements I didn’t notice the first time that strike me on second viewing – the unconvincing death in custody that opens the episode, or that the ‘opposition’ this week are a sketchily-drawn group of Nazis, rather than the KGB. Above all, I found myself wondering at the tremendous speed with which Hilary Dwyer’s character has managed to get herself enrolled onto a prestigious University of London history degree. Unless another, unseen, Nazi had managed to set that up in some way! The ‘good bits’, whenever Callan is forced into a morally dubious situation that troubles his conscience, remain very good when watched for a second time.
20 Aug 1969 Public Eye: My Life’s My Own (Thames)
My favourite series on this set. In later (and earlier) series, Public Eye revolves around Frank Marker taking on cases as an enquiry agent, which involves him going out in the field. The cases that he takes on can seem quite inconsequential (investigating hire purchase claims, the theft of a rosebush), but involve going into odd and surprising aspects of human nature. Much of the appeal of the series lies in the character of Marker, a solitary and often unsuccessful man whose isolation often gives him a distinctive insight and sympathy into other people’s troubles.
Which makes this episode, from the one series where Marker isn’t working as a private detective, an odd representation of Public Eye. Although it does work well as a self-contained play in its own right, Marker (dealing with a suicidal stranger) is probably a degree or two tougher in ‘My Life’s My Own’ than in almost any other episode, and when that story is watched in isolation he might come over as a bit creepy.
Although this is the fourth time I’ve seen this episode, there are still nuances and details that I pick up on for the first time in a script that investigates the merit of keeping yourself to yourself against the value of involving yourself in other people’s problems; the short-lived state of grace of the solitary Marker before the fateful knock at the door, the drawings on the couples’ kitchen wall a few scenes before we see the wife sketching, Marker’s landlady’s jealousy at the implausible idea that Marker has had a girl to stay over the weekend, where the limits of Marker’s compassion lie as he’s so insensitive to the girl’s worried friend.
09 Oct 1969 Nearest & Dearest: What Seems To Be The Trouble? (Granada)
The music hall tradition was still going strong in Granada in 1969 and this sitcom is so unsophisticated that it makes The Army Game look like Fawlty Towers in comparison. Performers Jimmy Jewell and Hylda Baker are innately funny people, but the script – especially the torrent of how-did-anyone-think-this-was-good-enough? Malapropisms – doesn’t do them any favours.
15 Feb 1970 Catweazle: The Sun In A Bottle (LWT)
The first episode of the filmed series about an eleventh century wizard lost in 1970, which sets up the imaginative appeal of this series rather wonderfully. Geoffrey Bayldon is so good in this, very funny without playing for laughs, conveying Catweazle’s displacement and strangeness in a way that’s very empathetic.
17 Apr 1970 Doctor In The House: What Seems To Be The Trouble? (LWT)
This episode of Doctor In The House (obviously chosen because it’s got David Jason in) is intermittently quite funny. Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie’s script is at its best when you can imagine the writers speaking it their selves in The Goodies. There’s a nice rhythm in the first part when each of the student doctors are assigned the same task of (swiftly intercut) patient appraisals. The second part drags more with a not very impressively realised film sequence of what is intended to be escalating mayhem and confusion.
26 Oct 1970 The Main Chance: The Best Legal System In The World (Yorkshire)
Yorkshire solicitor series The Main Chance is one of my favourite dramas of this period, and if you can get over its melodramatic idiom this episode is a good demonstration of its virtues. It presents the limitations of the law, how vested interests can buy off anyone who tries to stop an injustice, and then raises the stakes to an extent that threatens the ruination of the firm.
Was there any other actor as good as John Stride at conveying righteous indignation at this time? His explosions make him quite unsympathetic in attitude, but the reasons why he’s angry are usually cogent and virtuous, making them exciting to watch. Stride’s Shakespearean pedigree (he was Romeo to Judi Dench’s Juliet) really helps, as he can give rhythm and sense to legal argument. The snappy and epigrammatic dialogue could be ripe in the mouths of lesser performers but he delivers it well, hitting the beats of an argument. Favourite line in this one: “He’s got his hand in the till – and I’m going to CHOP IT OFF!”
The treatment of the b-story of this episode – lesbian clients who the 1970 law can do nothing to protect – is an odd thing to view through the sensibilities of 45 years later. Generally, the scenes where the women have the law explained to them work really well, but the climactic domestic scene between father Glynn Edwards and daughter Georgina Hale are like bad Z Cars. I doubt that you’d do a story about a 17 year-old woman living with a 29 year-old these days – although Georgina Hale does look like the world’s oldest 17 year-old!
28 Nov 1970 Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased): Could You Recognise The Man Again? (ITC)
This cult ITC series is more dour and less camp than I was expecting. Cut the comic ghost and it has the potential to be quite harsh, if not terribly distinctive. As it is, the jovial tone in the Hopkirk sections seems at variance with the rest of it. This might just be a flaw of this particular episode, with its misjudged rape intimations, though. There’s an enjoyable turn by Madge Ryan as the butch matriarch of a gangster family – I would have loved to have seen her Old Vic Mother Courage fifty years ago.
25 Jan 1971 Man At The Top: I’ll Do The Dirty Work (Thames)
Man At The Top is a series that builds up a cumulative power when watched sequentially in a way that never quite resonates when you watch an orphaned episode, especially one of the weakest ones. Something of what was compelling about Kenneth Haigh as a performer (the original Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger) still comes over here. There’s a sense of danger and unpredictability to his swaggering emotional state, which lurches between insouciance and rage. It makes a very unsympathetic and unprincipled man exciting company to be with, especially when matched against the long-suffering intelligence of Zena Walker’s Susan Lampton.
17 Nov 1971 Jason King: To Russia With… Panache (ITC)
Surely this can’t be one of the best episodes of Jason King? Its combination of camp poodle hero, funny foreigners, loose plotting and boxy 16mm aesthetic made it a tiresome hour of television for me. Maybe its flippant tone works better in other instalments.
28 Nov 1971 On The Buses: The Strain (LWT)
This leering and disagreeable sitcom does nothing to disprove the misconception amongst those who didn’t watch it that ITV was a home for vulgar rubbish. The way that many characters guffaw “Hyuck hyuck hyuck!” after every other line is particularly trying.
03 Dec 1971 Justice: A Nice Straight-forward Treason (Yorkshire)
This episode is a good choice. A script by James Mitchell and an espionage trial means that we get elements of Callan, in the terrible emotional cost of professional deception to those victims who get involved with spies, on top of the usual stirring courtroom drama.
Justice stories tended to do two things; show interesting cases and how a skilful barrister ought to approach them, and a ‘woman in a man’s world’ portrait of how professional strains affect the personal life of Margaret Lockwood’s lead. I generally find the first aspect more interestingly, with the loves and frustrations of Harriet more enjoyable as fuel for a film star performance than as stories in themselves. There’s relatively little Margaret Lockwood in this episode until the trial in the third act, when you get a good sense of her ability to convey magnificence. Some other enjoyable performances play to actors’ familiar strengths here, with Paul Eddington as a louche MI6 man and Clifford Rose as a prison doctor without empathy.
06 Sep 1972 Ace Of Wands: Peacock Pie 1 (Thames)
Good choice of episode from the children’s telefantasy series, and its good to have a P. J. Hammond script in the collection. It’s an admirably quiet, well-judged, piece that knows the value of restraint. Its got one potentially fascinating idea (though transference) and manages to place it and its implications in its young audiences’ heads through a combination of making the action clear but keeping explication to a minimum.
22 Sep 1972 Shut That Door! (ATV)
I’m pleased that we get one of the two surviving editions of Shut That Door! rather than the larger-scale LWT Larry Grayson Show. I’d much rather just watch Larry Grayson being spontaneous than doing laborious scripted sketches and filmed sequences. This is like going round to his house and having tea with his friends – Ooh we were in variety together in Sheffield all those years ago, do you remember? Who was it who was in that film again? People really did just like him for being himself, someone effete, clumsy and affectionate. I can’t think of any other entertainer who could have signed off with, “I love you very much” without it being risible. That quality still comes over, 43 years later.
27 Oct 1973 Upstairs Downstairs: Miss Forrest (LWT)
What a pleasure Upstairs Downstairs always is to watch. Two essential dramatic strengths of the series struck me during this episode. Any drama or comedy worth its salt should be able to make something interesting out of a disrupted ritual and the running of a distinguished household creates any amount of opportunities for this to happen. In this instance, young James Bellamy’s spontaneous decision to offer his father’s secretary (Miss Forrest) a formal lunch in the dining room might ostensibly seem like a generous act of largesse (albeit with seductive motive), but is also a major inconsideration to the servants’ routine (who have to prepare a meal at short notice and delay their own).
Secondly, the class system has always been one of the greatest gifts specific to British drama. This class stratification, comprised of a combination of background, culture, employment and wealth, lies unspoken behind most encounters and can add nuance and awkwardness to any dramatic situation. Miss Forrest acts as the most enjoyable catalyst for these moments in Upstairs Downstairs by being a middle-class character unexpectedly added into the mix, throwing everyone else out of kilter, and struggling to know how to act.
09 Jan 1974 Man About The House: While The Cat’s Away (Thames)
A racy comedy by mid-seventies ITV standards is one that doesn’t feel very different to anything else 41 years later. Landlords George and Mildred are rather funnier than their young tenants. There’s something a bit irritating about the Richard O’Sullivan character, far too confident and detached to be the lovable underdog that might be more engaging in this scenario.
06 Feb 1974 The World At War: It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow (Thames)
Reading Taylor Downing’s excellent BFI TV Classics monograph has made me admire the achievement and value of the series all the more, even as I became more aware of its flaws (chiefly those of omission) than before. Perhaps the programme’s two greatest virtues were getting all of those voices interviewed, and the mammoth feat of assembling the vast library of footage. I can’t find anything to criticise about this episode (Burma 1942-44), apart the lack of any interviews with Indian soldiers. Laurence Olivier’s voiceover gets more controversial as the years go by, but I very much approve of it. It makes the descriptive passages vivid, and finds the dramatic hook that makes the factual register with the listener.
24 Apr 1974 The Tommy Cooper Hour (Thames)
I often find these hour-long variety specials a bit overextended, with sketches and song and dance routines that don’t play to comedians’ core strengths. This is the first Tommy Cooper that I’ve seen since reading this brilliant essay – (‘Tunes Help You Breathe More Easily’, halfway down a much longer piece) – which has probably altered my perceptions of Cooper’s act.
I am intrigued by ‘top recording artistes’ Design, who seem to have been guests on all of these variety shows every other week between about 1970 and 1976 and always sound a bit like The Association. The recent Eurovision winner Anne-Marie David belts out one of the less successful interpretations of ‘What Now My Love?’ that I’ve heard, a version that rather neglects the suicide, not helped by a ‘Teddington Orchestra’ light entertainment arrangement.
07 Sep 1974 The Stanley Baxter Moving Picture Show (LWT)
It’s unfortunate that all the weakest material (including some regrettable blackface and Irish jokes) is in the first ten minutes. What a mimic, though! Whenever I know whom Baxter is doing my admiration at the tics and voice that he’s picked up on will automatically carry me through the next minute or so. But having him play all of the parts, reassembled through editing, gives the comedy a rather tricksy feel that lacks spontaneity and warmth.
13 Dec 1974 Rising Damp: Black Magic (Yorkshire)
Rising Damp is a considerable leap of quality over the preceding sitcoms. Characterisation, dialogue, milieu – above all, it’s the realistic sense of unhappiness that makes it much funnier for me.
30 Aug 1975 Tiswas (ATV)
The earliest surviving Tiswas (with all of the cartoons and film clips excised) from the days when it only went out in the Midlands is certainly a rarity, and not that much like the show that I remember from four or five years later. Its very evocative of what ‘big kids’ looked like before I went to school. The competition winners (who will all be about 50 now) strike me as well-adjusted and sympathetic characters and the early presenters are likeable and ordinary, rather than the overemphatic mugging egotists that children’s television sometimes attracts. There’s a normal, modest, quality to the world of this programme that, in combination with an inarticulable sense of the world of my early childhood, appeals to me.
It does seem an odd decision to expect a crowd of children to remain standing up and on camera behind the presenters under hot bright television lights for 90 minutes. You can see them wilt and get more fidgety and yawnsome as the morning stretches on and on. As indeed did I when watching this.
04 Sep 1975 Space 1999: Breakaway (ITC)
Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999, in its day the most expensive drama series attempted on British television, isn’t that much of an advance on Thunderbirds in terms of characterisation, especially when interpreted by an uncharismatic group of leads. The real stars are the designers of an episode that looks (and sounds) tactile and appealing, especially in its deployment of colour and depth of field.
26 Dec 1975 Rainbow (Thames)
Rainbow is the first programme on this set for which I was the target audience. I rarely saw it though. All the pre-school shows that I watched at home were BBC ones, and when I did chance upon it, I was always a bit scared of Bungle, the man-sized bear. This Christmas edition is a bit short on George and Zippy action for my taste, but does do a good job in fitting a lot of features in, making it diverse while retaining the patient structuring of routines such as would reassure small children.
06 Sep 1976 George & Mildred: Moving On (Thames)
George & Mildred is a step up from Man About The House. The combination of class-consciousness and terrible marriages has all the makings of comedy gold, and good performers like Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce could make every line and nuance ring out.
27 Sep 1976 The Sweeney: Tomorrow Man (Thames)
This episode must have been selected because of the double star casting of John Hurt and George Cole, but it stands up on story alone. Its one of those plots where the writer (the obscure Andrew Wilson) has done a lot of research into one unfamiliar topic, and succeeds in making it relatively clear. Mainframe computers seem so fascinatingly distant from this distance, but 1976 wasn’t so long ago. There’s an amusingly banal scene of the computer verifying the criminal mastermind’s ID login by asking him his grandmother’s maiden name.
26 Nov 1976 Magpie (Thames)
The best bits of this edition of the ITV Blue Peter are all of the menagerie of animals in the studio; white mice, some lovely Palladium pantomime ponies and Britain’s oldest cats, a very hairy and dozy pair. My interest drops during the human material, a cellist prodigy and a filmed insert of the summer Magpie expidition to Egypt.
09 May 1977 21 Up (Granada)
It’s hard to watch 21 Up blind without the foreknowledge of how life will turn out over the next 35 years for these people. When watched cumulatively, the project becomes less about class and more about the process of aging. By 56 Up I’ve ended up admiring rather than judging all of the participating subjects from every background, for sticking with it and putting their lives up for that degree of unwelcome scrutiny.
As a long-term project there are a couple of obvious flaws of omission that become more and more apparent: the lack of girls and middle-class children. Michael Apted has a different approach to interviewing the women than the men, and at 21, Jackie is the first subject to pick up on this and challenge the questions that Apted is asking and how they are being represented. When you watch one of the films in isolation, she can comes across as a bit stroppy, but over fifty years I really sympathise with her point of view.
Seeing the world that a young adult of 1977 was entering, I’m struck by how there were more opportunities to build an ordinary life for yourself; some degree of job security, buy a house (or even Neil’s squatter’s rights…). Even if John’s disputable claim that car assembly workers could afford to send their children to public school was true then, it certainly isn’t now.
26 Sep 1977 Pipkins: Cowboys (ATV)
I don’t recall having ever seen Pipkins before. I suspect that the puppets’ small, unsmiling, features wouldn’t have attracted me as a small child. The wistful song reminds me of The Television Personalities, circa ‘The Painted Word’.
02 Dec 1978 The Professionals: Blind Run (LWT)
Even by Professionals standards this episode is a bit low on characterisation; car chase, stakeout, shoot out, car chase, shoot out, stake out, siege, boat chase, etc. As usual, the excitement is in how well achieved the action sequences are and the realism of the locations where they occur. I can’t watch The Professionals anymore without thinking at some point about Taylor Parkes’ hilarious appreciation.
30 Oct 1979 Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia (ATV)
The levity-free Silent Death Of Cambodia is, I think, fated to become the least watched programme on this set for its purchasers, who will have bought the set in the hope of entertainment and nostalgia. The apocalyptic nature of life in Cambodia in 1979 is total, with the terror of the Khmer Rougue visited upon all civilisation (including medicine, rendering much of a generation unable to reproduce) – and a blockade on aid – flood, famine and pestilence could advance almost unopposed. I both never want to watch that again and feel that I really ought to watch the subsequent two John Pilger Cambodia documentaries.
01 Mar 1980 Tales Of The Unexpected: Royal Jelly (Anglia)
‘Royal Jelly’ is a good choice, being an appealingly bizarre story in an authentic Anglian setting. As well as always being fun to watch with people who haven’t seen it before, it repays repeated viewing – something that can’t be said for a lot of the Tales. The gradual progression of Timothy West’s performance is always a pleazzzure to follow…
18 Aug 1980 World In Action: The Chart Busters (Granada)
‘The Chart Busters’ is a good choice for a ‘new’ edition of World In Action, being good journalism, a thorough investigation that builds up a persuasive case that widespread chart rigging was going on. Unlike much current affairs, 35 years on none of this really matters at all, which makes watching some entertaining characters explaining how they managed to get a singles (by the likes of Shy or The Expressos) to number 60 in the charts for one week in January 1980 a highly enjoyable bit of social history.
26 Dec 1980 An Audience With Dame Edna (LWT)
The thing about Barry Humphries is that I know why he’s funny – the turns of phrase, the allusions and invention, the showmanship, the cattiness, the game that there’s Barry Humphries behind the character – but it very rarely makes me laugh. The overriding impression that I get is of a rather wearing mean-spiritedness, best experienced as a brief guest appearance on somebody else’s show.
14 Feb 1982 A Fine Romance: Extra Spice (LWT)
One thing about this particular selection, if you watch it in chronological order, it tells you a story of the tremendous improvement in quality of the ITV sitcom from 1974 onwards! A Fine Romance is a sitcom of high quality but complete accessibility, a rare combination. The plotting is ostensibly quite loose but is there, and stems from character. Then once you’ve got Judi Dench and Michael Williams to interpret that character, plus their real-life compatibility, you have something quite touching to watch.
01 Jan 1983 Whicker’s World: Aboard The Orient Express (Yorkshire)
Whicker could sometimes be tougher than you remember him being, but this is scarcely his greatest report, more of an hour-long advertising feature for the relaunched Orient Express. The scenery is quite pretty in places, but it really doesn’t amount to anything at all.
26 Oct 1983 Crossroads (Central)
1983 was clearly the year of Venice on ITV, as Whicker’s visit was followed by the long-awaited return of Noele Gordon to Crossroads, as the Catherine the Great of King’s Oak meets the Queen of the Adriatic. And what a poorly realised filmed insert this moving moment is too, shot through a lot of trees, then shown in long shot. Other than that its business as usual at the motel, with the most interesting plot being the shabby stranger attempting to contact Barbara Hunter.
13 Jan 1984 Auf Wiedershen Pet: The Alien (Central)
13 Apr 1985 Robin Of Sherwood: The Greatest Enemy (HTV)
Two questionable episode selections. I’ve never seen Auf Wiedersehen Pet before, and suspect that I’d enjoy it more if I’d started at the first episode and seen the ensemble introduced. As it is, the main thing to strike me is the flat tone of it, largely because of the tinny quality of OB production (and a rather quiet audio track). The material and acting are promising, but the drab realism constrains it, lacking either the visual appeal of film or concentrated, intimate performances of multi-camera studio drama.
This episode of Robin Of Sherwood – powerful though the concluding death and resurrection of Robin is – must be a strange introduction to the series for newcomers. It would be better to get to know the outlaws by seeing them going about their usual business of meeting people and helping them, undermining the Sheriff, etc., rather than being hunted down in what James Chapman describes in Swashbuckers as “one of the most violent fifty minutes in the history of family television”.
17 Jan 1990 Inspector Morse: Driven To Distraction (Central)
A heretical opinion perhaps, but from my limited viewing over the years, I’ve always found that Inspector Morse cases do go on a bit. This investigation could easily fit into 50 minutes, and I wouldn’t feel so short-changed by the routine exposure of the murderer (“They were sluts and bitches! They had to die!”). By 1990 we’re into the era of ‘quality television’ (which starts with Brideshead Revisited, perhaps); filmic values, long drawn out narrative, ponderous soundtracks. It’s not my favourite way of making TV drama.
26 Mar 1993 The Bill: The Short Straw (Thames)
This notorious episode isn’t all that good in its own right, trying to combine an all-action pursuit spectacular with convincing emotional responses from police to the death of a colleague, without enough time to get any of it particularly right.
Watching (and especially hearing) Nula Conwell as the doomed W.D.C. Martella in The Bill always gives me a strange nostalgic sensation. 25 years ago London was full of women who spoke and looked like that, but they seem to have all disappeared in this century. I miss them now that they’ve gone.
20 Sep 1994 Soldier Soldier: Stormy Weather (Central)
And so 60 years of ITV climaxes with… Soldier Soldier! Talk about bathos. Actually, this isn’t bad television, its just very ordinary. Heidi Thomas’ script is well-structured and organised, giving each member of the ensemble a serviceable storyline, giving you some idea of her interesting career to come with Cranford, Call The Midwife, etc. The real problem I have with this is the cast – its not that they’re bad actors, its just that they aren’t very interesting people to watch or listen to, any of them. Although by any objective standards, the 1983 Crossroads was less good, it was a lot more intriguing to watch than this.
Billy Smart is Research Officer at the AHRC-funded ‘Forgotten British Television drama: 1946-1982’ project at Royal Holloway.