One of the most fascinating techniques that I’ve acquired from my limited exploits in academia has been that of a “reading” of a single programme – arguments (not my strong point, as you know) and deductions made purely from the text under observation. From my own perspective, it often allows me to see things that I’ve seen analysed and discussed to the point of extinction in their own horizon-locked fan cultures from a new and exciting perspective.
A superb example of this came up recently when I was dipping into Back in Time for TV – a blog by HE Cooper [i], the title of which riffs off BBC Two’s looks at twentieth century lifestyles such as Back in Time for Dinner (2015) and Back in Time for the Weekend (2016). I don’t naturally read blogs – many previous examples that I’d attempted had either been geared towards self-promotion (a necessity for survival in the online world we find ourselves in here in The Future) or had attempted such long stretches of similar subject matter that they soon became as predictable as me telling people that [The] Naked City (1958-1963) was the best TV show ever [ii].
What HE Cooper is doing is to understand and experience British television since 1960 by – for me – a rather innovative approach. Making full use of the rich array of history now available in terms of scheduling information and programming itself, she identifies a representative week from the given year to drop in on, and then selects around half a dozen broadcasts from that seven day period to study. Could be a drama. Could be a comedy. Maybe an import. Possibly a serving of current affairs with a side order of soap, all wrapped up with a bit of music or sport. Some brandings she is familiar with – others are utterly new to her. And that’s where my delight really starts…
One of the entries that made me sit up and take notice was when HE landed in February 1976 and tuned in for an episode of Thames Television’s juvenile telefantasy offering, The Tomorrow People (1973-1979 and some other years too complex to go into here…). Now, I had witnessed young Stephen Jameson ‘breaking out’ into the next stage of human evolution at around 4.50pm on 30 April 1973. I’d seen him rescued from the clutches of Jedikiah by John and the other homo superior. I knew that the Lab was built in an abandoned part of the London Underground. I knew about TIM, the biotronic computer. I’d seen Stephen and John rescue student teacher Elizabeth M’Bondo when she broke out in the classroom and jaunted into the dangers of hyperspace. Just weeks earlier, I’d seen cocky Mike Bell hover on the edges of a life of crime before learning the responsibility of his special powers from his new friends. I bought Look-in and read its colourful Tomorrow People comic strips bursting with the energetic illustrations of John M Burns, and I eagerly awaited each new paperback tie-in from Piccolo.
But HE didn’t know any of this. She’d not been on these adventures. And that was what made her reading of the opening episode of the serial Into the Unknown so utterly exciting. Possibly more exciting than when I watched it at the time.
I’d never realised before that unless you knew the format of The Tomorrow People, you were likely to be totally and utterly lost when watching a random episode. This wasn’t a series like Z Cars (1962-1978) where within minutes you can fundamentally understand who are the cops and who are the robbers, or The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) where Steve Austin’s crash in the HL-10 and the process in which he was ‘rebuilt’ to be ‘better… stronger… faster’ was reiterated in the weekly opening titles. The opening of The Tomorrow People bombarded the unsuspecting viewer with abstract monochrome images, smashing out of the TV screen into the living room in time to Dudley Simpson’s pulse-racing synth-driven theme tune. And HE’s reading of this sample episode packed every bit as much of a punch when it offered me something utterly new on a show that I thought had been documented to death.The other brilliant thing about HE’s temporal voyages is that she doesn’t just tune her telly to the usual suspects in the schedules. Some days, my inbox makes me doubt that there are any television shows beyond Doctor Who (go on then… 1963-1989, 1996, 2005-) or The Prisoner (1967-1968). On a good day, somebody might mention Callan (1967-1972). But generally, it’s the old familiar faces…
… but not at Back in Time for TV. HE casts her net wider and snares more interesting subjects. I whoop with delight when she materialises in March 1977 for a Friday night feast of Raffles (1977), Yorkshire television’s adaptations of the escapades of EW Hornung’s gentleman thief. For me, this is a cherished televisual memory that only about three people have ever discussed with me in the four decades since its first airing. And yet here is somebody prepared to delve beyond the obvious in her understanding of how television has grown and developed. She was already keen to experience more of the show’s star Anthony Valentine having seen him in Callan [iv] and she’s quickly captivated by this deft blend of light-hearted fun and deadly danger.
And that makes me love it all the more.
There’s also encounters with shows that I’ve still never seen that much of. Remaining in 1977, there’s a mission for the Royal Flying Corps in Wings (1977-1978) that is described in such an engaging manner and with such an understanding of period programming production that I make a mental note to look out for the DVD on the next visit to CeX.
But it’s not just HE’s range of subjects. The more I read, the more I am educated by the researches emerging from her ‘reading’. Was that the school-leaving age at the time? How wide was the spread of second sets? Could you tackle that sort of subject before the watershed? Good questions and great answers!
This is seriously enjoyable stuff. It’s readings, but with such a sense of delight, engagement and fun that I feel so envious that I’m not navigating these backwaters of television for the first time as well.
And I’m utterly charmed that HE should even be bothered to look at these happy memories from my formative years, and present us with such lovely readings to read. [v]
Andrew Pixley is a retired data developer. For the last 30 years he’s written about almost anything to do with television if people will pay him – and occasionally when they won’t. And – s*d it – he and his wife will probably now have to go out now and get the Simply DVD set of Wings…
[i] Who will hereafter be referred to as ‘HE’ because those are her initials. I realise that for those of you in academia tuned to read this as ‘Higher Education’ that this could be a tad distracting, but I’m sure you’ll be able to live with the inconvenience for the next 983 words. And when I get to the bit a little later on where I am referring to ‘Higher Education’, then I shall write out ‘Higher Education’ to avoid any confusion.
[ii] … this week.
[iii] And it’s no good looking down here either.
[iv] See, it is a good day.
[v] And it turns out that I didn’t need to refer to ‘Higher Education’ after all. Okay – panic over.