Now, those of you who misspent their respective youths as badly as I did will no doubt have immediately spotted the origin of the title of my first blog of 2020 in which I singularly failed to prove that I can make an argument: Is This The Right Room For An Argument?
That’s right. It originates in a well-known sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (strictly speaking 1969-1973)… Five points for getting that. And five more if you said the ‘Argument’ sketch. But for a bonus five points… which episode is it from?
Let’s make things a little easier for you and give you multiple choice answers:
- Episode 29
- The Money Programme
- Season 3 Episode 3
- Series C Episode 1/Episode One – Third Series
The whole issue of how we consistently – or rather inconsistently – refer to things the way we do is a frequent subject that I ponder because, as many of you know if you’re still reading these after six months or so, I lead a particularly empty life. It was something brought home to me during an accidental academic encounter some four years ago as I was getting to grips with the thorny subject of how I was meant to go around referring to shows in citations should I ever use footnotes the way that I’m meant to [iii].
And the example they give is:
Now… apart from the fact that we’re quoting a UK transmission for a US show which is a whole other batch of stuff and don’t even get me started on that because if you do I will simply have to tell you a whole stack of things about whys and wherefores way beyond why I ever started doing this particular piece in the first place and you need me to get to a full stop or a comma or at the very least some ellipses soon because you’re running out of breath… <and breathe> and also ignoring the fact that Crime doesn’t pay was the sixteenth episode of the fifth season and thus actually Episode 103 as the timeline flies, we are still stuck with this issue of how we’re doing the numbering and does it do the job it’s needed to? I would imagine that in the case of the inhabitants of Wisteria Lane that their on-screen and off-screen chronologies are roughly the same. But, as we’ve seen previously, a show can be even more interesting to study when one takes into account the production development before a series reaches the screen. And that’s a whole different sequence…
However, I concede that as a wise man once remarked: “You gotta have a system!” [v]. And the system that is largely being adopted is the one which goes Season Number/Broadcast Number within season… sometimes sub-fixed by total number of episodes within that season.
This is, after all, effectively how the general public beyond television scholars have been referring to shows for some years now. Open the Radio Times [vi] or go to your EPG (electronic programme guide) and it’s all there for you. Today, I can gorge myself silly on eight different episodes of the joyous sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019) on E4 alone: at 10am I can catch S2 Ep 18/23 and S2 Ep 19/23, lunchtime at 1pm means S6 Ep 22/24 and S6 Ep 23/24, over my tea at 6pm there’s S7 Ep 8/24 and Ep 9/24 and if I can’t get off to sleep by 11pm I know that S7 Ep 2/24 and S7 Ep 3/24 will keep me awake chuckling at Sheldon’s perspective on life until midnight.
Now, while the EPG gives me S7 Ep 2/24, it also tells me that this is entitled The Deception Verification [vii]. Both are unique identifiers… but of the two, the title would instinctively be the more useful in reminding us that it’s the one where Sheldon suspects Penny of cheating on Leonard. So, why not just say: The Deception Verification? It is as unique an identifier of an episode within a series as a set of numbers. Unless of course you’re Irwin Allen, and you sanctioned two scripts for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) both called The Creature (s01/e28 and s03/e15).
I think the reason is actually because while the title is an artistic description, it doesn’t help us to navigate or plan our viewing. Assume that I was a sane human being and wanted to watch The Big Bang Theory on E4 – I would pick a start point (ideally S1 Ep 1/17) and start watching that sequence in that slot rather than every episode that fills E4’s schedule in their 24-hour broadcast sequence, being baffled as to whether Penny and Leonard are together or not or where those babies suddenly came from when Howard wasn’t even dating before.
This is because, unlike the old days where orders could be shuffled and heroes could alternate between being antique dealer and security operative, modern television hooks in viewers with ongoing narrative and developing characters. We no longer have producers who hit factory – or writer’s bible – reset every 21 or 42 minutes. As such, the viewer needs to know where they are in a timeline.
The point at which we became so telly savvy is tricky to identify, but let’s check again by going back to consult the Radio Times. Before the 21st century, TV was generally just something that happened there and then and was over and done. Nobody counted which series of Softly Softly: Task Force (1969-1976) they were on, or how far through a run they were. It was immaterial. They’d never see it again anyway. But then it get all satellitey and digitally, so by 2002 viewers to UKTV Drama are being told of Ballykissangel (1996-2001) that that morning’s slew of shows are ‘Continuing the fourth series’.
Then in December 2003, the numbers game started. On Saturday 20, a late-night airing of Red Dwarf IV (1991) – the roman numeral itself identifying the season number – was referred to as 4/6 White Hole. And so it continues, mainly for the Freeview channels – allowing viewers to disentangle schedules of long-running shows and become aware of what they have or haven’t seen with BBC Three repeats of Little Britain (2003-2005) ‘1/6; series two’ and the like. By 2006, UK broadcasts of Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) were being listed along the lines of ‘9/23; series two. That’s Good, That’s Bad.’
Now for some of us, this was nothing new. I’ve previously referred to the amazing 1976 volume The Goon Show Companion by Roger Wilmut. And it was here that these numbers and backslashes first entered my life.
The radio comedy The Goon Show (1952-1960) has a very complex structure. Many shows have no titles [viii]. Some have multiple titles [ix]. Some shows are remakes of earlier shows [x]. And Roger needed a means of referring to these programmes by unique identifiers – so he adopted the efficient notion of Series No/Episode No – e.g. 5/2 or 10/6.
Of course, there are pitfalls. Not least of which is that strictly speaking The Goon Show starts with Series Two – something which I imagine would please Spike Milligan’s taste for absurdity immensely. The run of the show was entitled Crazy People (1951) which ran during 1951 for seventeen episodes and one special entitled Cinderella; the scripts were headed ‘Crazy People (1)’ to ‘Crazy People No 17’. Following a rebranding, The Goon Show then started in 1952 with – what was according to the script – ‘No 18 (2nd series)’.
The formal cumulative numbering runs to 1956 with ‘The Goon Show No 152 (6th series) No 27 The Man Who Never Was’ after which, following the summer break, the front page for ‘The Goon Show No 1 (7th Series): The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis’ did not originally have a number allocated. Just as well… a few weeks later it all went a bit wrong when having recorded ‘The President’s Protocol – The Goon Show No 6 (7th series)’, the Hungary Revolution made this a less than tactful edition to air meaning that it was replaced with a repeat. A few months later it was deemed that the show was now less topically sensitive, so it was recatalogued and broadcast as ‘No 20 (7th series)’. Thus the same programme is both Episode 6 and Episode 20 in Series 7.
So, in this digital age, a consistent nomenclature to help people uniquely identify an episode of a series is now very important to general viewers. But where did they get this solution from?
Like binge-watching… they nicked it. From the television devotee sub-culture.
Quick Moriarty… phone the culture police!
So, I think that’s another five bonus marks all round to all of us?
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. If you can come up with a better system for uniquely identifying a television series, why not have a go? It can’t be any less confusing than any other.
[i] ‘No it isn’t.’
[ii] But, hey, stupidity is what I do best.
[iii] … and definitely not like this.
[iv] Other citation methods, Yorkshire cities and Ivy League establishments are available. Leeds Harvard just came out top of the Google pile.
[v] Stalagmites (wiggle fingers up)… stalactites (wiggle fingers down)… That’s the way I remember ‘em.
[vi] “The Radio Times is the biggest selling magazine in Europe” – Graeme Garden, ‘The Goodies Series Five Six, 1. Lips or Almighty Cod’
[vii] Not that they have on-screen titles anyway… That’s a whole other problem… and – be warned – possibly a whole other blog…
[viii] Most of the first three series.
[ix] ‘The Goon Show No 18. 8th series. The Curse of Frankenstein’ is announced as The Curse of Frankenstein at the start of the show. It comprises a single word – Spike Milligan saying: “Blast”. To fill the rest of the half-hour, the Goons instead present a different play of the week entitled My heart’s in the highlands but my feet are in Bombay or I was the victim of a terrible explosion… none of which has anything to do with Frankenstein.
[x] The Man Who Never Was – a spoof of the 1953 book – appears first in the last two out of three sections in ‘The Goon Show No 20 (Third Series)’. It was then expanded and remade as ‘The Goon Show No 152 (6th series) No 27 The Man Who Never Was’, and then that was remade as ‘The Goon Show No 21. 8th Series The Man Who Never Was’.