The middle moment of a decade can often mark a peak or a trough, depending wherever popular culture happens to be. In both the 1960s and 90s, the middle constituted a definite peak, whereas the 1970s and 80s found the cul-de-sac between the two ends of the respective decades wallowing in a complacent calm before an unexpected storm. With history traditionally written by the winners, however, looking back forty years to 1976 requires detachment from the official cultural chronicle of the 70s that has spewed forth from the pens of Parsons, Savage, Morley et al ever since they and their generation ascended to the mainstream media in the 80s. Widening the spectrum beyond music, it’s certainly evident that 1976 was a watershed year, but not in the ways the angry old men of the twenty-first century would have anyone who wasn’t there believe.
Most years are marked by endings of some sort, but there seemed an unusually high amount in 1976, as though a line was being drawn under what had gone before along with many of the figures that had defined it. A crucial change in chart trends was clear when the year saw no top ten sightings at all for some of the biggest pop acts of the preceding four or five years – no Slade, Sweet, Gary Glitter, The Osmonds, David Essex, Suzi Quatro or Alvin Stardust, and even the all-conquering teen act of ’75, The Bay City Rollers, only managed one appearance. Meanwhile, pop’s most notable Englishman abroad, John Lennon, failed to release any new recorded material for the first time since the debut Beatles single in 1962; as his former colleagues were also finally free from their Apple contracts, nobody knew then that Lennon wouldn’t release another record until 1980.
But it wasn’t just chart careers that ended in ’76. The year opened with the death of Jason, the very first ‘Blue Peter’ cat, a feline counterpoint to Petra since the monochrome days of 1963; his passing was marked by the final in-studio appearance of Valerie Singleton as a regular presenter on the programme. In one fell swoop, two iconic figures from one iconic TV show were gone. As a child, the sudden removal of fixtures from a picture they have always been part of is genuinely unsettling, and one is made aware for the first time that nothing is permanent. Younger viewers also noticed the military backup for ‘Doctor Who’, UNIT (a much-loved mainstay of the series since the very first episode of the decade), had quietly vanished from the supporting cast, removing the earth-bound aspect of the series in the process.
A BBC series that even predated the 1958 debut of ‘Blue Peter’ ended in 1976 as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ finally hung up its truncheon after twenty-one years. Lead actor Jack Warner was 80 by this point, but he’d continued to play the part of Sgt Dixon as a uniformed Bobby up until the final series, when he was then seen in civvies as a deskbound police collator. Despite maintaining an exceptional standard of writing and acting, Warner’s advancing years and failing health contributed to the retirement of ‘Dixon’, and he only outlived it by five years. ‘Z-Cars’ had been seen as a grittier alternative to ‘Dixon’ in the early 60s, with the hardboiled CID characters of Barlow and Watt eventually being transferred to a spinoff, ‘Softly Softly’. From 1969, the series was renamed ‘Softly Softly: Taskforce’, but by 1976 even that was viewed as pedestrian in comparison to ITV’s tough new kid on the cop block, ‘The Sweeney’, and Thamesford Constabulary followed Sgt Dixon into retirement that same year.
Sid James died on 26 April; the man with the dirtiest laugh in showbiz was starring in his own primetime ITV sitcom, ‘Bless This House’, which was still being produced when he died of a heart attack en route to hospital after collapsing onstage. While ‘Bless This House’ dealt with middle-aged parents struggling to handle their teenage children’s place in the Permissive Society, ITV’s other great sitcom of the era, ‘Man About the House’, removed the parental figures and instead focused on a twenty-something trio of flat-sharers, two of whom were girls and one of whom was a guy. The premise was slightly risqué when the series had begun three years previously, but the running gag about the potential saucy goings-on in the flat rented from the Ropers was gradually superseded by storylines in which the living arrangements of the three lead characters were secondary. ‘Man About the House’ ended its run after six series in April 1976, marking the symbolic TV demise of the archetypal early 70s Jack-the-Lad character (represented by Richard O’Sullivan’s Robin Tripp), who thereafter lingered on in the cinema via Robin Askwith before being sucked down the postmodern plughole.
On the very same night that ‘Man About the House’ came to an end with Paula Wilcox’s Chrissy breaking the heart of Richard O’Sullivan’s Robin by marrying his smug brother Norman, ‘Coronation Street’ experienced the abrupt disappearance of Minnie Caldwell. The deceptively timid sidekick of resident battleaxe Ena Sharples had been one of the show’s great characters from its beginnings in 1960, yet the actress Margot Bryant’s increasing inability to remember her lines forced her to leave with her character receiving an off-air departure that robbed the viewers of a proper goodbye. That she was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s explained a great deal, something that may also have been apparent to another figure who had been part of the nation’s wallpaper for over a decade, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The Labour leader’s eight overall years as PM may have been interrupted by the three and-a-half year tenancy at No.10 by his nemesis Edward Heath, but the strain of steering the country through such turbulent waters was beginning to take its toll on him by the time he won his fourth General Election in October 1974. When Heath was deposed by Thatcher the following March, the fight seemed to ebb away from Wilson as his duelling partner of a decade was no longer facing him across the dispatch box and his weariness was writ large on his haggard countenance. The EEC Referendum of June 1975, when he’d allowed his Cabinet to dispense with collective responsibility, exposed serious divisions in the party that would grow deeper in the years to come, and that would have been a good enough reason to bail out. But it was the worrying failure of Wilson’s razor-sharp memory during his last year or so in office that was perhaps the final straw; he announced his shock resignation just five days after turning sixty in March 1976. Even ‘Private Eye’ editor Richard Ingrams later admitted it was hard to imagine the country without Wilson at the helm.
Members of the general public under and above 15-25 were not necessarily regular readers of the music press, so when The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock became overnight household words as 1977 was just weeks away, it seemed as if the Four Horsemen had ridden out of nowhere to call time on the 70s. In a way, they had; but it wasn’t until roundabout 1979 that the true mainstream impact of the unlovable spiky-tops was evident in the fresh crop of chart acts that pointed the way towards the 80s, whether Tubeway Army or The Police, not to mention shorter hair and straighter trousers. That their arrival should have come at the end of twelve months in which so much had drawn to a close belies the myth that Johnny Rotten and co swept everything away the moment they let rip in their summit meeting with Bill Grundy. The evidence is that the cluttered cultural landscape had already been cleared as if in subconscious preparation for the Apocalypse.
© The Editor