A tried-and-trusted barometer for how far we’ve travelled as a society in living memory – certainly by the compilers of cheap clip shows – is to look at television output from 30-40-50 years ago. Yes, we’ve all seen these delves into the archives, with their awkward examples of antiquated attitudes towards women, ‘ethnic’ groups, gays and so on; such out-of-context samples of the recent past are usually accompanied by interjections from contemporary talking heads reacting in ‘Gogglebox’ fashion. As most of those selected to offer their insightful opinions tend to have been born long after the event, they react in the way people have always reacted to a past they never lived through; one may as well dig up descriptions of the atrocious living and working conditions of the urban poor in the Victorian period and inform someone born in 1995 that children actually used to be sent up chimneys. Yes, times have changed, just as times always do; that’s what happens when day follows night.
Despite having a greater immediacy than cinema in being able to reflect current cultural and societal developments and trends, television drama nevertheless isn’t the news; it usually trails a year or two behind the zeitgeist by virtue of the time it takes from the scriptwriter penning the opening line to an eventual transmission date. In the early-to-mid 1990s, for example, there was a spate of ‘illegal rave’ storylines running through many mainstream TV series of the era, with the standard moralistic plot usually concerning a teenage character dabbling in ecstasy and dicing with death as a consequence. However, by the time most of these shows aired, the rave scene had already relocated to shiny new city centre nightclubs opened by canny promoters and superstar DJs, and what remained of the illegal element was in the process of being crushed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.
Similarly, many TV dramas – and sitcoms – of the 1970s often feature storylines in which the late 60s ‘counter culture’ still figures prominently when embodied in hippie radicals spouting pseudo-Marxist revolutionary gibberish and using outdated terminology – ‘man’. Therefore, relying upon old telly, certainly drama or comedy, to provide a 21st century generation with an accurate window to a world they never knew can be a tad misleading. Even taking some archetypal variety show of the period and studying the act of a comedian in a dinner jacket spinning the routine mother-in-law/thick Irishmen gags doesn’t take into account the fact this kind of comedy was hardly cutting-edge; it had long been regarded as naff and was regularly parodied by satirists on TV; it was also mercilessly ripped to shreds by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s foul-mouthed alter-egos Derek and Clive on their subversive vinyl outings at the same time as ‘Seaside Special’ was airing. Ee, it’s Alfie Noakes!
By picking and choosing snippets of old-school attitudes or language alien to modern mores simply to fit the agenda of the programme-makers and therefore underlining what a backward, bigoted society we used to be, there’s an inherent dishonesty at play; in falsely claiming this represents a whole picture, we conveniently ignore those segments of popular culture and television of the past that did a better job of giving voice to important issues and the masses affected by them than any equivalent attempt can manage now. Yes, ‘Play for Today’ is rightly remembered as a beacon of this, but it wasn’t operating in isolation; many of the writers, directors, producers and actors who progressed to the single play and gave us some of its most memorable jewels received their apprenticeship on what the BBC used to categorise as ‘continuing dramas’. In the 1960s and 70s, two shows served as especially potent training grounds – ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Z Cars’; today we’d call them soaps, but they were described as continuing dramas back then.
The impact of Tony Warren’s baby on British TV was more or less instant and proved to be incredibly far-reaching; it’s easy to forget just how radical it was when first broadcast and how much it revolutionised television as a whole, not just drama; one could argue there’d have been no ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, let alone ‘The Wednesday Play’, without ‘Coronation Street’. Within a year of the arrival of Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and the rest, the BBC responded with ‘Z Cars’, another groundbreaking series that took the gritty, kitchen-sink vibe of ‘Corrie’ and put it in police uniform. Whereas Salford had been re-imagined as Weatherfield, Kirkby was reborn as Newtown. As close-knit communities were being swept away by the tower block and Brutalist housing schemes, ‘Z Cars’ showed how crime continued to flourish even in the Brave New World Utopias of the 60s. As the series moved on into the 70s, this factor became more pronounced as a greater reliance on location filming exposed just how swiftly those idealistic projects had descended into grubby, decaying eyesores in which crime and poverty were just as depressingly prevalent as they had been in the old slums.
Although a couple of ‘Z Cars’ DVDs were issued around seven or eight years back, giving me the opportunity to see the series with a fresh pair of eyes, great chunks of the show from the 70s are currently (at the time of writing) available on one of those YT channels that have a habit of quickly disappearing. I was able to download all the episodes – just in case – and have been watching them over the past few weeks. As is so often the case with mainstream dramatic output regarded at the time as the formulaic poor relation of the single play, when stood beside the ‘Am. Dram.’-like hospital-based soaps of today, many episodes of ‘Z Cars’ are astonishingly engaging, moving and hard-hitting. The writing and the acting are both of a remarkably high standard for a show that aired before the watershed. The characters are well-drawn, believable, either eminently likeable or effectively loathsome, and the situations are entirely relatable, especially to the audience who would’ve been watching at the time.
As someone who was a regular childhood visitor to an auntie and cousin who resided in one of the worst examples of a 60s high-rise concrete Dystopia, ‘Z Cars’ scenes of feral kids running wild around graffiti-stained estates with broken lifts, broken windows and broken spirits ring very true indeed. Not only do you instantly warm to the regular cast, but you care what happens to those who figure in just the one episode, which is a testament to the writers and the actors. Long scenes enabling characters to breathe and establish their personalities in a way that gradually explains the predicament they’re in means the viewer is slowly reeled into their world rather than emotional investment being achieved by emotional blackmail delivered with the subtlety of Bob Geldof demanding ‘Give us yer feckin’ money’. By mostly avoiding the headline-grabbing blags and gangland murders that Regan & Carter tackled, ‘Z Cars’ deals with the kind of small-scale crime most of us will come into contact with at some point of our lives and therefore highlights the plight of that most overlooked contemporary demographic – the little people.
From a modern perspective, the best way to watch ‘Z Cars’ – and its unfairly-maligned elder sibling, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ – is not to view it as belonging to the same televisual canon as ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’ simply because cops are involved, but to place it alongside the likes of ‘Play for Today’, which also took time out to seek out the drama in the ordinary life. As we find ourselves at a moment in society’s decline and fall in which me and thee count for so little that they place us under house arrest, hide our faces behind masks and outlaw any public protest against them, it’s worth remembering how what was once the nation’s premier medium used to serve as the stage for our stories. Are we so much better off now than we were then?
© The Editor