Catchphrases generally tend to be the province of comedians and sitcom characters, though they can also be attached to public figures, usually by impressionists looking for an angle. It’s questionable that Denis Healey ever said ‘Silly Billy’, and most now know that Humphrey Bogart’s famous line from ‘Casablanca’ wasn’t ‘Play it again, Sam’; but these things stick. One catchphrase that everyone of a certain age will always associate with the TV programme it sprang from is rarely misquoted because it was genuinely said at the end of each show – ‘Don’t have nightmares’.
If the announcement that the BBC is axing ‘Crimewatch’ after 33 years on air will provoke any protests, they will probably only be half-hearted and rooted in misguided nostalgia, as often happens whenever a long-running series that stretches back in the collective memory ends. But the audience figures speak volumes because few people are watching the series anymore; I don’t think I’ve seen it myself since the edition following the murder of Jill Dando in 1999. At its peak years during the 80s, it could attract upwards of 14 million viewers, though few shows can attract those kinds of numbers today anyway. However, as the premise of the programme has centred on audience interaction from its 1984 debut, an appeal to catch a criminal made before 14 million means the chances of the crook being caught are greater than if four and five million are appealed to; and those are the viewing figures the show can boast now.
During my recent meanderings on YouTube, I came across a Yorkshire Television continuity clip from the turn-of-the 80s; the ads were suddenly – and somewhat dramatically – interrupted by a caption on a black background that read ‘POLICE MESSAGE’. The announcer appealing for help in locating a missing teenager did so in a fittingly sober tone that was quite a contrast with the usual light one adopted when introducing ‘Paint Along with Nancy’. I guess, pre-‘Crimewatch’, such occasional announcements served the same purpose as the old ‘SOS’ broadcasts did on the radio airwaves, and stumbling upon the clip almost 40 years on was a reminder of how television once did what social media can do today.
The clip also demonstrated that this aspect of the medium could be expanded in a classic example of TV’s public service remit, one it still regarded as important even as late as the 1980s. Shaw Taylor’s ‘Police 5’ had pioneered a similar idea in the ITV London region since 1962, though the fact the series wasn’t networked and only ran for five minutes at a time limited its ability to do what ‘Crimewatch’ aimed to; that said, Taylor’s own catchphrase, ‘Keep ‘em peeled’, became more well-known than the series itself due to it being repeated on numerous 70s sitcoms produced in the capital. ‘Crimewatch’ (or ‘Crimewatch UK’ as it was originally known) would be broadcast nationwide and would run for an hour.
Outside of ordinary people making fools of themselves on ‘The Generation Game’, the general public’s involvement in TV broadcasting was rare in the 70s. BBC2 had its ‘Open Door’ strand, in which a brief platform was given to anyone who had something to say – though they usually appeared to be unhinged eccentrics representing some bonkers fringe political party – and there was always ‘That’s Life’. But instant interaction was more or less unheard of until the debut of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ in 1976. The backroom girls manning the phone-lines were in full view of the viewers, and those viewers (if they were lucky) could end up speaking live on the telephone to whichever star Noel Edmonds was interviewing. If this idea could be developed and transplanted to a serious factual programme, there could well be an appetite for it, though it took a further eight years before the BBC decided to try out the experiment.
Concerns that the police as well as victims of crime might be reluctant to share their stories with millions of viewers proved unfounded as ‘Crimewatch’ was an overnight success. Choosing trusted and dependable broadcasters Nick Ross and Sue Cook to anchor the show helped ease viewers into the unfamiliar format, though its formula soon caught on and became as recognisable as anything else on TV. The reconstructions of crimes using unknown actors were spared the melodramatic background music used on the likes of ‘America’s Most Wanted’, but the bad acting could undeniably make them unintentionally entertaining, despite the seriousness of the crime. When a routine by comedian Peter Kay years later drew upon the tedium of witness voiceovers accompanying these reconstructions, his audience groaned in unison, so familiar was the programme’s hallmark style by then.
There was a certain charm to the woodenness of police officers addressing the public on the show, emanating as they did from an age before media training was regarded as an important element of the job. But the absence of slickness on the part of Chief Supt. David Hatcher and his sidekick PC Helen Phelps reflected the fact that this was a programme in which professional presentation was secondary to getting results. That, at its height of popularity, the show drew in the kind of audiences that would today only gather round their sets to watch a talent show finale or an England World Cup match is another aspect of how the priorities of TV, both in terms of programme-makers and programme-watchers, have altered since 1984.
Unlike other factual crime shows on British TV today, which use the sensationalistic template of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ in chronicling a crime (and are usually presented by the loathsome Mark Williams Thomas), ‘Crimewatch’ wasn’t there to pander to the same vicarious impulses that keep the memoirs of cockney gangsters riding high in the bestsellers’ lists. It had a valid purpose. 1 in 3 ‘Crimewatch’ appeals have led to an arrest, whilst 1 in 5 have led to a conviction; of a third of cases solved via a ‘Crimewatch’ appeal, half have been as a direct result of viewers’ calls. In its first 25 years, the show had a part to play in the capture of 57 murderers as well as 53 sex offenders and 18 paedophiles.
Apparently, the series was most recently presented by Jeremy Vine, which is really the kiss of death for any programme; but the television medium as it exists in this century is a different beast to the one it was in the last century – as is the country itself. Nick Ross left ‘Crimewatch’ ten years ago; when did your nightmares begin?
© The Editor