JusticeFew professions failed to fall under the TV sitcom spotlight in the 1960s and 70s – everyone from bin-men to bus-drivers and rag & bone men to teachers received the treatment; whether down on the factory floor or marooned in middle-management, there was a virtually guaranteed series on BBC1 or ITV that would mine the comic potential in the workplace and supply a strong ensemble cast of eccentrics and archetypes. Perhaps the trend was able to flourish for so long because there was a greater variety of ways one could earn a living back then; a contemporary sitcom set in a call centre or an Amazon warehouse probably wouldn’t inspire quite the same hilarity, though I’m sure it’s already been commissioned by the BBC3 Diversity & Inclusion Committee. The workforce gave sitcoms from British TV’s Golden Age a seemingly limitless source of comedy, whereas drama had a far narrower set of tools with which to work; drama in the era of ‘On the Buses’ or ‘Please Sir’ was unsurprisingly confined to jobs imbued with dramatic potential – the police, private eyes, surgeons, the intelligence services and, of course, the Law.

The most popular legal drama on television in the 60s had been an imported one, ‘Perry Mason’ – starring a pre-‘Ironside’ Raymond Burr as an LA-based criminal defence lawyer. Despite the relative grittiness of the programme compared to the more escapist fare many Hollywood studios were producing for TV at the time, to British viewers the programme still had the inbuilt glamorous sheen that all American filmed series seemed to have. By contrast, when Granada’s lunchtime legal drama, ‘Crown Court’ debuted in 1972 for a good decade-long run, the fact it rarely set foot outside the courtroom and concerned itself with those in the dock rather than a star lawyer gave the series a more recognisable reality. ‘Crown Court’ was on TV all year round in the manner of an ongoing soap, and it became as much a part of the childhood wallpaper whenever off school with a sick-note as ‘Pebble Mill at One’, ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’, ‘Paint Along with Nancy’ and a bottle of Lucozade.

Despite its slot in the schedules being some distance from the watershed, ‘Crown Court’ was serious, grownup drama, written and acted to a standard far higher than that of the Aussie soaps gradually imported to pad out ITV’s afternoon hours. A case would span three episodes screened on successive days and legend has it the non-Equity members of the public making up the jury had no idea what the conclusion of the case would be during the recording. Although the characters of the barristers and the judges became familiar, the constantly changing cast in the dock and the witness box helped ‘Crown Court’ remain fresh and probably contributed to its durability. Owning all available episodes on DVD has enabled me to enjoy and appreciate a series I was too young to enjoy and appreciate at the time; it’s very ‘wordy’, as all series set in this genre naturally are. But courtroom dramas don’t date as much as their more action-packed contemporaries due to the fact the scenario itself doesn’t really change.

With the peerless ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ not beginning its own lengthy run until 1978, one of the most successful legal dramas preceding it had an unusual angle (for the time) in that its central character was a female barrister: ‘Justice’ ran from 1971 to 1974 and starred the former big-screen actress Margaret Lockwood, trademark beauty spot and all. ‘Justice’ was produced by Yorkshire Television and whilst the series had the aforementioned novelty of focusing on a woman, it was still primarily set in the familiar location of the courtroom. YTV’s second legal drama of the era was more original in that it centred on a solicitor, a profession that the courtroom-based legal dramas tend to reduce to footnotes in the overall picture. ‘The Main Chance’ ran from 1969 to 1975 and starred John Stride as David Main, a hot-headed young lawyer recruited by a Leeds-based firm of solicitors, dividing his time between their northern HQ and their London office. This clever device meant the series could be simultaneously provincial and metropolitan.

One of the pleasures of viewing a series whose popularity at the time hasn’t survived beyond its time is that it comes free from cultural baggage when you view it; as much as I enjoy the continuously popular TV shows of old that have remained well-known and well-watched ever since their original broadcast, it’s always fascinating to unearth one of those neglected gems that inhabit the archival no man’s land between the perennially celebrated and the permanently derided. ‘Well,’ say some, ‘TV’s so-called Golden Age may have given us The Prisoner and The Sweeney, but it also gave us Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour.’ What about ‘The Main Chance’, though – or ‘Public Eye’? Unfairly rarely mentioned, yet fresh in their unfamiliarity when approached from the ignorant perspective of another century.

In the case of ‘The Main Chance’, it’s interesting to see elements of the more flashy, superficial series produced by the likes of ITC present – the mini-skirted dollybirds, the dashing lead, the driving theme tune and even (in series one, at least) the presence of the delectable young Kate O’Mara, for once playing a part that doesn’t require her to effortlessly press the button marked ‘Sexy’ (even though she undeniably is). However, these are merely surface trimmings. When it comes to the storylines, give or take one or two excursions into the private lives of the rich and decadent, ‘The Main Chance’ deals with down-to-earth cases the far-from wealthy are often confronted by; David Main as a character may have an account on Savile Row (one presumes), but he’s a grammar school boy from Leeds who worked his way up the ladder and therefore retains a degree of compassion for the little people.

Many of the hallmarks of 70s TV drama that the nanosecond attention spans of the contemporary Smombie viewer would struggle to cope with – in particular long, extended scenes not cut like an MTV video – are prevalent in ‘The Main Chance’, though to me these are strengths; this is intelligent, adult fare that unfolds at a sedate pace befitting the seriousness of the storylines. The dialogue is surprisingly spiky, though; David Main has some cracking putdowns in his armoury of insults and his arrogance costs him dear in his personal life as often as it enables him to succeed in his job. Playing the good cops to his occasional bad one are Henry and Margaret Castleton, father and daughter partners in the firm employing Main. There’s also Main’s flirty secretary Sarah, with whom he has an on-off relationship. As with Australia in the 80s and Scandinavia today, there must have only been around two-dozen thespians working in British TV fifty years ago, for the instantly recognisable supporting cast of character actors that appear in virtually every series produced in the 70s routinely appear in ‘The Main Chance’, though they help root it in solid, dependable ground. Even Robin Askwith turns up in one episode, playing an especially nasty young thug and managing to keep his trousers on in the process.

I admit I was initially attracted to this now-obscure series due to it being produced by YTV, and the likelihood of places from my childhood featuring in the scenes shot on location was an incentive to check it out. However, it’s mainly studio-based and that’s where it most shines, allowing the quality writing and acting to come to the fore. As someone who only ever samples present-day terrestrial TV in that brief two-hour window of an evening when there might actually be something worth watching, my off-line viewing habits late at night tend to fall into nightly screenings of vintage shows on DVD, and ‘The Main Chance’ ticks all the boxes for me. As even this post demonstrates, sometimes it’s necessary to have a day (or night) off from 2021.

© The Editor




Back when television used to go to bed at night, it wasn’t uncommon to find one’s self being claimed by the sandman before actually making it up the stairs. Being abruptly jolted from this momentary slumber would spark a degree of disorientation when the last recollection was of sitting on the sofa tuned in to the final programme of the evening. The unnerving sight of a TV screen suddenly blank or displaying that abstract fuzzy chaos that television insiders called ‘snow’ would be enhanced by the piercing drone of a high pitched tone that seemed to slice through the head via one ear to the other like a sonic laser beam. I remember this once happening to me around 30 years back and I experienced a fleeting sensation that the programme I’d been watching before dozing off was still on and that this shock to the system was actually a trick being played by it to deliberately unsettle me. The programme in question had been ‘The Twilight Zone’, and I couldn’t be entirely sure Rod Serling wasn’t going to reappear after a few moments to inform me the disorientation was merely another example of life in the strange neighbourhood he was our guide to.

Of all the vintage shows that have provided me with downtime interior escapism over the past twelve months, perhaps none have been more perfectly attuned to these oh-so strange times than ‘The Twilight Zone’. Arguably the finest anthology series TV has ever produced, ‘The Twilight Zone’ remains the benchmark for intelligent, thought-provoking storytelling with a surreal, disturbing twist that has echoed throughout other examples of the genre ever since; everything from ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ to ‘Black Mirror’ owes it a huge debt. Although originally airing in the US from 1959 to 1964, like most insomniacs on this side of the pond it became a must-see show during the early years of Channel 4, when it would usually bring the curtain down on the schedule after midnight – or so memory tells me. One of the joys of the series was that the viewer never knew what he or she was going to get, for the range of the stories could veer from the whimsically bizarre to the downright nightmarish – and it was the latter that always sent you to bed with the story stubbornly lingering in the room.

Urbane, cool-as-f**k Rod Serling, the perma-smoking host of the show, visually belonged to that generation of immediate post-war American males for whom Hugh Hefner or the Rat Pack were sartorial role models, yet he also embodied the socially-conscious intellectual artist whose drive to highlight the fault-lines of society was informed by formative years living through the Great Depression. After a psychologically-damaging albeit character-shaping WWII fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, Serling initially established his reputation as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ operating in the creatively-fertile medium of the television play; like Dennis Potter after him, Serling chose the small screen as his stage and consequently reached a far wider audience than any Broadway scribe such as Arthur Miller could ever dream of.

With the ramifications of the McCarthy era still ricocheting through the arts, the now-abandoned genre of the live television play illuminated American TV in its groundbreaking early years, bringing a level of emotional intensity to television that commercial considerations gradually ironed out; indeed, it took until the innovative original programming of HBO revitalised the dormant medium in the 1990s before such risk-taking techniques resurfaced. However, after a period in which his attempts to address America’s most outstanding problems via his art were increasingly frustrated by battles with networks, sponsors and censors, Serling eventually realised he could get away with commenting on the state of the nation by wrapping his message in the deceptive dressing of fantasy. Therefore, he relocated from New York to LA and created ‘The Twilight Zone’.

Sometimes subtly and sometimes less so – quality could vary, yes, but there were 156 episodes, after all – the pressing issues of the day were regularly dealt with on ‘The Twilight Zone’, but it wasn’t simply a relentless polemic; one of the alluring – and enduring – facets of the series was that, the slightly creaky ‘outer space’ episodes aside, it usually opened in a recognisable everyday world and then slowly took one step away from it, placing the picture at a distorted angle from which anything was possible. Part of the appeal of ‘The Twilight Zone’ was that some of the stories just posed the ‘What would happen if..?’ question, as in what would happen if we really could go back in time, or what would happen if we could suddenly hear the thoughts of the people we came into contact with, or what would happen if we woke up one day and everyone we knew suddenly no longer knew us, or what would happen if the life we were living was actually revealed to be nothing more than a scripted TV series – and this was a good forty years before ‘The Truman Show’.

Although he assembled a gifted team of writers around him, Serling’s role as creator and host was overshadowed by his creative contribution to the series, penning or co-writing a staggering 92 episodes of the 156, a phenomenal work-rate by anybody’s standards and one that gradually took its toll on him. And as it began to garner critical appreciation and awards, the series provided a useful entry point for many eventual household names, with the likes of Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau and numerous others gaining early breaks; it also offered intriguing roles to established stars such as Mickey Rooney as well as giving actors at the end of their careers one last chance to shine – Buster Keaton features in one especially memorable episode that serves as a touching tribute to the silent era.

At its best, the series provoked thought, placing the viewer in the shoes of the characters who found themselves in situations many have pondered on. One of the plentiful extras included with the DVD box-set that has provided me with late night entertainment over the past couple of months (and I can only watch it late at night) is a segment from the early 70s in which Serling discusses his craft with writing students; he admits to having a recurring fascination with revisiting or recapturing his lost youth, something that surfaces in several memorable ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes in which the irretrievable idyll is briefly grasped by characters who are alone in their realisation that they have reconnected with something those around them are oblivious to. Maybe these particular instalments speak to a certain age group and one has to get there to get it, but I’ve found revisiting ‘The Twilight Zone’ at a moment in time when the norm has been subverted to an unprecedented degree a highly prescient exercise. In some respects, the series may be very much rooted in time and place, yet many of the themes it tackled remain relevant and appear to grow more relevant the further away we travel from its original production.

Reduced to its earworm theme tune as a clichéd byword for ‘weird’ within popular culture over the last few decades, ‘The Twilight Zone’ when viewed afresh in its entirety offers a far more significant insight into both a reminder of what mainstream television was once capable of and what the medium’s archive still has to tell us about who we were, who we are and who we could be. I’ve found it the perfect reminder that sometimes the most telling comment on the here and now can often be found in something that appeared long before we actually arrived in the here and now. Messrs Huxley, Orwell and McGoohan would surely back me up on that one.

© The Editor


Say the name ‘Van der Valk’ to anyone of a certain age and the chances are they’ll be provoked into whistling – or at least humming – the theme tune. ‘Eye Level’ by the Simon Park Orchestra represented one of those occasional anomalies in the UK charts of the 1970s, when a freak smash zoomed past the usual suspects and shot to the top spot when nobody was looking; in the case of the theme from one of ITV’s hit dramas of the era, both Slade and The Sweet were kept from the No.1 position courtesy of its unexpected success, which was no mean feat in the frenzied Glam scene of 1973. Simultaneously bombastic and sweetly melodic, ‘Eye Level’ remains an infectious earworm that lacks the testosterone-driven machismo of the cop show themes that opened the likes of ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’. In its own way, however, it works because it mirrors the somewhat erudite lead character of the series as well as the picturesque European city that Commissaris Piet Van der Valk polices – Amsterdam.

Based upon the 60s novels written by Nicolas Freeling, the eponymous Dutch detective was brought to the small screen by Thames in 1972. The language barrier was overcome by having every character speak English whilst implying they’re speaking in their native tongue to each other, as had become second nature when Nazis conversed in the war movies of the period – or the Parisians in that earlier UK-produced detective series based in a European city, ‘Maigret’. ‘Van der Valk’ had an advantage over competing shows of the time by virtue of its novel setting – though the videotaped studio scenes were recorded in London, the location filming was all done in Amsterdam; the programme therefore immediately stood out, for in an era that had yet to see foreign holidays become the norm for the majority of Brits, a city such as Amsterdam retained an air of the unfamiliar. It was good timing, too; from the dominance and brilliance of Ajax and Feyenoord on the football field to the bonkers Prog Rock innnovation of Focus, the Dutch were making quite a pop cultural mark in the early 70s.

The actor playing Van der Valk had a face that rang more bells than his name when he landed the part. Barry Foster had gained a reputation for playing some fairly unpleasant characters in British films of the late 60s and into the 70s – a boorish bully in ‘The Family Way’, a ruthless Republican paramilitary in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, and most memorably of all, an arrogant rapist in Hitchcock’s blackly comic ‘Frenzy’. He was an interesting choice to portray a good guy, but the character of Van der Valk combined an occasionally gruff exterior with some intriguing hidden depths. The lead characters in the most popular US police/detective shows of the 70s generally had a visual gimmick that distinguished them from one another – Columbo’s dirty mac, Ironside’s wheelchair, Kojak’s bald head, and so on. Their British equivalents tended to be more subtle in what made them distinctive, and with regards to Van der Valk it was mainly down to the man he was outside of the job.

When at home, the Commissaris liked to spend his evenings listening to classical music and enjoying what used to bear the exotic label of haute cuisine; he could indulge in the latter due to the fact that he was a happily married man – and married to an exceptional cook. That Van der Valk wasn’t a divorcee or a perpetual bachelor makes him a different proposition from many TV cops that followed; he and his French wife Arlette are not only very much in love, but intellectual equals. Despite initially having a sidekick in the shape of Michael Latimer’s Johnny Kroon (who sounded as though he should’ve been playing alongside Johan Cruyff), Van der Valk never really had a permanent Carter to his Regan, and Mrs Van der Valk is his one true confidant, the person he discusses cases with over dinner and who often helps him solve them. Their marriage even survives Arlette being played by three different actresses over the course of the series’ lengthy timespan.

One of Amsterdam’s more infamous industries doesn’t figure as prominently as one might expect in the series; the notorious ladies in the windows only feature in a solitary episode, and many of the crimes Van der Valk deals with could happen anywhere. Perhaps anticipating the later ‘thinking man’s copper’ trend for loners rather than team players, ‘Van der Valk’ is not an ensemble piece and there’s a notable absence of screeching tyres and shoot-outs, at least in the first two series. For some strange reason, there was a four-year gap between series two and series three, and when ‘Van der Valk’ returned in 1977 it was produced by Thames’ on-location company, Euston Films. This meant the entire show could now be shot in Amsterdam, but it also required a slight increase in the kind of action Euston specialised in. When series three ended, the programme was then mothballed again, but this time for the best part of 13 years.

By now you’ll have worked out the Dutch detective is my current vintage viewing, but though I recall the earlier series from childhood, I’d never seen the early 90s revival until reaching it on the box-set. Happily, the theme tune and the leading man are intact, but there are several changes to the formula. In tune with the ‘Inspector Morse’-style format of the period, these episodes are movie-length and though the storylines are still engaging and the guest actors impressive, the beginnings of that contemporary curse where TV drama is concerned – intrusive incidental music – does get in the way somewhat. The original series barely had any incidental music at all, but the 90s revival is swamped in it from the off, unnecessarily melodramatic and also badly dated by virtue of it being the awful synth strings of the time.

One aspect of the 1991/92 series that occurred to me when watching has nothing to do with the show itself, but is more of a cultural factor: I couldn’t help but conclude how much nicer young women looked in the early 90s, something I’d never considered until I saw the evidence from a fresh perspective. There are no fake tans, no piercings, no tattoos, and the cosmetics on the countenances are fairly minimal; they look more naturally beautiful than their 21st century equivalents, and whilst I’m no position to judge how young women should or shouldn’t present themselves when facing the world, it was an observation I thought worthy of noting in the context of then and now. It’s often only when one is unexpectedly confronted by the forgotten fashions of a past one lived through that unavoidable comparisons are made.

Barry Foster passed away at the age of 70 in 2002. Outside of ‘Van der Valk’, he seemed to be one of those actors who was rarely out of work, though his portrayal of TV’s most famous Dutch detective understandably overshadows the rest of his substantial CV; the lead role in a successful series tends to be the one the viewing public will always associate an actor with. ‘Van der Valk’ itself was apparently revived anew earlier this year, with Marc Warren stepping into the Commissaris’ shoes. I didn’t catch it, but by all accounts it bore little connection to the original series bar the name; it didn’t even exhume ‘Eye Level’, which is pretty unforgivable. Of course, 2020 bears little connection to most years, never mind the ones in which ‘Van der Valk’ aired first time round, with or without that theme tune. But spending evenings turning back the clock is nevertheless one of 2020’s defining characteristics for your humble narrator. And in that respect, the series is as relevant to now as it was to then.

© The Editor


Bloody hell, talk about painting yourself into a corner. To come up with a title like that at times like these implies there are reasons to be cheerful when the gut reaction of most right now would be to declare there aren’t actually any reasons to be cheerful at all. I must admit I can’t really think of any that come straight outta 2020. What about straight outta the 30-odd years after the end of the Second World War, though – the timespan that still feels like home? If this wretched century can do one thing to suggest there are reasons to be cheerful it is by enabling the past to be seen again via the technology of the present. The insularity that has been imposed upon the majority this year has exacerbated personal viewing habits that would’ve probably have served me well without a lockdown; however, the circumstances unique to 2020 seem to have provoked a binge on the familiar that has little precedence.

Some opt for Netflix, whereas in 2020 I’ve sat through the following box-sets: ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Department S’, ‘Jason King’, ‘The Protectors’, ‘Budgie’, ‘Colditz’, ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’, ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, ‘Public Eye’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Angels’, ‘Casanova’, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Out’, ‘The Sandbaggers’, ‘Shoestring’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ – all since March, and that’s not even mentioning numerous one-off productions or documentary series that have filled out my own private schedule. Sometimes, such as these nuclear bunker moments, it pays to have amassed a library of archive TV; the fact that I’d seen all of these shows before didn’t really matter, because there’s a ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ factor that means whenever you’ve done the lot, it’s time to go back the beginning. All very sad and pathetic, I know; but if you don’t build shelves or knit, what else you gonna do to unwind? I only ever feel alive when I’m creating, and I can’t think of any better way to experience facsimile living during downtime than by remembering how we used to live.

After revisiting the contents of the library, the good thing about being online is the prospect of stumbling upon something absent from that library, and I was momentarily cheerful this morning when I found an old Fred Dibnah programme on YT. I genuinely lost all sense of time, instantly enraptured by the fearless Bolton steeplejack ascending a chimney he was laboriously demolishing by hand. Anyone whose palms become sweaty watching John Noakes’ famous climb up Nelson’s Column needs to see Dibnah manoeuvring his way from ladder to chimney-top as he clambers over shaky scaffolding and wobbly planks positioned God knows how many hundreds of feet above ground. No safety harness to prevent him plummeting to his death, not even any gloves to combat the cold; once in place, he chips away with his chisel, lights another cigarette, and dismantles the brick edifice with the same artisan dignity as the man who erected it a century earlier. The gentle manner of the demolition is almost like Dibnah is showing his respect for his predecessor in a way that simply blowing it up doesn’t.

These films radiate so many different layers of melancholy – melancholy as the industrial landscape that made Britain the workshop of the world was being rapidly erased along with the nation’s global standing; melancholy that doorstep sandwich-chomping, fag-smoking, beer-drinking blokes like Fred – from a time when no working man had a weak handshake – are not so much a dying breed now but an extinct one; and melancholy at the realisation that so many restrictions have been placed upon freedoms which had been hard-won by the generation before Fred, freedoms that have been removed gradually by the generation after him, sneakily and slowly so that few noticed. What we are seeing now, however, is the blatant and ugly acceleration of that process courtesy of a pandemic that waives the previous hesitancy that anticipated resistance. I guess the problem with dependence on the riches of the past to provide sustenance for the present is that cheerfulness is always one step away from melancholy because there’s no escaping the fact it’s all gone.

To borrow a phrase I used in an earlier paragraph, ‘How We Used to Live’ is also the title of a wonderful 2013 film put together by Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, they of long-running musical ensemble St Etienne, and a film I watched again last night. It could almost be seen as a visual companion piece to Wiggs and Stanley’s superb CD compilations of overlooked and obscure gems from the nation’s neglected record libraries such as ‘English Weather’. It takes ‘travelogue’-type Technicolor footage of London from the Festival of Britain to the end of the 1970s and paints a poignant portrait of the capital as it was before money moved in and natives moved out; the footage is the kind that comprised Pathé and Movietone cinema fillers in the 50s, 60s and 70s but in this case is primarily lifted from similar shorts dispatched to the colonies and not shown in the mother country. Eschewing straight chronology, the film instead mixes the eras together in a delightful dreamy collage accompanied by a suitably lugubrious narration from Ian McShane and a complementary St Etienne soundtrack. Anyone who has a soft spot for old London needs to see it.

Again, however, the viewer comes away from the viewing experience somewhat overwhelmed by sadness. It’s not just the vintage cars or the way people are dressed or even the way the city looks – i.e. before it was scarred by bland glass towers that could slot into any non-dom billionaire’s ghetto on the planet; no, the impression the footage gives is more a lost world of community, consideration, shared values and, I guess, simple politeness – the people’s manifestation of the political consensus that collapsed in the 80s. What the images magically generate is a less rude, obnoxious, ignorant, aggressive, selfish and self-centred country, not to mention less authoritarian; all the worst human characteristics that Thatcherism and Blairism at their most nakedly avaricious legitimised are absent from the Britain of ‘How We Used to Live’. Yes, the exquisite stitching together of the footage could be accused of manufacturing an imaginary past, but it actually works in the same way memory does, far more effectively than if it was a conventional chronological documentary.

Having seen the unnecessary prevention of the public from marking Remembrance Sunday last weekend – and with every day seeming to bring one more despotic and undemocratic curb of civil liberties proposed or introduced by the UK’s devolved administrations under the guise of ‘saving lives’ – one can’t help but compare the world of ‘How We Used to Live’ to the world we’ve allowed to be remade and remodelled by such appalling individuals and not end up wondering how the hell we went from that to this. Of course, you can’t go back, only forward – but forward to what? I’d like to look upon this period as a periodical trough, yet it’s more tempting to view it as the last row of lights going out as it becomes increasingly difficult to detect any reasons to be cheerful on the horizon. Oh, well; if nothing else, documenting decline and fall makes for more gripping reading than trying to describe rise and shine, I suppose, so what am I complaining about?

© The Editor


Sod it. If it’s in your hands, it’s out of theirs. Any archive that is embodied in a physical object rather than floating around the cyber ether is free from editing, tampering, censoring and deleting. Any attempts on the part of streaming services to deny viewers vintage TV in order to protect the oversensitive from being triggered are ultimately futile because it’s already all out there. The Pandora’s Box of the televisual past was opened a long time ago and released into the homes of millions when its curators realised they could recoup an income from it – firstly via VHS, then the DVD and its Blu-ray sibling. And while there may have been a push to proclaim as passé the physical format over the last couple of years, the streaming salesmen are not unlike the record companies of 25-30 years back, the ones that misjudged the value of vinyl when urging punters to buy their albums all over again on CD. It’s in their interests that you subscribe and submit, even though everybody I know who accesses the likes of Netflix does so illicitly and consequently never pays a penny, which is quite funny.

As a format for storing favourite films or TV shows, for my money the DVD is the finest ever conceived – and one that will probably now never be superseded. VHS tape was great in its day, but the DVD is undoubtedly superior. The streaming spiel is that we now have a format-free version of what we might otherwise have had on DVD, but on our phones or PCs and therefore not taking up ‘valuable’ storage space; this is bullshit. We don’t own it just because we can access it online anymore than we own any book we could borrow from a library – whereas we do own the ones we have at home. There’s a difference. Librarians can remove from the shelves any of the books we require their permission to loan, just as broadcasters and streaming services can remove ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Little Britain’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’. But if we have them as a physical object, they’re ours to access for life.

Therefore, this seems an apt moment to indulge in one of my periodical forays into viewing habits that serve as a pleasant diversion from a world containing nothing that anyone with sanity intact would want to embrace. The series under today’s spotlight isn’t ‘problematic’ as far as I can tell, though it ran from 1972 to 1974, so I suppose that means it must be racist, I guess. Well, it features three white people as its lead characters, so that’s not a good sign, is it? And only one of them is a woman, which is clearly misogynistic. And they’re all straight, which obviously suggests it’s a very homophobic series. And occasionally actors who do not belong to an ethnically diverse demographic are adopting middle-eastern accents whilst looking like they’ve overslept on the sun-bed, thus being guilty of both ‘blacking-up’ and of stereotyping anyone not white as inherently villainous, which is unquestionably racist and serves to reinforce negative, colonialist perceptions of minorities. Maybe the actors were hired on merit rather than because they fulfilled a quota? Funnily enough, I’m not talking about ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ or ‘Mind Your Language’, but ‘The Protectors’.

‘The Protectors’ was perhaps the last in the run of relentlessly entertaining, escapist adventure series produced by Lew Grade’s ITC from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. These shows – ‘The Saint’, ‘Man in a Suitcase’, ‘The Champions’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’, ‘Jason King’ – adhered to a joyously familiar formula in which the lead characters were never short of money for the finest clothes, cars, food, drink, beautiful women and flash pads; they were usually begrudgingly employed by some secret organisation loosely affiliated to government-sponsored espionage – organisations that clearly regarded playboy dilettantes as the ideal employees in the tradition of the gentleman spy, the amateur who saves the world in his spare time. Shot on glossy colour film in order to sell them to the US networks when British TV was still primarily broadcasting in monochrome, all of these series still look visually impressive today and retain their surreal charm.

‘The Protectors’ followed a familiar ITC pattern when seeking American backing, that of giving a leading role to an American actor, in this case the Man from UNCLE himself, Robert Vaughn. He plays the London-based Harry Rule, a man who shares his luxury apartment with a sexy Chinese ‘girl servant’ and an Irish Wolfhound; he’s a member of the mysterious Protectors organisation, which is portrayed as international by having the two other stars of the show working out of Italy and France. Eye candy for the guys is provided by the beautiful and elegant Nyree Dawn Porter as the Contessa di Contini, the exotic English widow of an Italian millionaire (who clearly had nobody else to bequeath his fortune to), whilst eye candy for the girls comes in the suave shape of young Paul Buchet, played by Tony Anholt. All three are effortlessly affluent and can handle themselves in a fight – which is handy, because they get into a lot of fights, albeit fights of the Wild West saloon school.

Surprisingly, ‘The Protectors’ was conceived and co-produced by Gerry Anderson – surprisingly because it lacks the science fiction/fantasy hallmarks that characterise his TV CV. Sandwiched between his first non-puppet series, ‘UFO’, and his final regular television outing, ‘Space 1999’, ‘The Protectors’ is something of an aberration in the Anderson canon, but fits neatly into the ITC pantheon. Money was clearly spent on the series, as location filming, rather than relying on stock footage and back projection, is a key element of its appeal. Although there are an abundance of stories set along the Mediterranean and about half-a-dozen shot in Venice, various European cities feature and the actors are unmistakably there rather than on the ITC back-lot. Viewing it today, it’s refreshing how distinctively different and authentically European – in an old-fashioned sense of the word – these locations look to a modern eye dulled by identikit streets colonised by the same corporate chain-stores the world over. To a British public making its first tentative forays to the Continent via package tours in the early 70s, it must have served as a useful travelogue.

Unusually for an ITC series, ‘The Protectors’ eschews the standard 50-minute format and crams everything into 25-minute episodes. To some degree, this time limit comes at the expense of character development, leaving the three leads as rather blank canvases who have little breathing space to grow as people before the quick-fire plot drags them into action. On the plus side, there’s no padding and no messing about; everything has to be resolved within an extremely narrow frame. However, one could say this might make the series appealing to a contemporary audience accustomed to the fast-paced MTV editing of TV drama today; if you like your adventures diluted into a show that will nicely span your evening meal, ‘The Protectors’ could well be the TV dinner side-order for you.

Guest stars who did the ITC rounds feature throughout – Patrick Mower, Derren Nesbitt, Patrick Troughton, Anton Rodgers, Peter Bowles, Ian Hendry, Michael Gough, Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara – and there are a few surprising cameos from an adolescent Peter Firth, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones (looking more like a Doobie Brother), and even Eartha Kitt. The enjoyably formulaic plotlines are penned by the usual roster of ITC wordsmiths and, like all ITC shows, it had a great theme tune – in this case, ‘Avenues and Alleyways’, sung by Tony Christie in true melodramatic style. As a slice of vintage escapism, it’s glorious hokum with flamboyant threads to match and a plethora of Zapata moustaches and dodgy ‘foreign’ accents on the part of the villains. There are no attempts at ‘Scandi-Noir’ angst or inserting ‘issues’ into the stories with a sledgehammer. No, it’s actually nothing more than innocent, undemanding fun. Remember that? ‘The Protectors’ now is what it was then, not what 2020 has imposed upon it.

© The Editor


When it comes to high-street discount stores handy for basic toiletries and the like, Studio 54 doesn’t immediately spring to mind. However, the notoriously stringent entrance policy of the exclusive New York nightclub of the Disco era – in which the only guaranteed name on the list would usually be that of Andy Warhol – came into my head this morning. I had no choice but to wait in line as a makeshift doorman at my local branch of Wilkos wouldn’t allow any shoppers in until another shopper had exited the store. The oddness of this particular shopping experience was compensated for via the purchase of my first pack of loo rolls in a fortnight; but it wasn’t unique to the expedition.

Sainsbury’s has also instigated a new queue policy whereby shoppers need to stand several feet apart – though when I recall some of the BO I’ve been forced to inhale in tight-knit shopping queues over the years, I can’t say I mind too much. That said, this system does invite unknowing queue-jumpers who see a wide gap and assume there’s no queue at all. We’re all adapting, I guess. It’s now cards-only at the manned tills too; cash-carrying peasants were redirected to the automated self-service machines. Having slipped into a routine whereby I venture outdoors every four days, I notice the changes more on each occasion I brave the pavement; the way things are going, I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before supermarkets convert to a drive-through method ala McDonalds. Bit of a bugger for those of us without cars, mind.

I was out not long after 10.00am and had to pinch myself that it was Saturday morning, which is normally the busiest shopping day of the week. I must have passed no more than a dozen people, and even the traffic on what is usually something of a bottleneck was minimal to the point of invisibility. A main road generally impossible to cross without summoning assistance from the green and red men was today witness to the kind of casual pedestrian strolling unimaginable at times when society hasn’t been turned upside down. Even the post office – which we were informed would remain open – has closed its doors; and that was the main destination which prompted the excursion. One week and one day on from the moment most doors closed to the public, the public is being made very aware that the only place to go is home.

Part of me thinks I should carry my camera with me, to capture the refashioned urban environment while it lasts; but images of congested streets as they were before the lockdown increasingly look stranger than what is now the new norm. I’ve experienced numerous times in my life when my fellow man has consciously avoided me as though I were contagious, but this has suddenly become commonplace for everybody. On one hand, the sight of it could be mistaken for polite courtesy as two people on a collision course step aside in a manner that would demand the raising of hats were hats in place; yet everybody is now so hyper-aware of how apparently easy it is to become infected that a bizarre dance can be seen up and down supermarket aisles and on pavements. You can’t help it. Every individual you spy heading towards you is accompanied by a sonorous Central Office of Information narrator informing you that person could be infected; pass too close and you could be infected too. I wonder how long it’ll take before people stop being scared to come into contact with other humans again.

It’s certainly a weird experience being out after four days of being in, and my only real concern when it comes to this whole isolation & distancing thing is that I personally find it harder to re-engage with folk the longer I’m deprived of their presence. Have no doubt – I can cope with my own company; I’m more than accustomed to that. But reverting to social skills when they haven’t been used for a while is for me a bit like restarting inactive machinery that has been switched-off during an industrial dispute; it ain’t like riding a bike, trust me. Skyping is the next best thing, I guess; and I’ve done a fair bit of that over the past week or so. And it’ll have to suffice for the time being. At least it’s better than it must have been during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918; the best most could manage then was to send a few telegrams.

So, we’re left with our imaginary TV schedule whenever the printed page and the soundtrack have momentarily exhausted their appeal. If you don’t subscribe to streaming and all those other newfangled means of accessing escapist entertainment, there’s always the humble DVD. And what, you probably won’t be asking, has kept me entertained since Boris issued his command? Well, it may not be the most comforting of programmes to revisit, but it’s undoubtedly timely; I’m talking ‘Survivors’, Terry Nation’s dystopian BBC drama from the mid-70s. I might be a masochist, but I couldn’t resist coming to the series again with such an unexpected new perspective.

Just the opening titles struck me as remarkably prescient. Brilliantly summarising what the show is about by using that visual exposition characteristic of opening titles back then, we see a Chinese scientist in a surgical mask drop a test tube we instantly know contains a lethal chemical that then explodes in slow motion. Cut to repeated shots of planes zooming across the screen as we see said scientist collapse in a crowd whilst a sequence of passports are stamped with the names of the planet’s major capital cities. Okay, so within 30 seconds we learn some sort of biochemist from the Far East has accidentally released a new killer virus that is spread around the globe via air travel. And remember, this is 1975, not 2020. Yes, the programme’s 45-year vintage is evident as the rapid deterioration of society is portrayed with echoes of the Three-Day Week, fuel crises and fear of right-wing militias seizing control typical of the period; but the sudden collapse of the infrastructures keeping everything ticking over courtesy of a plague originating in China is hard to watch now without every recent news bulletin re-entering the viewer’s head.

In ‘Survivors’, a band of good guys eventually come together and form what is essentially a pre-industrial agricultural commune as a means of rebuilding the world for those who survived the plague. They do so whilst regularly fighting off less community-minded bad guys – and one thing that dates ‘Survivors’ is the fact that the bad guys are always working-class, as a counterpoint to the middle-class heroes. But that’s just a sign of the times in which it was produced, as is the absence of a patronising diversity quota amongst the cast; indeed, the main character whose progress we follow throughout the first series is female, and a tough, resourceful one at that. And Terry Nation created her without having an edict imposed upon his creativity from on-high.

Perhaps reflecting the broad brushstrokes of BBC drama in 1975, I’ve also recently been re-watching the first series of ‘Angels’. Maybe the incessant focus on the NHS at the moment prompted me to return to this prime-time serial about student nurses, one that is another well-written and well-acted example of the era. One only has to watch an episode of a mainstream series from 40-odd years ago and then do likewise with a contemporary equivalent to witness how low standards have sunk in all departments. The last time I saw an episode of ‘Casualty’ about five years ago, it was like revisiting every shit daytime Aussie soap you’ve ever seen. Not so ‘Department S’, which is gloriously far-fetched Swinging 60s ITC adventure at its finest – and it gave the world Jason King; what more do you want? That’s my other current vintage televisual aid. None of these were planned viewing; the situation demanded them, so I submitted. These are mine; feel free to enjoy your own.

© The Editor


At one time in the late 1970s, BBC2 would close down for the evening with a poem. BBC1 remained loyal to ‘God Save the Queen’, but its more erudite sibling opted for the kind of sign-off that reflected its reputation as a patron of the arts. Mainstream TV channels no longer go to sleep, of course; but the original glut of quirky and set-the-video shows that ITV ran during its early through-the-night transmissions are just as much a part of television history now as an actor reciting Ted Hughes at the approach of midnight. Repeats of programmes screened earlier in the week with in-vision sign-language, or switching to the repetitive tedium of rolling news isn’t exactly making use of all those hours supposedly freed-up for broadcasting when the closedown ritual disappeared forever in the late 90s.

To be honest, TV may as well finish for the day even earlier than it used to, for after around 11.00, there’s bugger all to watch, anyway. If your viewing doesn’t begin until, say, 9.00pm, you’ve just a couple hours to watch ‘new’ television before there’s a second chance to see something you saw a few days before. Back when TV had a limit on broadcasting time, nothing went to waste; today’s graveyard slot was actually used for interesting programming. All we have now is the weekly ‘Front Row Late’, which often comes across as ‘Loose Women’ for the chattering classes. No wonder I end up sticking a DVD on.

As a night-owl, it’s nice to have a little televisual stimulation when I’m at my most awake and engaged in a creative break; but the DVD box-set suffices in the absence of programme-makers providing the goods. As regular readers will already know, I’m something of a connoisseur of vintage British TV, both familiar and obscure. In fact, I own such a lot that there isn’t much left to purchase now. Consequently, there’s something of a ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ factor in that every couple of years I work my way back to a series and enjoy it all over again. Recently, I revisited the controversial 1978 BBC four-parter, ‘Law and Order’, which lifted the lid on corruption within the police force and the legal profession as a villain is fitted-up for a job he didn’t do. One instalment covers his time behind bars and is so graphically brutal it makes ‘Scum’ resemble an episode of ‘Porridge’.

A familiar extra on the best box-sets of this nature is the new documentary recalling the series in question, usually featuring cast and crew interviews. ‘Law and Order’ is no exception, and it wasn’t until viewing it again that I remembered Tony Garnett was the programme’s producer. The groundbreaking Garnett – one of British television’s most fiercely fearless figures – sadly passed away in January; when his CV was belatedly celebrated in the obituaries, his contribution to intelligent and compassionate drama with an attitude that punched-up was writ large. From his association with ‘The Wednesday Play’ in the 60s, his collaborations with Ken Loach (including ‘Cathy Come Home’ and ‘Kes’), his work on ‘Play for Today’ in the 70s, and all the way up to ‘This Life’ in the 90s, Tony Garnett was the kind of visionary character with a heart that British TV used to inspire and no longer attracts.

On the ‘Law and Order’ documentary extra, Garnett speaks of how the producer was venerated and left to his own devices at the BBC in the 60s and 70s, hence so much undiluted dramatic output that impacted on the public consciousness; free from managerial interference and spared committee groupthink, not to mention concessions to ‘diversity and inclusivity’ initiatives, the producer channelled his vision directly to the audience without any unnecessary cosmetic surgery en route. In 2009, an ‘open email’ by Garnett to the BBC was widely circulated, one in which his criticisms of the changes within the corporation contained the accusation that the techniques of BBC management ‘stifle the creativity which the organisation is supposed to be encouraging’. Of course, the impact of Garnett’s key productions was helped by them being screened during the three-channel, pre-VCR/iPlayer era; but even watching them 50-60 years on, the visceral strength of the writing, acting and direction remain comparable to any old movies rightly recognised as significant landmarks in cinematic history. Alas, in the same way that Hollywood eventually collapsed into the hands of lawyers and corporate executives, British television similarly surrendered to the artless automatons that have made the BBC its own worst enemy.

The left claims the BBC is anti-Labour and biased in favour of the right whereas the right claims the BBC is a hotbed of Remainer lefties. With the former, such accusations feel like a symptom of the incurable Corbynista persecution complex that its sufferers level at all media outlets – perhaps underlining their chronic lack of awareness re their own shortcomings. With the latter, there is some truth, in that the BBC is on the whole manned by graduates of left-leaning academia who tend to think the same way and feel compelled to infuse the corporation’s programming with their worldview. This has certainly seeped into news and current affairs, something which has prompted the withdrawal of Government Ministers from the likes of ‘Today’ and ‘Newsnight’ – though this counterproductive measure, reminiscent of that period when Alex Ferguson refused any post-match interviews with the Beeb, could just as much be seen as symptomatic of No.10’s control-freakery.

I totally understand those who have given up on the BBC; but I will say that over the past seven days via various BBC radio and television channels, I’ve watched a superb documentary featuring a Brummie folk musician of Irish descent looking at the fascinating history of the Irish community in Birmingham; I’ve listened to an especially touching edition of ‘Desert Island Discs’ featuring Arsenal legend Ian Wright; I’ve watched the return of one of the warmest and funniest comedy series of recent years, ‘This Country’; and I’ve heard former ‘disgraced Tory MP’ Jonathan Aitken tell his rollercoaster of a life story through his love of music on ‘Private Passions’. For me, all of these represented what the BBC can still do better than any other broadcaster, but I caught what I wanted and avoided what I didn’t want – for a monthly fee of £14. My phone/internet provider charges me around £70 a month; gas £33; electricity £55; even water, which is only paid between April and November, was £40 a month last year. Personally, when it comes to the licence fee purely in terms of cost, I have no problem with it. What seems to irk most is the principle of it.

No, the problem for me is not the licence fee, but BBC box-ticking and its related impact on so much of what it produces. The way in which the organisation has effectively written an Identity Politics agenda into its programme manual is the consequence of a corporation that falls over itself to hire on grounds of race, gender, sexuality et al, yet will not countenance anyone with a different political perspective. This gives Mary Beard free rein to see the history of the nude in art as all about the evil ‘male gaze’, or ensures every drama has to have a sufficient multiracial headcount, regardless of where and when the drama is set, or that #MeToo has to be said at least half-a-dozen times during every edition of ‘Woman’s Hour’, or that the arts have to be viewed through the prism of race or LGBT issues on every edition of ‘Front Row’.

It has also turned ‘Doctor Who’ from being an eccentric and exciting adventure in space and time to being an über-Woke, witless weekly lecture of pious, joyless, patronising, preachy and ham-fisted propaganda penned by piss-poor soap scribes with no knowledge of sci-fi or what made the programme work for over half-a-century. When the BBC wields its axe, however, the guilty parties won’t be losing their heads. And that’s the crying shame of what is one of the great cultural gifts this country has given the world.

© The Editor


The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor