FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Barbed WireIt’s often been suggested that the game-changing impact of the original ‘Star Wars’ film ushered in a more juvenile strain of cinema that we’re still living with to this very day – and what it inadvertently swept away was quite a loss. Aided by the end of the Hays Code and influenced by European film-makers of the era (as well as a necessary injection of fresh counter-cultural blood), Hollywood had grown up a bit in the decade immediately preceding the 1977 release of George Lucas’ first take on the franchise, and in the process enjoyed something of a second Golden Age. A fun comic strip of a film like ‘Star Wars’ shouldn’t have really threatened that, yet the success that caught Hollywood by surprise was quickly picked up by studios already in the hands of accountants; why go to the trouble of making another ‘Taxi Driver’ and limiting the bums-on-seats due to an X certificate when you can make another ‘Star Wars’ for all the family and make far more money than you ever would with the further trials and tribulations of Travis Bickle?

40-odd years later, dumb and dumber blockbusters with a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the phenomenal success of ‘Star Wars’ utterly dominate the movie industry – and terrestrial TV seems to have suffered a similar fate in terms of lowering the intelligence quota. I don’t believe television had an equivalent game-changer in terms of the pop cultural impact that ‘Star Wars’ had on cinema – though perhaps, at least in the UK, the unprecedented response to the question ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ affected the way in which dramatic output was marketed to media and public alike so that a sensationalist plotline guaranteed to attract hysterical headlines and in turn big audiences became the way forward. The Ken/Deirdre/Mike love triangle on ‘Coronation Street’ in 1983 was one of the first such examples to learn the lesson of the ‘Dallas’ cliff-hanger, with the news that the Barlows decided to stay together being flashed on the Old Trafford scoreboard in the middle of a match. The launch of ‘Eastenders’ a couple of years later saw these tactics hyped-up to the max – and it paid off for the Beeb with the kind of viewing figures unimaginable today.

The first few years of Channel 4’s ‘Brookside’ had offered an alternative to the increasingly melodramatic nature of its mainstream rivals, yet by the early 90s that too had taken a similar detour as storylines began to drift away from at least heightened reality and more towards the headline-grabbing. Phil Redmond’s Scouse soap had initially been rooted in the grittier ‘Play for Today’ tradition, perhaps the last refuge for that strain of television writing following the gradual disappearance of the single play from the schedules as the 80s progressed. The single play had once been the writers’ university for so many of British television’s seminal scribes, yet within a generation the soap opera had superseded it; and with the soap having taken on such fantastical and unbelievable qualities, it was unsurprising that once TV writers graduated from the genre and moved on to developing projects of their own they’d carry the sensationalist sensibility into the post-watershed mini-series.

I’ve seen a lot of these 9pm dramas on BBC1 and ITV over the past 10-15 years; some of them are quite enjoyable (if utterly humourless), but very much in a fast-food fashion; the sensation is momentary and the majority I’ve already forgotten by the time the credits roll. Wasn’t there one with Christopher Ecclestone in it – or was it John Simm – or Suranne Jones – or…oh, I can’t remember now; forgettable storylines, forgettable characters, forgettable dialogue, and forgettable resolutions so over-the-top they’d be rejected at an ‘Emmerdale’ script meeting. They’re the TV equivalent of a quick one off the wrist. For me, the best way to discern an undeniable dumbing down in the dramatic output of terrestrial TV is always to take time out and invest in a vintage series, generally from the 70s, and make the comparisons. The juvenile nature of the melodrama that passes for ‘adult’ television today is so apparent when one revisits a series such as ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ (1976), for example, which I have been during the last couple of weeks. It’s so ‘grown-up’ and intelligent in the way it presents characters and storyline to the audience it makes you realise just how condescending and lowest-common-denominator most of today’s equivalent offerings truly are. That was what really struck me when I got sucked into the show, which I hadn’t properly seen in full before.

Andrea Newman’s steamy drama based on her own novel caused quite a stir at the time of its original transmission, even if the fuss was swiftly eclipsed by the controversy generated by another (even more dysfunctional) family saga a few months later in the shape of ‘I, Claudius’. The story of an unhealthily obsessive father, Peter Manson (played by the ever-watchable Frank Finlay), manipulated by his spoilt, narcissistic daughter, Prue (the irresistibly pouty Susan Penhaligon) was complicated by the seething jealousy of Frank Finlay’s character towards the usurper of his daughter’s affections in the shape of his American son-in-law, Gavin, not to mention the eventual affair between said son-in-law and Finlay’s wife, Cassie – oh, and Finlay’s affair with his young-enough-to-be-his-daughter secretary, Sarah (an affair symbolically carried out in the vacated bed of his actual daughter’s apartment in her absence). It’s an almightily sultry stew of repressed incestuous longing and taboo-breaking assignations. And it was a runaway critical (and commercial) success for London Weekend Television.

Maybe one of the toughest aspects of the series for a contemporary audience would be the way in which it fails to take sides and paints the family portrait in myriad shades. Prue’s husband Gavin at times responds to his wife’s petulant appetite for stirring it by giving her a slap, something that is dealt with in a manner that neither overtly condones nor condemns his violent streak. The action is portrayed as a sad symptom of an emotionally draining relationship with Prue, the weaver of a self-destructive web who is said to have a touch of the masochist about her; and Gavin is seen as a victim as much as his wife is. There is nuance a plenty in this acknowledgement of flawed human beings capable of simultaneous good and evil; in this world, all are saints and all are sinners – just like our own; it takes place in a complex moral maze TV drama now shies away from. Any character exhibiting the domestic abuse traits of Gavin in a TV drama today would have all that nuance ejected from the profile and would be reincarnated as a pantomime villain bordering on fully paid-up member of the Nazi Party. The character would not be allowed to be presented with the prospect of redemption and forgiveness – he would simply have to be an incurable bastard.

But, again, it is simply the ‘grown-up’ – and there’s no more apt phrase – attitude of the series when approaching these ambiguous emotions within the family dynamic that strikes the modern viewer accustomed to relentlessly black-and-white, childish impressions of the way people behave towards each other and the stupidly simplistic explanations for their behaviour. The style of Scandi Noir and some of the epic US series of recent years are on display in contemporary terrestrial TV drama, yet substance is conspicuous by its absence. Some scenes in ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ unfold at the pace of a well-written novel, in a delicately sedate and intensely subtle manner that contrasts with the cartoonish characterisations and OTT treatment that have become the retarded hallmarks of post-watershed dramas today. That a 45-year-old example of how it could be done seems more recognisably real than a present day idea – one which appears to have been scripted by a 13-year-old boy with no notion of how adults actually speak or deal with crises – is telling, but – alas – not surprising.

© The Editor

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MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS

Mole 3Although I’ve never seen it since and have no idea what it was, I remember one childhood Saturday morning catching an archaic comedy movie from the 1940s or 50s – my memory dates it by the fact all the men in it were wearing hats – and a guy was being examined by a doctor for a neck injury. The GP told him to keep looking upwards and the ailment would gradually heal, so he exited the surgery and strolled out onto the street with his head aimed at the sky. As he made his way along, his unusual stance caught the eye of everyone he passed so that they all followed suit, gazing up in the belief the guy had obviously seen something fascinating. I guess it’s an old joke, but it was an old film and the concept still makes me laugh now. I wondered why that scene should infiltrate my head after being absent for several decades, but maybe it’s because such a vaudevillian gag now feels like it was actually making a shrewd point about the way in which a misinterpreted gesture can provoke a chain reaction to ripple through a crowd of people with remarkable ease and breathtaking pace. Perhaps it’s just a classic characteristic of herd mentality, and one ripe for exploitation.

A more scientific explanation came on a 1970s David Dimbleby-hosted programme examining the hysteria at Osmonds concerts. A psychologist spoke of how it would only take one member of the audience when Donny and his brothers hit the stage to set off virtually everyone else at the venue. He’d observed how one girl screaming triggered the girl sat next to her and she in turn triggered the next one and the sound rapidly travelled down the whole row, each girl taking on the pattern of the girls around her so the entire arena could erupt into a cauldron of ear-splitting frenzy within seconds. I suppose a similar thing happens at football matches, though the man who starts the chant does so in the deliberate hope that he will quickly be accompanied by a chorus; the fact he usually is accompanied by a chorus suggests again that herd mentality – whether consciously or unconsciously – instinctively replicates the behaviour of the lone individual so that he or she is soon cocooned by safety in numbers; and at many times over the years, numbers have equated with safety at football matches, where the lone individual would be vulnerable and exposed – especially if he’s playing away.

Just as one member of a crowd can purposely incite the rest of that crowd to accompany him in a singsong if he knows the crowd is primed to respond favourably, the herd mentality can be cynically manipulated by outsiders with an equal minimum of effort. Politicians and their affiliated media outlets have always used this tactic to smear their opponents and nudge the electorate towards ticking the right box in the voting booth; but the past eighteen months have seen the practice used to clinical effect, with the masses becoming more pliable pieces than ever in someone else’s chess game. The way in which the pandemic restrictions were successfully enforced by convincing great swathes of the public that they were barely two-dozen loo rolls away from death was such a resounding triumph for the powers-that-be that it taught them an invaluable lesson. They realised the public were far easier to push in the desired direction than they’d ever dared imagine before.

The media cottoned onto this a long time ago, of course. The press did so far earlier than, say, television (certainly in this country, anyway), for public broadcasting originating in the Reithian ethos clung to the antiquated notion of political impartiality in a way the newspapers and their blatantly partisan approach – which was utterly dependent on the leanings of the paper’s proprietor – never had any moral need to adhere to. Moreover, the populist end of Fleet Street and its unquenchable thirst for sensationalism and scandal stretching all the way back to Victorian penny dreadfuls had accelerated in the Murdoch era, taking the print medium down a dark, grubby alley that television news had yet to visit. Not being a viewer of either Sky or CNN, I personally began to notice news broadcasts on terrestrial TV adopting a more tabloid approach not so much with Brexit, which is usually cited as the moment when journalism as we used to know it doubled down into unashamed propaganda for one side or the other, but when the financial crash of 2007/08 occurred. This was the point at which I really became aware TV news had ceased reporting facts and had instead opted to manufacture drama. Sure, there had been agendas in place before, but a trend appeared to be developing that required a constant flow of drama, possibly because of satellite competition or possibly because there were now rolling news channels with 24 hours to fill.

I recall a news report on either BBC or ITV in late 2007 covering queues outside a branch of Northern Rock when word had got around that the bank was living on borrowed time; as those with accounts quietly waited their turn to withdraw their savings in an orderly fashion, a TV reporter buzzed round them desperately attempting to whip up an atmosphere of panic to support the hysterical tone of his piece for the evening news. It seemed as though he’d come looking for a replay of the scene in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey’s bank collapses; so, when confronted by a line of Brits keeping calm and carrying on, the reporter resorted to a presentation style owing more to ‘The Day Today’ than the kind of straightforward no-bullshit journalism British TV news was once renowned for. To their credit, the members of the crowd that day didn’t panic; but the manner of the response to Covid Project Fear last year proved how effective a constant stream of panic propaganda pumped into the public’s collective psyche via the multiple media tools of the 2020s can now provoke panic without breaking sweat.

It might not be convenient for the current storyline, but one doesn’t have to even ‘go back to the 70s’ to recall the last time we had lengthy queues and panic buying at petrol stations; it was barely 20 years ago, midway through the New Labour era, when Gordon Brown as the Iron Chancellor was portrayed on the front of a national newspaper as a caricature of an 18th century highwayman. But today’s trend of constantly evoking the Winter of Discontent or the Three-Day Week works better because that period has lived on as a potent lesson of what happens when governments lose the plot, even for those who were a long way from being a twinkle in the milkman’s eye at the time. And one can see the appeal. After all, the panic buying that emptied supermarket shelves last year is still fresh, and the current spate of empty shelves at your local Sainsbury’s can be linked to the pandemic, to the pingdemic, to the loss of lorry drivers from a poorly-paid profession with few (if any) provisions for its workers, to the ‘sudden’ depletion of energy supplies, and – of course – Brexit. Join the dots and we have the potential for a good old-fashioned Great British Doomsday Narrative. And the Great British public are responding accordingly.

Unemployment was far higher in the 70s and inflation was astronomical in a way that today simply cannot compare with – a staggering 40% in June 1975; and whereas trade unions then had the clout to routinely bring the economy to its knees, lockdown has managed the same feat in record time now. What eventually replaced heavy industry in the big provincial cities that had been built on the back of it was the hospitality industry, yet when the continental cafés, bistros, bars and leisure venues that revitalised such cities from the 1990s onwards were closed overnight in 2020, regional dependence on such businesses meant that the damage done was of a kind we’ll probably be dealing with the ramifications of for years. That’s the real crisis. Never mind – send the cameras to the petrol stations and engage in nonsensical arguments about biology for light relief. Apparently, rats suddenly deprived of the scraps of office workers when the workforce relocated to the home have now followed the money and are loitering in our U-bends. Maybe our perennial rodent shadows reckon we’re all doomed as well.

© The Editor

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SHUT IT!

The only episode of ‘The Sweeney’ I was allowed to watch when it originally aired was a late entry in the series; the bargaining chip was the inexplicable presence of Morecambe & Wise as guest stars. I suppose maternal permission was influenced by the expectation that Eric and Ernie would help tone down the violence for which the show was notorious in 1978. Unbeknownst to my mother, I’d already seen an episode screened past my normal bedtime whilst staying at my grandparents’ place during a school holiday; there was never any set bedtime there, so I sat in on ‘The Sweeney’ with granddad and grandma and was treated to a full-frontal pair of tits on their little telly as a reward. If there was one element that gave the adventures of Regan and Carter playground plus-points in the 1970s, it was the perennial possibility of naked female flesh. Along with the anticipated car chases and punch-ups, there was always the outside chance of a scene in a strip-club. There’d be no proper swearing beyond the use of ‘bastard’ (pronounced baa-sted) a lot, so a glimpse of bristols was the next best thing.

I don’t know why it was such a big deal when even our house’s tabloid of choice at the time – the Daily Mirror – had its own equivalent of page 3 back then, so it’s not as if you couldn’t catch a snatch of mammaries, anyway; but ‘The Sweeney’ had a special position in the minds of 70s children. It was the Holy Grail of adult TV shows. Everyone at school claimed to watch it regularly, but such claims were no different from pubescent bullshit bragging about sexual encounters. 9.00 was the cut-off point for most when it came to viewing habits; you might be familiar with the show’s theme tune wafting up from the front room as your head reluctantly hit the pillow, but few from my generation saw it during its original run. It was regarded as ‘hard’ TV – far more realistic than ‘Starsky and Hutch’, and routinely featuring unsettling cockney villains with stockings on their faces, robbing banks clutching sawn-off shotguns – just like the headline crimes you heard during the bongs on ‘News at Ten’ before you finally fell asleep.

To a 70s child, ‘The Sweeney’ had a similar mystique as X-rated movies or girlie magazines, a grown-up world you yearned to be part of but knew you frustratingly had to wait for – a wait that felt like an eternity. In the absence of the real thing, your imagination painted a picture so graphic that by the time you were old enough to see the series during its first full run of repeats in the early 80s, half of the entertainment value came from the dated fashions. Reruns continued well into the 90s, passing through numerous postmodern and ‘ironic’ appreciations or condemnations. Then came the spoofs, the parodies, the pastiches and the eventual homage of ‘Life on Mars’; along the way, the series was simultaneously praised as a slice of gritty realism that blew ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Z-Cars’ out of the water as well as a misogynistic example of old-school macho attitudes we were well rid of. ‘The Sweeney’ remains all of these things, yet so much more.

After the best part of 20 years without seeing a single episode – though consistent viewings of VHS off-air recordings preserved numerous lines and scenes in memory’s amber for decades – I recently got round to adding ‘The Sweeney’ to my bulging library of archive British TV shows on DVD. I decided to start proper with the movie-length pilot, titled ‘Regan’. Even 46 years on, it’s possible to see the promise of both the lead character and the set-up in this groundbreaking entry in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ anthology series. John Thaw was a familiar face to viewers by 1974, appearing as a guest star in endless programmes as well as managing an early starring role in the mid-60s series about the military police, ‘Redcap’; but in the gruff and grizzled, hard-boiled character of DI Jack Regan, he stumbled upon the role of a lifetime.

Produced by Euston Films, the Thames division established to make drama entirely on film, ‘The Sweeney’ had some of its ground laid by the final two series of ‘Special Branch’ (1973-74) and recruited Dennis Waterman as Regan’s sidekick Sgt Carter, having impressed in an episode of the earlier series. ‘The Sweeney’ would take the approach of ‘Special Branch’ and push the grittiness to a new level for television. Unlike its predecessor, by focusing on the cases of the Flying Squad, Regan & Carter didn’t have to concern themselves with occasional espionage interludes and had free rein to concentrate on ‘blags’ of the kind that were commonplace when most businesses had physical cash delivered to their premises on pay day.

‘The Sweeney’ is far from being crass, one-dimensional action, however. There’s an abundance of wit in the dialogue, and Regan & Carter are well-rounded, wholly believable characters whose banter and buddy-buddy relationship rings true in the context of their situation. The line between copper and criminal was never more blurred than in ‘The Sweeney’, though in his own way DI Regan possesses as strong a moral streak as Sgt Dixon; he’s averse to bribery and would never be in the pocket of a villain. At the time of its original broadcast, a series of high-profile exposés on real-life Met corruption hogged the headlines, so for all its seemingly unflattering portrait of Scotland Yard, ‘The Sweeney’ actually paints the police in an encouragingly positive light. If anything, Regan’s true nemesis is not the blagger, but the ‘fifth-floor bottlers’ at the Yard, forever frustrating his investigations with bureaucratic interference. Regan is more comfortable as the Wild West sheriff than being marooned behind a desk, happier tooled-up with a shooter than pushing a pen, in his element on the street rather than undergoing ‘diversity awareness’ courses.

In many respects, ‘The Sweeney’ is the definitive British TV series of the mid-70s; the landscape that Regan & Carter screech their tyres through is one of a rundown, worn-out country falling to pieces – and Regan himself often appears to mirror the state of the nation. Despite being able to chase villains on foot, he and his second-in-command smoke a breathtaking amount of cigarettes, they drink like borderline alcoholics, and they each bed a different ‘scrubber’ every episode. Men like them probably still exist, but they’re not portrayed on emasculating primetime television anymore. In one episode, Regan’s ex-wife looks despairingly at him and says ‘You’re 35 and you look 45’, and it’s true that all the men in the series whose ages are stated do indeed look at least a decade older by today’s standards, though I guess all those fags, booze and birds took their toll. Interestingly, however, very few of them are obese.

Regan & Carter take no prisoners and no outsiders are exempt from their contempt. They don’t single anyone out for special treatment, failing to distinguish between posh-boys, northerners, Scotsmen, Irishmen, blacks, Arabs, gays, lesbians, prostitutes – all are fair game for piss-taking and disdain, and all have their derogatory nicknames characteristic of the era. Watching it with a 21st century head on is a pointless exercise; one has to enter into the spirit of the times as much as viewing a Hollywood Film Noir from the 1940s; it’s a different world and one with its own surreal rules and regulations. Even something as basic as the bizarre side-partings and fuzzy barnets of the bad guys becomes the norm after a few episodes, as does the slang. One quickly accepts this world as a separate entity from reality – which is ironic considering realism was a key factor that gained the programme such critical and commercial success first time round. Coming to it anew at a moment when the contemporary world seems a more uncertain environment with each passing day, there’s something oddly comforting about the world inhabited by ‘The Sweeney’; it’s rough and it’s ready, but you know where you stand.

© The Editor

THE COLOUR BAR

When talking pictures arrived at the end of the 1920s, many saw them as a novelty in the same way 3D would be viewed (rightly, as it turned out) thirty years later; the silents – even in their familiar comedic form – had achieved the status of Art by this stage and the intrusion of sound appeared an unnecessary gimmick. If one compares the amateurish early talkies with the otherworldly sophistication of the finest silents produced at the same time, it’s not hard to understand why sound seemed to coarsen what was a unique art-form and ruin the illusion. Yet, within five years of ‘The Jazz Singer’ appearing in 1927, silent movies were completely over; by the middle of the 1930s, pictures talked and that was how things were. It was impossible to imagine them any other way.

Although television was still regarded as cinema’s poor relation in the early 1950s, the devastating impact it rapidly had on cinema attendances as the decade wore on prompted the film industry to invest in all the technical wizardry TV couldn’t compete with – widescreen, cinemascope, the aforementioned 3D, and (more than anything else) Technicolor. That was the real advantage cinema had over its household usurper. Yet, even the fact that the newest mass medium was transmitting to a tiny screen in murky monochrome couldn’t prevent it from supplanting both cinema and radio by the early 60s. Audiences appeared to have accepted that the living room’s one-eyed monster came in black & white and that was that. Unbeknownst to the wider viewing public, however, TV’s pioneering alchemists had been attempting to make television in colour almost from the very beginning, right back to Baird’s lab. It was more or less monochrome by default.

The interruption of the Second World War set back TV’s development by a good decade, but broadcasting in colour was an ongoing experiment that had occasional outings on US networks from the mid-50s onwards. A small amount of filmed series began to be made in colour from this period, but the technical demands of producing electronic colour pictures using video cameras in television studios – not to mention the expense of special sets being required to receive colour transmissions – meant conversion to colour was a slow process that took several years. By 1964, only 3.1% of American households owned a colour set, and the majority of programming outside of prime-time shows remained in black & white. But the competition between the big three US networks weaponised colour as a ratings-winner and by 1968 virtually all American TV schedules were in colour – or ‘IN COLOR’ as they liked to say.

On this side of the Atlantic, the BBC had been trying to forge ahead with colour for almost as long as US broadcasters, but it took until the arrival of BBC2 and its technically superior 625 lined-picture in 1964 and then the adoption of the Europe-wide PAL system (as opposed to the NTSC system used in America) before British TV was finally ready to go for it. BBC2 pioneered colour from the summer of 1967 onwards, commissioning lavish new documentaries on colour film such as Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ and studio dramas in colour, beginning with an adaptation of ‘Vanity Fair’. For many passers-by when TV rental shops would display rows of sets in the window, however, it was BBC2’s broadcasts from Wimbledon that really caught the eye. Programme-makers realised many sports worked better in colour – none more so than snooker, which BBC2 effectively copyrighted for a decade with the launch of ‘Pot Black’.

By 1969, the likes of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Mexico Olympics had shown that large, spectacular events captured the public’s attention even more when they could be seen in colour and, with the mouth-watering prospect of the Mexico World Cup just a few months away, plans were hatched by the BBC and ITV to convert all their output to colour. As with the introduction of decimal currency, the public was prepared in advance; BBC2 would screen ‘Trade Test Colour Films’ at hourly intervals during the day to exhibit the new technology, and the arrival of a certain little girl playing noughts & crosses with a certain scary clown also served to remind viewers TV was entering an exciting new age. The price of a colour TV licence, not to mention a set itself, remained somewhat off-putting, however; the widespread rental of sets from stores such as British Relay, Radio Rentals, Wigfalls and Valance’s was one way of overcoming the problem – and this was a habit that endured throughout the 1970s; our household didn’t finally own a set until around 1981.

On 15 November 1969 – exactly fifty years ago today – both BBC1 and ITV went into permanent colour; well, sort-of. I handily have a copy of that week’s Radio Times, and on the very first full colour day of BBC1 – which was a Saturday – the entire line-up from the start of ‘Grandstand’ at 12.45 through to the end of ‘Match of the Day’ at 11.5 was in glorious colour – including the likes of ‘Star Trek’, ‘Simon Dee’, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘The Harry Secombe Show’. The RT proclaimed the colour service would be available to lucky viewers receiving their pictures from the transmitters at Crystal Palace (London), Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham), Winter Hill (South Lancashire), and Emley Moor (Yorkshire). As with the initial spread of TV itself twenty years previously, colour would take time before becoming nationwide. ITV’s regional structure meant the rollout took even longer, with distant Channel Television being the last ITV company to covert to colour as late as 1976.

The plan was that all newly-produced networked BBC and ITV output from the autumn of 1969 onwards would be in colour. Although there was still a backlog of black & white shows that had been made prior to this decision, once they reached the end of their runs, they were then deemed to be of no further use. If the TV companies were forever extolling the benefits of colour yet still repeating monochrome shows, why would the public invest in colour sets? The mass wiping of TV shows made before the colour era began in earnest during this period, but black & white drama in particular – like similarly-discarded silent cinema before it – had its own merits; some examples that survived or have been subsequently salvaged from skips aren’t merely colour shows with the colour turned down. Designers and technicians accommodated the limitations of monochrome and gave these programmes a unique look and ambience that often resembles German Expressionist cinema, with shadowy sets creating a specifically sinister atmosphere impossible to recreate in colour. So, we did lose something.

I can date the period our household finally acquired a colour set to late 1976. One of the great attractions of visiting grandparents and relatives up until this point had been the rare chance to see ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Top of the Pops’ in colour; now such shows would be colour for good and it was unimaginable to think of settling for them in black & white ever again. A colour TV set ceased to be a social status symbol by the end of the 70s, overtaken by ownership of a second (portable) set or one with Teletext or even a VCR. The Jones’s will always latch onto something new, and I’ve no doubt the neighbours were made well aware of what they were watching on this very day half-a-century ago.

© The Editor

OLD BILL

I suppose it could be viewed as a subconscious purchase, for the timing of it certainly wasn’t consciously intentional. Mind you, a 1976 drama about an aspiring Labour MP from the far left of the party is undoubtedly a fascinating near-factual snapshot of times that continue to resonate down the decades. The drama in question is called ‘Bill Brand’ and it aired on ITV at the beginning of the Long Hot Summer we all remember (if we’re old enough). It stars Leeds-born Jack Shepherd, an intense actor whose face is as familiar to those who binge on 70s TV via DVD as most of the supporting cast of what I’ve found to be pretty compulsive viewing.

The title character (played by Shepherd) is a principled, committed socialist of the old school at a time before it was regarded as such. I guess he has more than a touch of how I imagine a young Dennis Skinner might have been, but it’s also tempting to speculate this is a series that could well have been must-see TV for a certain Comrade Corbyn back in the day. Actually, this is a series in which grown men address each other as Comrade or Brother and manage to keep a straight face; it’s easy to forget this was a common courtesy within great swathes of the Labour Party when the programme was produced. It just sounds vaguely comical now.

Brand is from working-class, back-to-back Manchester stock, and I suppose represents that first generation which benefitted from the educational reforms of the Attlee administration. It’s made clear he made it to university, and is evidently a scholar of socialism committed to ‘the struggle’. His commitment to the cause isn’t paralleled in his somewhat messy private life, however; separated from his wife and two young children, Brand is shacked-up with his right-on girlfriend (played by a young Cherie Lunghi), who is rather amusingly called Alex Ferguson. His relationship with her is kept quiet during the by-election campaign that puts him in Parliament, something that serves as a reminder of how ‘living in sin’ was still frowned upon by the middle-aged and elderly members of the electorate Brand has to charm.

Once he makes it to Westminster, Brand is confronted by the disappointing realities of a Labour Government when seen from the perspective of radical lefties from the provinces. The series features a gallery of characters that are thinly-veiled portrayals of prominent Labour Ministers of the era, including Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins. There is also a memorable one-episode turn by Arthur Lowe as a Harold Wilson-like Prime Minister name of Arthur Watson. As someone who was addicted to ‘Our Friends in the North’, Peter Flannery’s landmark 1996 BBC series, I immediately realised the character played by Arthur Lowe in ‘Bill Brand’ shares it with another ageing Labour MP in Flannery’s epic, implying he too was a viewer twenty years earlier.

It’s interesting to see Nigel Hawthorne briefly appear as a pre-Sir Humphrey civil servant, for as with the authors of ‘Yes Minister’, it’s hard not to conclude that the writer of ‘Bill Brand’, Trevor Griffiths, must have had the assistance of an ‘insider’ or at least a few former insiders when researching the series. The way in which we are educated in the Westminster Dark Arts by seeing them through Bill’s wide eyes seems a pretty accurate portrayal of how a fresh honourable member would encounter the compromises and mutual back-scratching that make the whole institution function. It’s also a sobering insight into how so many newly-elected MPs who arrive in the Commons with such high hopes of changing the world are quickly battered into submission by the system.

The often-humiliating rounds of constituency politics – judging beauty contests, opening shopping centres etc. – are familiar enough to anyone who’s ever caught regional media; but the detailed dullness of parliamentary committees and so forth are represented in a manner characteristic of 70s TV drama – i.e. long, drawn-out scenes that nevertheless suggest a level of realism at odds with the quick-fire cutting of contemporary television. To begin with, Brand makes enemies of some fairly sinister and cynical whips, especially when he has yet to curb his habit of siding with ‘the workers’, such as when he publicly supports a strike at a textile factory; but as the series progresses, his rapid awareness of his own impotence fuels his disillusionment.

Considering ‘Bill Brand’ began its eleven-episode one series-run just three months after the surprise resignation of Harold Wilson, it’s amazing that one of the major storylines in the series concerns the surprise resignation of the Prime Minister and the battle between left and right to control the Party. In reality, Michael Foot lost out to Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins was eliminated from the contest in the early rounds; in ‘Bill Brand’, it is the Jenkins character who ultimately triumphs – though I would imagine many fancied Jenkins to succeed Wilson at the time the series was written. As I haven’t finished watching the complete series yet, I don’t know how it ends for Bill, though I have a feeling he doesn’t go on to eventually become Labour leader.

As a period piece, there are some aspects that inevitably date it. The working-men’s club network in which each major political party had its own members-only drinking dens – something that once thrived throughout working-class communities and survived well into my own childhood – is represented in the constituency scenes, mainly by mild-supping, gruff old northerners in flat caps. Although Bill is progressive by the standards of the 70s, he treats his wife fairly appallingly and his proto-PC opinions are regularly tested by the archaic values his background drilled into him. However, there are uncanny echoes in the series that have a relevance to 2019 – especially the constant emphasis on the dire economic situation and the crisis the country is in, not to mention the jaded cynicism of voters towards their elected representatives.

Bill’s ‘brand’ of socialism probably seemed hopelessly naive even when the series was made, and the fact that the wider electorate outside of idealistic Labour activists didn’t believe in it then inevitably forces today’s viewer to ponder on the aims and ambitions of the current Labour Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see Jeremy Corbyn as the real-life equivalent of Bill Brand 40-odd years on; I suspect Bill in Jezza’s shoes would also have stuck rigidly to principles that hadn’t altered in four decades, even if the prospect of power had forced him to keep schtum on some (membership of the EU, for example). As a fascinating barely-fictional slice of 70s political life, ‘Bill Brand’ is worth investing in for those who like that sort of thing; as a comparison between then and now, I can’t think of a better time to watch it.

© The Editor

THE STORY OF US

The wry, dry detachment of Larkin’s oft-quoted observation on the cultural significance of 1963 – ‘which was rather late for me’ – makes me wonder if the old monochrome Britain still languishing in the shadow of war vanished forever when the last clump of snow from the unprecedented winter that opened this most transformative of years belatedly melted away in March. As the thaw began, The Beatles hit No.1 for the first time and pointed towards a new kind of Britain. Britain was ready for it. The Profumo Scandal exposed the decadent double-standards of the ruling elite, whereas deference received a further kicking when Ronnie Biggs and his mob robbed Her Majesty’s mail train. To borrow the catchphrase of Danny Boon, the cheesy comedian from ‘Billy Liar’ (released in 1963), ‘It’s all happening!’ And it was.

The pieces were already in place – from the satire boom to the ‘kitchen sink’ school of cinema and theatre – and were evident on the country’s newest and most influential medium, television. The spread of the ITV network across the UK was complete by 1963 and the ITV company that had broken the mould of drama with ‘Coronation Street’, Granada, also revitalised current affairs broadcasting with ‘World in Action’, whose brash, fearless, innovative attitude contrasted dramatically with the somewhat staid ‘Panorama’ and its avuncular host, Richard Dimbleby. It’s doubtful whether the BBC would have commissioned a study of the British class system as seen through the eyes of specially-selected seven-year-olds; but ‘World in Action’ did. The timing, like so much that happened here in 1963, was right.

Watching the original ‘Seven Up’ documentary now, it’s clear the year was on a cusp and not quite ‘Swinging’; indeed, it’s remarkable how Edwardian it all looks when showing the children in the school environment. The working-class kids are crammed into those austere red-brick fortresses most of us attended, whereas the public school lot remain locked in a ‘Tom Brown’ bubble, reciting ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in Latin and enduring military drills overseen by a fascistic little prefect. The characteristic bigging-up to impress peer groups is blatant at both ends of the social scale – the posh boys declaring they read the Financial Times and the tenement scamp claiming he goes to bed at either 10 or 11 o’clock. These children may not have been media-savvy, but they are remarkably self-assured.

As a one-off, ‘Seven Up’ stands on its own as a unique document of a country caught on camera just before the start of the social transformations that the children of 1963 would gradually benefit from. We may well have been left to guess what awaited them, but then something special happened. When a young researcher on ‘Seven Up’ called Michael Apted was asked to direct a follow-up programme seven years later, he tracked down the 14 participants, and the comparisons between the charismatic kids of ‘Seven Up’ and the moody, awkward adolescents of ‘7 Plus Seven’ was a fascinating snapshot of lives in transition. Apted says at that moment he realised the potential of what he had on his hands.

The greatest contrasts between then and now take place in the first three instalments of what became an ongoing series, and the contrasts aren’t merely physical or in the hairstyles and fashions. In 1977, Apted reunited the 14 again for ‘21 Up’, when the young adults were reaping the rewards of the decade that began with the first programme. Although the five participants to go through the private and public school systems – Charles, Andrew, John, Bruce and Suzy – had all travelled the educational routes already mapped-out for them in ‘Seven Up’, others denied their privileges were making their way in a way that reflected the social mobility revolution: farmer’s son Nick and suburban Scouser Peter were both at university, whereas the three East End girls – Jackie, Lynn and Sue – were all earning enough to buy their own homes; this factor makes ‘21 Up’ seem as distant now as the original documentary. However, perhaps the first real indication that some of these lives were destined to make a massive emotional impact on the audience came with Neil in ‘21 Up’.

The bright and bubbly buddy of Peter in ‘Seven Up’ had dropped-out of university after failing to fulfil the academic expectations of his parents and was doing menial work whilst living in a London squat. His frustration and sense of failure seem to convey world-weariness beyond his years; for the viewers, Neil’s story touched a real nerve and became the most gripping of all. Seven years later, there was genuine shock when he appeared in ‘28 Up’, hitchhiking his way through the Scottish highlands and of no fixed abode. Displaying nervous tics, clad in ill-fitting charity shop clothes and his hair shorn, he confessed ‘I can’t see any immediate future at all’. He looked dangerously like a man who had run out of everything.

Neil didn’t fit the era’s image of an economic casualty as seen in, say, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ (i.e. a victim of deindustrialisation); he was more an early casualty of the collapse of social mobility’s aspirations, someone who had fallen through the cracks from the lower middle-classes. His struggles have formed the series’ most compelling narrative; every time it comes around, Neil’s update is always left till last. There was a touching intervention at one stage from fellow participant Bruce, demonstrating the compassion that had been visible in his seven-year-old ambition to become a missionary (one member of the family who seems to have fulfilled the Jesuit maxim at the heart of the show’s remit). Bruce offered Neil the spare bedroom and formed a friendship that enabled Neil to get back on his feet. Being a Lib Dem councillor and a lay-preacher seemed to give Neil a degree of purpose he’d so painfully lacked in earlier instalments, but his troubled past means viewers always fear the worst every seven years whilst simultaneously hoping for the best.

Our concern for Neil is potent because this remarkable project has provoked an emotional investment in its participants that means we genuinely care what happens to them. We see the stages of life unfold through them; as they age, their parents die but their offspring provide them with grandchildren. We see their hair going grey and sometimes fade away; we see their waistlines expand; but we also see them achieve something approaching contentment. Most have even managed a level of resigned acceptance with the intrusion of the series into their lives, something that has sometimes been manifested as bristly resentment resulting in the odd absence from an instalment.

But, of course, the older they get, the closer creeps their mortality. Cockney cabbie Tony has suffered health scares, farmer’s son and physicist Nick is seriously ill with cancer, and – saddest of all – librarian Lynn passed away just a year after ’56 Up’, the first of the gang to die. Yet, this is life; there is tragedy, but there is triumph. Barnardo’s boys Paul and Symon are two of the most grounded participants of all – both having a tough start in life yet reaching near-retirement age comfortable in their own skins. And this ninth instalment of a programme that stands as a towering tribute to the human spirit ended with a wonderfully elegiac shot of Neil riding his bike, musing on the collapse of his marriage. ‘The idea of true love, which I think exists, occurs so seldom,’ he says. ‘If it occurs once in somebody’s life, they’re extremely lucky; for it then to happen, and then the potential can’t be fulfilled, is heartbreaking.’

Always moving, but never sentimental – the ‘Up’ series really is an unparalleled example of what television as a medium is capable of and so rarely aims for. It was a product of its time, our time. We won’t see its like again.

© The Editor

ABOUT BRITAIN

‘Community’, like many words, has changed its meaning somewhat over the last few decades. At one time, community used to be a geographical term, one generally applied to describe the mixed residents of a neighbourhood, town, city or county. By contrast, today it seems every niche interest or lifestyle can lay claim to the word, and everyone who subscribes to an approved social demographic has its own community on the 21st century bus-route. Over-familiar phrases such as ‘The LGBT Community’ or ‘The Muslim Community’ to some appear a tad patronising, assuming anyone who happens to fall into one of these categories is somehow the member of an exclusive tribe; and each tribe appears to regard mere membership itself as the defining characteristic of its members. The proliferation of self-contained groups that refer to themselves as communities may give comfort to those who seek like-minds, but it often feels like the definition of the word has been narrowed in the process.

Forty-five years ago, when community still retained its earlier, far broader meaning, the prevalent distinctions between different parts of the country were perceived to be at risk from the threat of nationwide homogenisation; the Wilson Government had already ring-fenced the Welsh language at a time when it was verging on extinction, and moves were afoot to consciously reinforce regional identity throughout the UK via a revived medium. With the challenge of the pirates still fresh in the ears of listeners, the broadcasting stranglehold of the BBC was belatedly broken in government-sanctioned fashion by the arrival of Independent Local Radio. This was commercial television’s audio offshoot, one that transformed the ITA into the IBA and began to spread like a wireless virus across the country following the 1973 debut of LBC and Capital Radio in London.

BBC local radio had arrived in the aftermath of the network station reorganisation in 1967, but had largely been a rather conservative enterprise, appealing mainly to pensioners and followers of local football teams. Here was a more dynamic, perhaps more American notion of a radio station, however – built around a top 40 playlist peppered with programmes designed with the locality in mind and ads unique to the area covered by the transmitter. As with the individual ITV franchise holders of the era, loyalty to the region in question was fostered with these ILR stations; indeed, it was partly their raison d’être. Their very names reflected the regions they broadcasted to, usually named after a geographical feature, such as a river – Radio Clyde (Glasgow), Radio Orwell (Ipswich), Radio Trent (Nottingham), Radio Tees (Stockton), and Radio Aire (Leeds) being notable examples.

There was a deliberate effort on the part of these new additions to the local landscape to represent the areas they transmitted to with pride, appealing to the community spirit in listeners to keep them from turning to the national BBC stations. At times, the aping of the Radio 1 style with a regional twist could be hopelessly naff; promotional material featuring DJs looking like Tony Blackburn tribute acts were abundant in the pages of the IBA’s annual ‘Television and Radio’ guidebook, and the mid-Atlantic accent often sat uncomfortably alongside regional dialect on the airwaves – a factor that was fictionalised with shrewd accuracy in the shape of Bristol-based Radio West on BBC TV’s ‘Shoestring’. But the ILR operation nonetheless gave every impression of being a success by the sheer number of stations that began to appear.

Between 1974 and 1976, no less than sixteen ILR stations opened; there was then a four-year sabbatical before further expansion from 1980 onwards. Over the next seven years, a staggering 38 more ILR stations were added to the roll-call, so that by the end of the 80s, virtually every old-school ‘community’ was commercially catered for. And then it all came to a shuddering halt with Margaret Thatcher’s final fixing of an unbroken system before the Poll Tax called time on the Thatcherite project, the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

In television terms, the Broadcasting Act enabled the BBC to fall into the fatal hands of John Birt and for ITV to self-destruct into the corporate car-crash that eventually brought us Cowell and Kyle. With radio, the damage was arguably even more profound and was further exacerbated by the deregulation of the Communications Act 13 years later. The dissolution of the IBA and the establishment of a new regulatory body with a remit to issue new licences to the highest bidder were reflective of a different approach to commercial radio. A series of mergers and buyouts and the replacement of specialised regional broadcasting with networked generic programming after-dark altered the ILR template so their stations became less a hallmark of regional identity and more an amateurish alternative to slick new national stations such as Virgin, without being especially distinguishable from them. Indeed, what was the point in tuning-in to the poor relation country-cousin if there was no distinction between a local station and a national one?

The old definition of community was dispensed with as the 20th century drew to a close; it was no longer about where you are, but what you are. The sudden rash of new stations saw a cluttered diversification that effectively created radio ghettos in which community was redesigned along genre lines when it came to the playlist; the fictitious oldies stations often heard playing in the background of Peter Kay’s comedy series such as ‘Car Share’ are uncannily accurate parodies of how unlistenable the real thing can be. Another example was coverage of, and commentary on, local football teams – always a big draw for the ILR stations; in many cases, copyright transferred to the clubs themselves (especially if they dined at the Premier League table); this symbolic shaving-off of key elements of the old-school ILR station has continued so that every community today has its radio voice and preaches solely to the converted.

Now splintered into hundreds of little communities, the fragmented airwaves undoubtedly possess a greater range of that arch-Thatcherite word, ‘choice’, than ever before. But the original aim behind the formation of Independent Local Radio is essentially as dead a concept as the past contrasts between different parts of the country, and Independent Local Radio as a label itself is a complete misnomer today. Have we lost something? Perhaps community as a broader term and this then being mirrored by broadcasters has been a notable casualty. The differences between us have always been abundant, but during the ILR’s heyday, these differences seemed to unite us under one genuinely ‘diverse’ umbrella. The differences now are so myriad that they seem more prone to division – and in some cases, voluntary segregation. But at least, to paraphrase Peter Kay’s Chorley FM, there’s always a radio station ‘coming in your ear’.

© The Editor

THROUGH THE PAST, DARKLY

Grinning and bearing my way through precisely six months of paralysis following the abrupt stopping of the clocks last December has had a funny effect on my perception of time. Frozen as both participant and observer, one way of suppressing a sense of uselessness at my sudden inability to respond to contemporary events in the customary manner has been to retreat into a digitally restored version of the past. After all, when circumstances rob you of the present and deprive you of a future in the process (or at least the future you thought you were getting), the one certainty you can turn to is the past, a place where the ground beneath your feet is reassuringly solid.

This is a painless post in terms of writing (and, one hopes, reading); it’s simply me taking a stress-free diversion into my viewing habits of the last half-year, one that may strike the odd chord merely as an entertaining interlude. And, as it’s not unusual for this blog to mine a bit of nostalgia from archive telly, I speak today of ‘Special Branch’, a series produced by ITV back in the days when it added up to a good deal more as a broadcaster than the vacuous vacuum it currently inhabits. It’s a series that has also provided me with a convenient distraction from recent events via the DVD box-set.

Originally a dramatic, franchise-justifying product of the fledgling Thames Television, ‘Special Branch’ first appeared at the fag-end of the monochrome era in late 1969. Starring the chunky-faced Derren Nesbitt as DCI Jordan, the series dramatised the middle man between CID and the Secret Service at the height of post-Philby Cold War paranoia. Nesbitt’s Jordan was a flash young buck whose startlingly dapper dress sense always made him look as if he’d just stepped off a gentleman’s fashion shoot for ‘Town’ magazine; a bit of a flamboyant oddity in stale environs populated by both stuffy Whitehall suits and crusty Met veterans, Jordan nevertheless got results as well as gorgeous ‘dollies’ resplendent in the big hair/false eyelashes/micro-dress ensembles popularised by the likes of Bobbie Gentry at the time.

Constantly thwarted by MI5 mandarin Moxon (played with slimy languor by Morris Perry), DCI Jordan eventually threw his career away when the seductive charms of recurring double-agent Christine Morris (the Bobbie Gentry blueprint par excellence) proved a little too seductive. But then, Jordan was very much a man of his time – a time when men weren’t marginalised by a media intent on portraying the male of the species (and his ‘toxic masculinity’) as the embodiment of all evil whilst simultaneously wondering why so many examples of this useless, redundant relic end up jumping off rooftops.

Like most British drama of the era, ‘Special Branch’ in its original format was divided between studio sets shot on videotape and location inserts shot on film. Occasionally, embryonic OB (Outside Broadcast) cameras were used for exteriors, but the blatantly artificial lighting and shaky visuals suggested the time was not yet right for its use as a regular system for anything beyond on-the-spot news reports. The more familiar contrast between studio VT and location film was industry standard then and only seems jarring decades after the event, as does an acting style informed more by theatre than cinema. However, it clearly irked some working in TV and eventually led to the aesthetic rebirth of the show following a two-year hiatus in 1973.

Euston Films was established by Thames as a means of shooting serious, grown-up dramas entirely on film, both indoors and outdoors, and must have been a gritty innovation in the early 70s, particularly when compared to the slicker fantasy-adventure filmed series from the ITC stable. The revived ‘Special Branch’ was its first outing and it wasn’t just the look of the series that had changed. The cast received a complete overhaul as well. Out had gone Detective Chief Inspector Jordan and his superior (played by Fulton Mackay long before he became a familiar face courtesy of a certain prisoner name of Norman Stanley Fletcher); in came the craggy countenance of DCI Alan Craven, played by George Sewell. Prior to his recruitment to the side of the good guys, Sewell had mostly been a character actor playing villains; he had a memorable role in 1971’s seminal Brit gangster flick, ‘Get Carter’. After ‘Special Branch’, he reverted to type; but in the part of Craven, Sewell excelled as a hard-boiled copper that the viewer could entirely believe in.

Considering the controversial role the actual Special Branch played in Northern Ireland in the 70s, the TV version of the department largely avoids such contentious areas and also distinguishes itself from its earlier incarnation by mostly steering clear of staple stories surrounding suspected spies and Marxist student revolutionaries. Often, the storylines seem suited to a series focusing on routine police work, though there are numerous ‘firsts’ present, not least the fact that the lead character has a girlfriend who happens to be black. Nobody would bat an eyelid at an interracial relationship today, but this was pretty groundbreaking stuff in 1973; in retrospect, the mixed-race love interest between Craven and a nurse called Pam is a refreshing development for mainstream drama and one that wasn’t built upon for several years. Moreover, there’s also the mental breakdown of a regular cast member, something which is handled with both surprising sensitivity and a welcome absence of ‘issue’-led sentimentality so commonplace in present-day soaps.

The key ingredient in the reboot of ‘Special Branch’ is the introduction of the old cop/young cop dynamic when Patrick Mower appears as DCI Haggerty; initially a ‘guest artist’ (as the opening credits imply), Mower’s arrogant and swaggering character is then bedded in as a permanent presence, providing the show with some testosterone bite and laying the foundations for the Regan & Carter double act of the series that ultimately succeeded it. Paul Eddington is also added in a pre-‘Good Life’ role as an MI5 bigwig whose urbane pomposity serves to frustrate the more hands-on approach of his subordinates on the street. The cast list is fleshed out by members of the wonderful rep company of character actors that peppers British TV drama of the 70s, some of whom eventually found leading roles of their own.

After two successful ‘seasons’ (as is now the norm to say), ‘Special Branch’ was dropped in favour of ‘The Sweeney’, a series produced by the same team, and one which took many elements from its predecessor but crucially cranked up the macho violence in the process. Thanks to consistent reruns from the early 80s onwards, the adventures of the Flying Squad have rarely been absent from our screens and have become established as the retrospective template for British police dramas, inspiring tributes as diverse as ‘Life on Mars’ and the memorable ‘Comic Strip’ homage, ‘Detectives on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. But none of that would have happened had not ‘Special Branch’ paved the way.

I don’t know why, but an antiquated series produced in a different country has served a need almost half-a-century on for someone struggling to cope with the wasteland bequeathed to him, and has also opened a portal into a past far more alluring than anything the present can boast. An entirely irretrievable image of England, of course; but we all find our own personal panaceas when confronted by the unbearable. This has been mine – well, one of them. And when it comes to dealing with the troublesome twenty-first century, those of us who experienced at least thirty years of its predecessor can always count on its cultural artefacts to provide necessary shelter from the storm.

© The Editor

ACTION MEN

The publicity surrounding the latest ‘Panorama’ undercover filming exposé of the old ‘give ‘em a uniform and they think they’re Hitler’ adage – this time concerning G4S staff at an immigration removal centre at Gatwick – evokes memories of the appalling abuse of patients by staff at the Winterbourne View private mental hospital that the same programme exposed six years ago. That Winterbourne View had received a glowing endorsement by the organisation of ostriches known as CQC just months before ‘Panorama’ cameras captured the realities of the regime at the institution not only highlighted the ineptitude of the system, but also reminded TV viewers of how current affairs shows still have the power to right wrongs if television companies are prepared to invest in them.

There is actually no valid excuse for there not being numerous series on terrestrial television in the vein of the ‘Panorama’ Gatwick/G4S programme; people will watch if current affairs are afforded the same level of pre-publicity that the ‘Bake Off’ franchise receives; and if viewers are stirred out of armchair torpor by voting someone off a glorified knobbly knees contest, how much better that a similar reaction is provoked by something that actually matters. But the dumbing down factor, which saw ITV’s twin titans of current affairs, ‘This Week’ and (especially) ‘World in Action’, disappear from the schedules within six years of each other in the 90s, has become a mainstream virus in recent years as ratings are seen as a barometer of significance when in reality they count for far less in an age of Netflix and DVD box-sets.

The BBC’s public service remit, which it is happy to evoke when confronted by criticism but doesn’t always place at the forefront of its scheduling, was once mirrored by its main commercial competitor. The aforementioned ‘World in Action’ was a revelation when it first appeared in 1963, deliberately adopting a brasher approach to investigative journalism than ‘Panorama’, one that took a fearless aim at guilty parties and took no prisoners in the process.

A product of an age when ITV companies really were autonomous entities, ‘Word in Action’ emanated from Granada in Manchester and proved to be a breeding ground for some of the most notable broadcasters in the business, including Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Parkinson, John Pilger, and future Hollywood directors Michael Apted and Paul Greengrass. The latter once reflected on his time working on the show by remembering the Granada chairman had told him ‘Don’t forget, your job’s to make trouble.’ One of the programme’s editors had described its ethos as being ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’

Throughout its 35-year history, ‘World in Action’ shone a light on neglected abuses within society that rightly roused the indignation of viewers – Poulson, poverty, the homeless, the cover-up of industrial accidents, the treatment of the elderly, the Birmingham Six, pirate radio, the British intelligence services, Jonathan Aitken and endless others; in 1984 it also famously sent then-Tory MP Matthew Parris to live on state benefits for a week in Newcastle, an experience that eventually led to his early retirement from politics in favour of a media career. Michael Apted’s prime contribution to the programme was ‘Seven Up’ in 1964, the first instalment in what has become an ongoing series every seven years.

Its premise was to film fourteen seven-year-old children from the full range of social (and in one case) racial classes in Britain at that moment, from cheeky working-class scamps to precocious upper-class toffs, as an innovative critique of how each had their futures mapped out even at such a tender age. Had the original programme been a one-off, no doubt it would still be viewed as a remarkable piece of television documentary, but what made it such an extraordinary concept in the history of British TV was that Michael Apted, a researcher on ‘Seven Up’, was commissioned to direct a sequel seven years later, contrasting the seven-year-old children with their fourteen-year-old selves, to be followed seven years later by a third instalment and so on.

Even though some of the participants have dropped-out, unhappy at the way they had been portrayed on-screen and unwilling to be lifelong participants in a television experiment, the ‘Up’ series has continued to be filmed at seven-yearly intervals ever since, and in the process has created a unique social history of Britain over the course of almost fifty years.

Of all those who have taken part in the series since its inception, perhaps the one to have made the greatest mark, and in turn raised the ‘Up’ series to the pinnacle of British TV’s finest achievements, was introduced as a bright Liverpudlian schoolboy called Neil; his progress from optimistic child to disillusioned adult has been imbued with an existential resonance that has touched a nerve in the British public and has gifted television with some of its most genuinely moving moments as Neil’s life has flashed before the viewer’s eyes in a sequence of engrossing vignettes unparalleled in any other medium. Television doesn’t need the contrived drum-roll drama of announcing the winner of a talent contest when it’s capable of doing this. If only someone would tell that to the wankers who run it.

The ‘Up’ series is one of the rare examples of television that not only justifies the licence fee, but justifies the existence of television itself, vividly demonstrating how, especially in the case of Neil, it can tell a true story with an immediacy that hits an audience in ways that print cannot emulate. In the 60s and 70s, when both the BBC and ITV made ample room for powerful documentary stories in their primetime schedules, the ‘Up’ series seemed like another example of television’s unique ability to reach out and grab the viewer by turning a mirror on the lives of others; but by the 21st Century, surrounded by wall-to-wall reality programmes following the narcissistic bowel movements of every wannabe celebrity whose every inarticulate utterance is a plug for another project in the pipeline, the ‘Up’ series is relatively isolated in a field of its own and reminds both critics and audiences alike what a missed opportunity it has been for the bastard genre it inadvertently spawned.

Like ‘Panorama’, ‘World in Action’ had a prized slot at the heart of the primetime schedules; that it is no longer with us when ‘Panorama’ has continued to prove current affairs shows of this nature can still hit the mark given half the chance is one more damning indictment of an industry reneging on its potential. And the viewer is the loser.

© The Editor

A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

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