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



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


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


Okay, so it’s been a bloody grim week so far, and as a means of combating the worst elements of the twenty-first century, I’ve been retreating into the selective embrace of the past in the shape of programmes for schools and colleges produced in the 1970s. Thanks to YouTube, over the last 48 hours I’ve sat through 40-odd year-old editions of ‘Look and Read’, ‘Words and Pictures’, ‘How We Used to Live’ et al. If I dip into my desk drawer and pull out a copy of the Radio Times from the same era (the copy in question dated 31 August-6 September 1974), the centre pages provide the most striking contrast between television then and television now, for they contain a four-page guide to that autumn’s educational schedule across BBC TV and radio.

And the variety on offer in this schedule is all the more eye-opening because these series are all primarily aimed at adults; there isn’t even room for cataloguing the myriad of programmes produced for schools during this period. Got kids? Watch ‘Parents and Children’ on BBC1; like football? Listen to ‘Behind the Goals’ on Radio 3; just qualified as a social-worker? Watch ‘Developments in Social Work’ on BBC2; interested in ‘news-making, decision-making and forms of loyalty’? Watch ‘Focus’ on BBC1 – and that’s not the flute-based, yodelling Dutch prog-rock band, despite ‘House of the King’ being used as the theme tune to numerous educational programmes in the 1970s.

You can learn to speak German, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, learn to become a mountaineer, rugby player and gardener, learn how to understand economics, the National Health and local government, not to mention ‘systematic thinking in action’! Arts, sciences, languages, the community, home and leisure, work and industry, teaching – all fall under the umbrella of public service broadcasting in 1974. Despite his reservations over the one-eyed monster, no doubt Lord Reith would have been proud his original remit remained relatively intact.

Today, what used to be viewed as television down-time is filled during the day with cheap and cheerful antiques/cookery/house-buying and selling/quiz show formulas and late at night with rolling news, interactive game shows and repeats of daytime fodder with a man in the corner of the screen aptly gesticulating his way through ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In retrospect, it’s amazing how a TV landscape that switched-off around midnight seemed to cram more into its limited broadcasting hours than one that never sleeps. The adult education programmes described above could usually be found hidden away last thing at night or presented together in a large chunk on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between a religious service and farming news; space in the listings may have been at a precious premium, but the schedulers always found a space to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Then of course, there were the twilight hours that were occupied by hirsute men in spectacles with little or no evident experience in front of a camera – the Open University. Who could forget that eerie, unnerving jingle jolting the armchair snoozer back to life far more effectively than a car alarm would do today? And who could forget programmes for schools and colleges? For anyone who was of school age in the 60s, 70s or 80s, they were amongst the few breathers from the classroom tedium on offer. What a ritual that was, being ushered into the library and watching the teacher wheel-in a huge telly, waiting for what felt like an aeon for the machine to warm-up, and then being greeted by some unsettling Radiophonic Workshop ditty accompanying a pulsating diamond or a circle of disappearing dots before the actual programme began.

It’s worth bearing in mind just how many hours were given over to schools broadcasts as well. An average BBC1 week during term-time would begin around 9.38am and would sign-off not long after midday; following a dinner-break for the test card, the news, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, schools TV would open its gates again for another hour or so at the precise time of 2.2pm. That’s not even including BBC schools broadcasts on the radio, when the VHF wavelength on Radio 4 would be used exclusively for them between 10.00 in the morning and 3.00 in the afternoon.

We should also remember that ITV – yes! ITV! – played its part in the television education of the nation’s children as well. Even though commercial considerations freed them from a less rigid public service commitment than the Beeb, their weekday schedule ran from 9.30-12.00 and produced some of the most memorable schools programmes of them all. There was even an advertising armistice during these transmissions.

Calculate just how much of pre-24 hour TV on both sides of the British broadcasting divide was given over to educational programming and it’d be pretty impressive. It’s indisputable that many were cheaply-made on shoestring budgets, especially the Open University broadcasts; and some were uniquely dull in a manner that elevated visual boredom to a level that now seems quite radical, on a par with the worst Warhol movies or a contemporary art installation But I’d still be more bored sitting through an edition of ‘This Morning’ than an episode of Granada’s austere schools science show, ‘Experiment’.

Noble ventures are not something one would now really associate with British television. Most 21st century TV execs would probably regard ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ as such, and in their own way, they are. But annual or bi-annual telethons, when the normal schedule is set aside for one night only to accommodate a good deed, are different to the noble venture that was educational television. It was a product of a period in which the people who ran television regarded it as a tool of communication that amounted to more than a ratings-chasing commercial cash-cow or a daytime sedative. Much like the internet is today, TV then was viewed as a multi-purpose medium capable of all that life can afford.

So, where did it go? Firstly, the advent of the VCR hailed the death-knell of schools programming in its traditional slot; secondly, in the mid-80s BBC TV schools programmes were shunted over to BBC2 in preparation for the launch of daytime BBC1 and the arrival of cosy sofa chinwags about child abuse and the menstrual cycle. Not long after, ITV transferred their schools schedule to Channel 4 in order that Richard and Judy could do likewise, paving the way for menopausal gobshites and underclass-baiting bullies. It is ironic that a slot once reserved for mind-expansion is now reserved for the gradual erosion of the brain cells, and after-dark telly today is no less retarded. It does seem a shame that the increase in broadcasting hours doesn’t seem capable of embracing the same breadth of broadcasting available when less was more.

© The Editor


There’s a news report by the late ITN reporter Michael Nicholson from the 1967/70 Biafran War in which an enemy is captured by Nigerian Government forces and then shot dead on camera as a brutal demonstration of the army’s authority. Nicholson himself retrospectively reflected that the whole ugly spectacle was set up to ‘impress’ him and the western media, but it was hardly unique in an era when television news viewed itself as a vehicle for showing the world as it really was, warts and all. Around the same time, there was the even more infamous clip in a similar vein from Vietnam in which a bound prisoner is approached by a military man and is promptly shot point-blank in the temple; the blood gushes from the side of his head as his instantly limp body collapses to the ground, a gruesome fountain that was replayed on TV news around the globe.

Both these notorious examples of reportage from the frontline of ongoing conflicts belong to a less squeamish age that is now almost inconceivable to imagine being beamed into the nation’s living rooms. Were TV news today to exhibit the same kind of content as it did forty, fifty years ago, each bulletin would require an announcement beforehand of the sort that now even accompanies bloody ‘Coronation Street’ on occasion.

As a child, I was often more anxious when the news began that I would be if a horror film was about to be screened. One might presume the 1970s was somehow a more violent place than the 2010s if archive news broadcasts were used as a guide; in some respects, it was, though on a street level, if you like. The wider world was no more and no less violent than it is in 2017, but the violence wasn’t as remote – it was there in the playground and the classroom and it was there on the telly.

There was probably a greater awareness of violence then thanks to the less censorious approach of our broadcasters. If one thinks of the world’s trouble-spots forty-five years ago – Rhodesia, Vietnam, Uganda, Northern Ireland – the violence there was graphically portrayed on television because the viewpoint appeared to be that to not show it would simply reduce TV news to radio news. This could have been a natural progression from what radio had done during the Second World War, when listeners were dependent upon their imaginations to visualise the horrors of Belsen as so memorably described by Richard Dimbleby when the camp was liberated by Allied forces. TV news enabled the sights to be seen, however horrible. It was deemed a necessary evil if the public were to understand the unpleasant realities of war and its aftermath.

There appeared to be a conscious sea-change in television at some point in the 1990s – disturbing footage from the Gulf War that depicted the charred corpses of soldiers only appeared after the war was won, for example. The official demarcation line of the 9.00 watershed was extended when it came to conflict so that even post-watershed news bulletins avoided anything that might give their viewers nightmares. As late as 1982, the piles of bodies in the horrific massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon were shown on the TV news; the thinking seemed to be that these needed to be seen if the true appalling nature of the crime could be digested. Within a decade, it was difficult to envisage this kind of candid broadcasting.

The ‘don’t have nightmares’ catchphrase made famous by Nick Ross on ‘Crimewatch’ was taken up as an approach to television news from the 90s onwards, with the no-holds-barred presentation that had previously distinguished TV from radio abandoned in favour of an airbrushed picture of man’s inhumanity to man that meant nobody had to be exposed to it if they switched the news on. Of course, wall-to-wall massacres and murders are not something many would look forward to seeing, but by visually censoring the actual events being reported on, viewers are given a lopsided impression of such incidents that is akin to an adult placing their hands over a child’s eyes if a pair of tits appear in a movie the family is watching together. If something horrible has happened, the viewer should have the sense to know that tuning in to the news means they’re going to see it.

It’s possible the advent of the internet – where the curious can more or less see whatever they want to see – has influenced a greater degree of censorship on television. No severed heads sliced off by ISIS or the bodies of those ploughed down by the recent terrorist take on road-rage have been screened on TV news, but they can easily be located online; I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon the former myself. I didn’t necessarily want to see them, but seeing them did bring home the horror of their reality more than anything broadcast on television. Yet, crucially, the random selection of horrors online has no context in the way it would have on TV news, when the images would be framed within a report that their inclusion would justify. By refusing to countenance screening anything that might provoke nightmares, it feels as if the broadcasters are absolving themselves of any responsibility to the viewers, perhaps fearful of litigation.

Even streakers during prominent sports occasions are now swiftly mixed out of live broadcasts, with the commentator taking it upon himself to act as parent – ‘We’re sure the viewers at home don’t want to see that’ etc. I don’t necessarily want to watch a man’s member flopping about the touch-line of a football pitch, but the decision whether or not to watch should really be mine as an adult. In the 70s and 80s, broadcasters trusted viewers to make that decision and didn’t regard them as permanently offended virgin spinsters.

The ease with which so many take offence today and the aforementioned prospect of litigation could well have led us to this state of affairs re TV news; and for all the talk of news channels operating on a biased agenda that tells us what they want us to hear rather than giving us the whole story, it seems to me that this is most apparent in the censor’s scissors when it comes to anything unpleasant. They could always take a football results approach – ‘If you don’t want to see a severed head, look away now’ – but that won’t happen because John Craven’s pioneering bulletin was effectively the blueprint for the future we’re currently watching on the BBC, ITV and Sky. Don’t have nightmares.

© The Editor


Whenever the topic of homogenisation of the UK raises its ugly head, it’s only natural that the most visible examples out on the street tend to grab centre-stage – a conversation invariably dominated by the corporate chain-stores that render each shopping area in every town or city indistinguishable from the next. In a sense, this is the retail equivalent of the ‘Subtopia’ notion coined by architectural critic Ian Nairn in the 50s to describe the uniform dreariness of urban town-planning and its disregard for those who have to live amongst its end results. However, one overlooked element of homogenisation has crept upon the populace with far sneakier stealth than the Identikit shopping experience, and that has been with us for thirteen years now.

The Broadcasting Act of 1990 has had several far-reaching effects on the television landscape, but what it did to the nation’s sole commercial broadcaster prior to the arrival of Sky has perhaps served to alter the way in which the different regions of the UK are represented via the goggle box. It’s not so long ago that a holiday in a different part of the country to the one you knew as home would include tuning in to that region’s ITV station. It was a curious experience, like slipping into a parallel universe. It looked familiar, and yet it was distinctly different.

The original ITV formula of only the prime-time viewing schedule being networked meant that the majority of broadcasting hours were in the hands of the regional companies that made up the network; and they often played by their own rules. Imported dramas screened either in the afternoon or following ‘News at Ten’, such as Aussie soaps or US cop series, would be at different stages of their respective runs depending which ITV service you received. I recall a holiday down south in the early 80s, moving from the TVS region to the TSW one over a fortnight, and seeing the same episode of ‘Hill Street Blues’ two weeks running, an episode I’d already seen once before on YTV around six months earlier.

It wasn’t just the differences in imported shows, however; the same applied to the home-grown presentation. The on-screen graphics differed from region-to-region; some stations had in-vision continuity announcers and some (such as the old Westward company and its successor TSW) also produced their own opt-out children’s slots such as ‘Gus Honeybun’s Magic Birthdays’, a five-minute spot in which a puppet rabbit accompanied a station stalwart as he or she announced viewers’ birthdays. Even the national sport was regionalised, with each ITV company producing its own football programme on a Sunday afternoon, with the home teams local ones.

Whilst the big bucks of the so-called Big Five ITV companies were geared towards producing networked shows, one of the specifications in each ITV contract was that the franchise holders had to make a sizeable proportion of programmes exclusive to their own audience. Some of these were in the vein parodied by ‘The Fast Show’ character Bob Fleming – i.e. rustic country pursuits of interest to OAPs in the region and nobody outside of it – or shows that were eventually networked, such as Border Television’s ‘Mr and Mrs’ and even ‘Countdown’, which had a short run on YTV a year before the launch of Channel 4.

In those days, ITV was simply a generic name that wasn’t used much in the regions. Viewers would ask each other things like ‘What’s on ATV tonight?’ The regional station was seen as the alternative to the BBC and their on-screen identities were highly visible. Wherever you happened to be in the country, you were made aware which region produced the programme you were watching due to the short ‘ident’ that introduced it. Anyone over a certain age will recall Anglia’s silver statuette of the Black Prince on horseback, the nautical symbol of Southern and its gentle acoustic guitar jingle, the collected London skyline materialising from the river that represented Thames, the Yorkshire chevron and the pounding notes from ‘Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at’, ATV’s dramatic horns and three-colour dots that formed into its familiar logo and so on. Some of these idents were often more memorable than the programmes that followed them and remain engrained on the collective consciousness.

Before the intrusive incursion of breakfast television, many of the ITV companies even opened proceedings on a morning with a short travelogue film of the region, something that helped define the region as a location in its own broadcasting right even further. These films, most of which can be found today on YouTube, are now fascinating time capsules of a lost world, a world before UK plc. All this changed with the ramifications of the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

In the classic Thatcherite ‘free-market’ mould, the Act removed the barriers preventing the bigger ITV companies gobbling-up the smaller ones. Decades-old complaints that the IBA favoured the big guns when it came to prized networked slots were cast aside as the unedifying corporate cannibalism got underway. This began with Yorkshire Television acquiring Tyne-Tees in 1992 and continued throughout the last decade of the twentieth century so that by 2004 Granada and Carlton owned all the ITV franchises for England and Wales. With only STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland out of their reach, Granada and Carlton remodelled the ITV network along BBC lines, a national broadcaster with no sentiment for the regions.

This changed the nature of ITV forever thereafter. Regional continuity announcers and all regional programmes exclusive to the region that produced them (bar the weekday news magazine shows) vanished, replaced by a nationwide schedule transmitted from the capital. Gradually, each individual ITV franchise holder was renamed to reflect the changes. London Weekend Television and Carlton Television merged to become ITV London, Yorkshire Television became ITV Yorkshire, Anglia Television became ITV Anglia etc. The visual symbols that had represented the independence of the regions since ITV’s genesis in the 50s disappeared beneath the ITV plc logo, but more disappeared than just that.

When it comes to homogenisation of this country, one only has to turn the telly on to see it – or tune in to your one-time Independent Local Radio station; but that’s another story for another day.

© The Editor



001An annual publication accompanied by an advertising fanfare, the IBA’s ‘Television and Radio’ soft-back book was an intriguing peek behind the scenes of the country’s (then) sole commercial broadcaster, serving as a comprehensive guide to the ITV and ILR network and priced (as my 1977 edition is, anyway) at the princely sum of £1.40. Leafing through it today is akin to perusing a medieval manuscript, a document of a vanished world. Chapters such as ‘The Arts on ITV’ profile upwards of a dozen different shows, as does the one on current affairs; both categories could probably be covered in a couple of lines in 2016, let alone ‘The Single Play’ and ‘Religious Television’; and according to the 1977 edition, ITV produced 750 new schools programmes per year. A vanished world indeed.

It is the field of children’s programmes that highlights some of the most notable changes over the last forty years; the chapter focuses on the children’s output of Thames, which at the time supplied ITV with 142½ hours of networked children’s programmes a year. These included fondly-remembered lunchtime mainstays like ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Paperplay’, teatime institutions such as ‘Magpie’ and ‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time’, and series aimed at a young teenage audience that nevertheless appealed to all age groups, like ‘The Tomorrow People’.

With a premise allegedly inspired by its creator Roger Price having a canteen conversation with David Bowie, ‘The Tomorrow People’ dealt with the homo-superior, mankind’s next stage of evolution. The series featured a small group of telepathic teenagers capable of ESP and teleporting themselves short and long distances in an instant (a process they called ‘jaunting’); the section of the programme’s audience enduring puberty saw their own unpleasant bodily changes mirrored in a far more exciting manner, as puberty for the telepaths consisted of ‘breaking out’, a transition when their special abilities appeared with the same traumatic force as acne, periods and pubic hair. These kids were also free from parental control (and what kid doesn’t desire that?), spending most of their time in an underground lab with a ‘biotronic’ computer called TIM, whose available knowledge made him a pre-internet source of info at their fingertips.

Debuting in April 1973, ‘The Tomorrow People’ was an instant hit for Thames, and its sci-fi themes suggested ITV may well have a rival to ‘Doctor Who’ on its hands. The memorably striking opening titles and eerie theme tune (composed by ‘Who’ regular Dudley Simpson) certainly suggested so. However, whereas the Beeb’s Time Lord was produced by its adult drama department and could boast a budget capable of utilising the best special effects technology could then buy, ‘The Tomorrow People’ was a product of one ITV company’s children’s department and only had so much to spare. When it attempted to be over-ambitious, the limitations showed; but when it kept the action on earth and on location, the stories were often as engaging as those starring the man from Gallifrey.

Children’s television in the 70s could actually be (sorry to use a contemporary TV buzzword) quite ‘diverse’ in comparison to its parent; along with Derek Griffiths on ‘Play School’/‘Play Away’ and Johnny on ‘Pipkins’, ‘The Tomorrow People’ boasted one of the few black faces in a leading role on a British TV programme at the time – Elizabeth Adare, who starred from 1974 to the series’ ending in 1979. As well as two black members, the telepathic team included a gypsy boy and a Chinese girl, almost echoing the aims of ‘Star Trek’ in presenting a future human race unencumbered by racial prejudice. Though there were lamentable lapses into silliness – future Doctor Who Peter Davison in a hot pants-and-Harpo Marx wig ensemble in the toe-curling ‘comedy’ story, ‘A Man for Emily’ – the series at its best could give children’s TV the kind of imaginative, intelligent and exciting drama it would be inconceivable to expect today.

One story from 1977 features a telepathic teenage Russian girl whose powers are being used by the KGB. An adventure that includes hints at both prostitution and drug addiction ends in a quite shocking manner by 2016’s more squeamish standards when it is revealed the KGB have planted an explosive device inside the girl that they can detonate should she seek to defect. Aware she’s poised to be an unwilling suicide bomber, she escapes the well-meaning Tomorrow Person Mike (played by Flintlock drummer Mike Holoway, pop-pickers) to leap through a plate-glass window; viewers see her burst into flames as she plummets to the ground. And this was aired at 4.50 in the afternoon.

By the time the high cost of producing it brought ‘The Tomorrow People’ to an end in 1979, the age of ‘Star Wars’ special effects had exposed the programme’s increasing budgetary restraints even further. Children’s ITV entered the 80s looking to emulate the realism of the BBC’s ‘Grange Hill’; eventually, the likes of ‘Press Gang’, ‘Children’s Ward’ and ‘Dramarama’ were able to compete on the same level as Phil Redmond’s school soap and its early 90s North East rival ‘Byker Grove’. However, by the turn of the Millennium, changes were afoot that would inevitably render the late twentieth century a Golden Age for children’s television.

The closure of ITV’s in-house children’s production unit in 2006, following years of under-investment that had seen budgets periodically slashed, was followed a few months later by the disappearance of children’s afternoon broadcasting on the premier ITV channel. What remained of ITV’s children’s programming was transferred to the newly-launched CITV channel, though a good deal of its output was bought in from the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The majority of commissioned shows were either new cartoon series such as ‘Horrid Henry’ and ‘Mr Bean’ or the continuation of veterans such as Sooty and Sweep. CITV was an instant success, quickly becoming the most popular commercial children’s channel, which appeared to vindicate ITV’s decision to place its kids’ output in one basket, even if the scope of that output had considerably narrowed.

CITV pitched itself against the CBBC channel, which had been launched in 2002. CBBC gradually succeeded in attracting a larger proportion of younger viewers than were watching the traditional afternoon children’s schedule on BBC1 as the 2000s progressed, especially when the end of the slot was moved back to 5.15 to accommodate the switching of ‘The Weakest Link’ from BBC2 to BBC1 in 2008. This prompted the controversial shift of all BBC children’s programming to CBBC in 2012, marking the true end of a broadcasting era. Any old viewer curious as to how ‘Blue Peter’ shapes up in 2016 would switch on BBC1 and be confronted by an inane quiz show, the title of which is one of the most apt in TV history.

CBBC’s output, as with CITV, is primarily aimed at young children, though pre-school programmes, which ITV once excelled at, were axed from the channel last year. Equally, there are few provisions for an audience of older children and early teens. ‘The Changes’, ‘Children of the Stones’, ‘The Owl Service’ and ‘The Tomorrow People’ were products of an age we won’t see on-screen again, and neither will our children or grandchildren. We didn’t know we were born.

© The Editor


coltraneWell, it was only a matter of time in a British TV landscape devoted to revivals, retreads and rehashes; and if it had to be any television channel dramatising the facts of a project so stooped in fiction as Operation It Could Be Youtree, then one would naturally imagine it had to be ITV. After all, ITV essentially sponsored the whole witch-hunt from day one, what with Essex’s answer to Matthew Hopkins, Mark Williams-Thomas, and the tabloid sensationalism of his Jimmy Savile exposé in 2012 kick-starting a free-for-all that has ruined endless lives, careers and individuals unfortunate enough to have made a mark in public life prior to the revisionist’s paradise of the twenty-first century. However, the baton of shame has been passed on to Channel 4, that one-time home of radical and innovative television and now the channel that brings us property porn, poverty porn and naked dating shows.

Robbie Coltrane, the beached Caledonian whale whose serious acting career stalled after the end of ‘Cracker’ in the 1990s (and who has subsequently been reduced to those tedious travelogue showcases for 80s has-beens that ITV specialises in), is to play a beloved celebrity targeted by a Yewtree-style Historical Sex Crimes squad in a new C4 ‘drama’ titled ‘National Treasure’ this coming week. In order to hedge their bets, C4 have even recruited genuine National Treasure Julie Walters to play ‘the wife’; Judi Dench must have been otherwise engaged when the time for casting came around.

Plugging the programme he naturally hopes will salvage his dormant thespian ambitions, Coltrane has inserted the Savile caveat into the interview promoting the series in the current issue of the Radio Times, stressing the character he plays is in no way based upon Sir Jim. It’s merely the latest missive from the publicity circuit Coltrane has been on for the past couple of weeks, and photos released to the press that unnervingly recreate the images we’ve become sadly familiar with since 2012 must bring back such happy memories for the families of Dave Lee Travis and all those other ‘perverts hiding in plain sight’.

Echoing convenient sentiments previously uttered by another face from the past struggling to re-establish his ‘rebel’ credentials – John Lydon – Coltrane declares ‘Everyone knew Jimmy Savile was a creep. Everyone. I never met him but you’d watch him and you’d feel your skin crawl.’ Indeed – the millions who tuned into ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ every week in the 70s, 80s and 90s felt exactly the same back in the day whenever they set eyes upon that ‘wrong ‘un’, didn’t they, Robbie, which would explain why they kept tuning in. How it pays to be wise after the event.

In many respects, Robbie Coltrane is the perfect choice to play a fictitious figure whose past comes under present scrutiny in the drama; after all, he was a prominent member of the Alternative Comedy generation, those post-punk radicals whose slide into middle-aged respectability (and the establishment honours that come with it) has been utterly seamless. These early 80s undergraduates had a particular grudge against the working-class showbiz heroes of the 60s and 70s, easy targets for mock-satire as their envy of their targets’ achievements eventually led them all the way to writing appalling jukebox musicals based on the music of notable fellow radicals, Queen, on one hand, and relishing the opportunity to condemn them anew via Yewtree on the other.

It pays to remember that, whilst newspaper columnists from Hitchens to Littlejohn can today question the veracity of accusations levelled against personalities they themselves admire and revere, such voices were thin on the ground three or four years back. In the frenzied Yewtree cauldron of 2012/13/14, only thick-skinned brave bloggers dared to question the consensus during the height of the bonfire of the seventies, and they were written-off as crackpot obsessives for their troubles.

Even when the first few household names tentatively raised their heads above the parapet a couple of years ago – when, tellingly, it took the arrest of respectable broadcasters such as Paul Gambaccini to provoke them into action – it remained an unwritten rule that they had to distance themselves from Savile sympathies as they sprung to the defence of their showbiz buddies. Having been so successfully re-educated as to the ‘truth’ of the deceased eccentric charity fundraiser, the public would clearly have to be reminded that any accusation would not necessarily place the accused in the same sewer of filth as Savile. ‘Of course Jimmy Savile was an appalling human being, but…’ went the script recited ad infinitum by the fearless defenders of those caught in the net that the Met had widened.

‘National Treasure’ doesn’t come with the ‘Based on a true story’ attachment, though it’s not hard to foresee that those who still believe Fleet Street brings the Gospel to the masses will switch on and believe they’re essentially watching a documentary. Indeed, it will probably be difficult to distinguish between drama and documentary if one is a regular viewer of what passes for both on the mainstream channels, considering the recent efforts of our man from Billericay to portray himself as a cross between Roger Cook and James Bond over on ITV. I tried my best to ruin his career, but I clearly failed.

In a climate wherein Cliff Richard remains out on permanent ‘moral bail’ and questions over insecure convictions for the likes of Rolf Harris are successfully suppressed within the mainstream media, dramatising such a miserable episode in contemporary police procedure seems the apex of bad taste, though ratings are guaranteed with this kind of cynical exercise; and that’s what matters when the fate of ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ is so pivotal to the wellbeing of the nation.

There’s no doubt there is future scope for fictionalising the experience of the famous and non-famous alike where it comes to the imaginary crimes of the past impacting upon the present; but I have distinct doubts that viewers of ‘National Treasure’ will be exposed to anything other than a PR job for the Professional Victims’ lobby and the crusading integrity of both the Met and the CPS.

© The Editor


vlcsnap-2016-09-02-16h26m57s181It must have been one hell of a bus to have attracted a million passengers last Monday night when BBC4 hired it to travel through the Yorkshire Dales; and who’d have thought there’d be such a demand for tickets in this high-speed, fast-cutting television landscape where it’s often difficult to distinguish between a programme trailer and the programme itself, so terrified are programme-makers that the viewer’s short attention span will cause the changing of channels should the camera linger longer than a handful of seconds?

In case you missed it, ‘All Aboard! The Country Bus’ took up two hours of airtime and featured neither host nor voice-over; information languidly glided onscreen every once in a while, though that was the extent of interjection as the programme took the viewer on a sedate excursion from Richmond to Ingleton via the Swaledale Valley in North Yorkshire. It followed in the footsteps of last year’s ‘All Aboard! The Canal Trip’ (a narrow-boat journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal) and ‘All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride’ (the same duration, but this time a sleigh ride in Norway). The location of the latter seemed apt, for the phenomenon known as ‘Slow Television’ is something credited with beginning there in 2009 when the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation screened a seven-hour train journey in real-time.

Some attribute the roots of Slow TV to the notoriously inactive Warhol movies from the 60s, such as ‘Sleep’, in which the camera stays focused on poet John Giorno as he sleeps for five and-a-half hours. However, it could be said that what is now known as Slow TV is as much an old small-screen institution as it is a new innovation – a modern take on what was once commonplace on television and is now seen in an undeniably fresh light when compared to the breathless norm. It will particularly feel so for those raised on the fast-food MTV diet of broadcasting, those with no memory of the days when television operated for most of the time in a far slower gear than would be acceptable today.

Static images on screen for mere minutes would seem radical now, and none of the programmes to have fallen under the Slow TV banner in this country have been quite as radical as that; yet it was once par for the course – as long as there was accompanying music. The ‘Follows Shortly’ caption was standard practice between programmes on the BBC during daytime transmissions. You actually had to wait – yes, wait (!) for the next programme to appear; and pre-breakfast TV and round-the-clock broadcasts, telly would kick-off on a morning with a plethora of static images – programme line-ups, a list of local transmitters (on the ITV stations) or simply the good old test card. And because we knew no better, we waited; and waited. If that wasn’t Slow TV, I don’t know what is.

Before my time, the BBC had its regular famous Interludes that sometimes bridged the gaps between programmes; these weren’t static, but not a lot was going on, to be honest. The potter’s wheel, the kitten playing with a ball of wool, the horse-drawn ploughs, the babbling brook, the shore of a Caribbean island – each soundtracked by the kind of in-house BBC Mood Music that constituted the majority of the playlist on the Light Programme in the 50s and well into the 60s. These were ‘time out’ moments for television – the equivalent of your telly sitting down for five minutes with a cuppa – and could easily be bracketed as Slow TV if they were to reappear in 2016.

Even the proper programmes moved at a less frenetic pace then. Watch any television drama from the 60s or 70s and it bears more of a resemblance to a stage play than a movie; theatre was the training school for most of the actors, writers and directors who produced them, so it was only natural; add budgetary constraints to the picture – the easy accessibility of studio time as opposed to expensive location filming – and it makes sense. But what to many might now seem slow actually appears quite refreshing when viewed anew, allowing breathing space for character development and eschewing the need for constant cutting between scenes to maintain the audience’s concentration, as though the audience comprised a classroom of five-year-olds hungry for incessant sugar-rush stimulation.

When the majority of today’s mainstream television entertainment – certainly the Saturday night variety, anyway – can induce the insane sensation of being entombed in a padded cell crammed full of hysterical, hyperactive kids permanently whooping, cheering and screaming, it’s no wonder there have been so many takers for the soporific charms of Slow TV.

It appears a radical antidote to the bombardment of ads, trailers and interrupted end credits in the same way that the two-minute snarl of ‘White Riot’ was an antidote to the never-ending story of ‘Freebird’. It may be a fad or it may be here to stay; but it’s nice to have a novel alternative with a ring of familiarity to anyone over 40.

© The Editor