SINCE its inception, television, or perhaps more pertinently its programming, has had admirers and detractors across all demographics. What cannot be ignored however is the medium’s unique ability, in the words of Lord Reith, toinform, educate and entertain.
From the early days of one channel to the proliferation of satellite, streaming, pay-per-view, 24-hour programming and cable TV that we now have today, viewers have never had so much choice. Yet oddly, amongst this bounty of entertainment, one cannot shake the occasional feeling that more is sometimes less – the paradox of choice.
Looking back to the seventies TV was an undeniably meagre offering, yet it somehow captured viewers in a way that is lacking today. Natural history documentaries for example have come on in technological leaps and bounds. Aided by high-definition drone cameras, time lapse photography or lifelike model animals with incorporated cameras, viewers are transported to hitherto inaccessible places. Yet for me, despite their astonishing results, they fail to capture the real sense of wonder I felt while watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in which, from the boat Calypso, he brought the amazing oceanic world to your living room.
Half a century ago, the public’s appetite for police dramas was catered for largely by Z Cars, Softly Softly and Dixon of Dock Green. Jack Warner’s reassuring beat copper bidding us a convivial ‘evening all’ now seems as apposite as antimacassars and spats. Yet for many, he epitomised what for most of the population was the friendly, commonsense face of British policing. How times have changed.
In those far-off days, British scriptwriters hadn’t foreseen the need to bestow the unusual quirks or peccadilloes on their creations which are now de rigueur. If you were looking for that, you would watch the American Columbo played by Peter Falk, complete with shabby mac and old stogie. If that wasn’t esoteric enough, you could watch McCloud, where the seconded New Mexico Deputy Marshal, played by Dennis Weaver, dispensed law and order in New York while riding a horse. For me, growing up in the 70s, these programmes and American detective imports such as Ironside, Hawaii Five-O, Cannon, Kojak and McMillan & Wife seemed a world away from Newtown.
There were of course other genres to keep both adults and children engaged. Talent shows had none of the razzamatazz that children of today are used to, nor indeed premium rate phone lines. Opportunity Knocks, hosted by the somewhat oleaginous Hughie Green, was the X Factor of its day. Looking back now at the sets and the clapometer, it looks prehistoric – yet it was a big hit and, for many, required viewing.
Current affairs were catered for by programmes such as Man Alive and Panorama. I remember clearly a tragic 1971 Man Alive entitled Gale is Dead, a desperately sad tale of a 19-year-old girl destroyed by drugs.
For those who enjoyed quizzes or panel game shows there was the wonderful Call My Bluff on BBC2 hosted by Robert Robinson, who seemed perpetually pleased with himself. Pitting two teams of three led by Frank Muir and Paddy Campbell, it was an absolute pleasure to watch. The effortless humour and genuine fun, as individuals took turns to define words such as queach, strongle, ablewhacket, hickboo, jargoon, zurf, morepork, and jirble made for relaxed viewing.
That was up there with Face the Music hosted by Joseph Cooper, a quiz for music-lovers without scoring or winners. TCW readers might remember the dummy keyboard round, where guests were challenged to identify a piece of music simply by watching Cooper hammering away at a wooden keyboard. One now can imagine a commissioning editor’s response if presented with a format such as this: too elitist and non-inclusive. That would no doubt apply equally to Robert Robinson’s other show Ask the Family.
Recalling these shows, and I admit there may be an element of rose-tinted spectacles to it, it seemed a happier time.
They say that TV is like holding a mirror up to society: as a medium it reflects manners, mores and attitudes. Britain in the seventies seemed a somewhat better place despite the obvious issues that bedevilled it. I wonder what the current diet that spews forth from the gogglebox and passes as entertainment says about Great Britain now?