1965 – 1974

By Ian Jones, Chris Hughes, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Steve Williams and Simon Tyers

First published October 2005

1965 – The Avengers

A small screen trend-setter maybe, a 1960s style icon certainly. But it’s difficult to think of another ITV franchise that went through the mill so many times yet never seemed able to decide whether it was revamping itself for the better, for worse, or just out of plain boredom. Born in 1961, the first incarnation of The Avengers was all live, done on a pea-sized budget and had Patrick MacNee investigating private zoos and crates of rotting fruit. At least the episodes had ace titles – “Square Root of Evil”, “The Tunnel of Fear” – that portended better things to come and bore the fingerprints of (him again) Sydney Newman.

The decade rolled on and some ostensibly stereotype-bashing judo/leather business came and went, though given proceedings remained taped “as-live” Honor Blackman shared top billing with Stunt Man in Blonde Wig. Then suddenly the show found form, as 1965 brought Diana Rigg, loads more money and pre-recorded shoots together with top adventures involving malevolent department stores, artificial rainstorms, time-travelling RAF bases, ravaging fauna, sharp-shooting golf courses and a homicidal temping agency. Because it was all still in black and white, the show had a sort of grainy realism and credibility alongside the exaggerated fantasy and dopey inventions. It also had great music, cracking dialogue (“Six bodies in an hour and 20 nutes, what do you call that?” “A good first act!”) and the best guest stars around. Of course it couldn’t go on, and when colour came in 1967 The Avengers changed again, ditching all pretence of being a thriller and going flat out for sartorial silliness, knockabout laughs and long car chases around the Home Counties. It’d get much worse (the on-screen credit “Patrick MacNee’s suits designed by himself” for starters), with ultimately everyone wanting to return The Avengers to how it was in the good old days, but nobody agreeing on when they were. Still, the show’s glory days were fun while they lasted, and that was really the whole point.

1966 – George and the Dragon

Despite wasting no time in rustling up exemplary game shows, popular drama series and quality light entertainment, it seemed to take ITV an age to nail the sitcom. For a long time the network just didn’t bother, preferring personality-led affairs like The Tony Hancock Show and Cooper – Life With Tommy, or throw-enough-mud ensemble juggernauts such as The Army Game. Knockabout, farce-driven business The Larkins was probably the closest the channel came to conventional sitcommery, albeit nowhere in the same league as contemporary BBC efforts Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads and The Rag Trade. Finally, though, a decent enough stab turned up in the shape of ATV’s George and the Dragon, a crucial link between the network’s variety-obsessed early years and its pile ‘em high slapstick suburban comedies soon to come.

Penned by Vince Powell and Harry Driver – future powerhouses of ITV’s armoury of 1970s sitcoms – and boasting a trio of cheery class stereotypes, it delivered catchphrases, slapstick, humiliation and laughs at other people’s misfortune all couched in reliably humdrum situations and topped off with three instantly recognisable personalities more or less playing themselves: Sid James (wise-talking handyman), John Le Mesurier (bluff colonel) and Peggy Mount (frumpish housekeeper). It was, unsurprisingly, a smash and ran until 1968, by which time new faces and a whole new company were waiting to pick up the invariably amusingly-shaped TV comedy baton.

1967 – The Golden Shot

When television over-reaches itself, the end result is unfailingly mesmerising. The Tomorrow People attempting to stage an inter-galactic war within the confines of Thames TV’s Teddington studios is a case in point, as tiny budgets, lousy special effects and barely thought-through scriptwriting conspired to create something beguilingly inept. The Golden Shot had this quality in spades, right from its inception in 1967. It attempted to pull off a highly complicated, interactive and fast-paced TV show in an era of analogue communications and unwieldy, decidedly immobile studio cameras. And all completely live. Little wonder that original host Jackie Rae could only fluster throughout the programme’s one-hour runtime, helplessly looking around for his next off-screen prompt and overwhelmed by the logistics of inviting contestants to fire crossbow bolts at targets via telephone, remote control or just verbal instruction (“Up at bit …”).

Within weeks of its launch in 1967, The Golden Shot had become characterised by hopeless crash-zooms as camera-operators desperately tried to follow the unfolding action, often inadvertently pulling the plug on their own apparatus in the process. By the 10th edition, critics were baying for blood. It looked like the whole affair was going to fall off screen forever. Luckily a nicely timed guest slot from Bob Monkhouse showed ATV bosses the brutish format could be made to work if the man at the centre would just rise to the challenge. With show 15, Rae was out and Monkhouse in, and though The Golden Shot remained a technical calamity, the veteran comic’s slick, unflappable persona gave it a reassuring core. It didn’t do his public profile any harm either. As Monkhouse told OTT in 2003, “Because I was very smooth and very polished in my presentation – which could be irritating – the fact that hell and fury was going on all around me was very humanising.” A move to Sundays and relocation to Birmingham (first in the creaky Alpha Studios, then the brand new but endlessly malfunctioning Paradise Centre) added to the cocktail. It all meant that at its peak ITV’s fledgling attempt at interactive gaming drew in an impressive 16 million viewers – albeit mostly tuning in to see how Bob would fast-talk his way out of trouble this week.

1968 – Frost on Friday/Saturday/Sunday

Franchise changes brought into effect in 1968 were to have a huge impact on ITV. Among the new companies making their debut was a body that boasted David Frost essaying his first attempt at producing television as well as appearing on it. The ITA had been dazzled by Frost’s star-studded bid and, come August, London Weekend Television proudly took to the screen for the first time … for precisely two minutes, before trade union problems hauled the debut programme off the air. After a few weeks the dust settled and LWT were able to wheel out the sort of programming they felt would completely transform ITV and prove different to anything seen before. Obviously Frost put himself very much at the centre of the schedules, helming a programme that went out each night the company was legally able to broadcast. These shows emphasised his disparate talents, with one devoted to entertaining big name celebrities, another to Dr Emil Savundra-esque interrogations and the third involving David’s mates (The Two Ronnies et al) performing sketches.

David seemed happy enough with such a large number of hours, but rather inevitably viewers were not and many ITV regions soon began dropping or delaying at least one of the editions. Bizarre guest bookings – President Kaunda of Zambia and Woody Allen on the same bill – also came to epitomise a distinctly eclectic approach to TV that audiences, irked by the sudden disappearance of Double Your Money, definitely didn’t want. Suddenly the dam broke and a huge number of boardroom reshuffles ensued, so much so that Jimmy Hill found himself as Deputy Director of Programmes for a period, and if it hadn’t been for a certain Call My Bluff panelist (see below) LWT could have gone bust. Frost eventually scaled back his contributions, but little from this thrice-weekly affair has stuck in the mind, bar a strike-hit episode mounted in the World of Sport studio and an invasion from Yippies attempting to tear down the establishment with a water pistol. Frost’s reaction to Felix Dennis’s stray “cunt” at least showed his absolute ease with the medium: “It’s so pathetic, and so childish, and so pointless … and we’ll be right back!”

1969 – Big Breadwinner Hog

With a title that reeked of the era in which it was made, Big Breadwinner Hog saw a brutal Peter Egan (the titular Hog) rise through the ranks of London’s criminal fraternity to become a feared underworld boss. While Granada’s infamous drama (directed by Michael Apted and Mike Newell) had one foot in the kitchen sink camp, it also foreshadowed the arrival of the 1970s gritty crime thriller series and as such represented the stepping-stone between No Hiding Place and The Sweeney.

Admittedly the show could make for an unsettling brew, as hyper-violence was depicted in intimate but dispassionate detail thanks to close-ups of fists crumpling flesh and – most notoriously of all – an extended sequence depicting Hog throwing acid in the face of an unfortunate rival. Indeed, the latter landed the programme-makers in hot water when viewers’ complaints started to roll in and an official apology had to be issued. Granada ordered all subsequent episodes to be toned down, before losing their nerve completely, resulting in Big Breadwinner Hog gaining the dubious honour of being the first ever British programme to be taken off the air before the end of its run. Despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be screened again – thanks to that violent content – Hog still managed to land himself a commendable number nine slot in a 2002 Radio Times poll of TV’s nastiest villains.

1970 – On the Buses

It’s no understatement to credit Frank Muir with ensuring the survival of the entire ITV network into the 1970s. He’d already pretty much single-handedly saved LWT when, thanks to his work as head of comedy, he’d gone ahead and commissioned programmes people actually wanted to watch rather than those the company thought they should. But it was one of these shows, an idea rejected by the BBC who “doubted how many laughs could be got out of oil leaks”, that set the template for the kind of bankable, renewable and staggeringly popular comedy that became the bedrock of ITV’s schedules throughout the entire decade. Sure, On the Buses may have been broad, raucous and obvious, but it delivered viewers by the millions, could always guarantee at least a handful of laughs per episode, and tapped into the national love for slapstick, innuendo, lovable rogues, battle axe matriarchs and endless catchphrases.

A mark of the show’s importance to the commercial channel was the fact it ran for seven series and 74 episodes in the space of just four years (1969 – 73). A testament to the show’s unquestionable success, meanwhile, was the way it prompted not just one but three big screen spin-offs, the first ending up the biggest box-office hit of 1971. Even in its policy towards scriptwriters On the Buses set new precedents. The manner in which its creators Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney bequeathed the series to teams of subsequent contributors became standard procedure on a host of other equally long-running efforts, including LWT bedfellows Doctor in the House and Please, Sir! plus Thames TV’s own crowded stable of like-minded sitcoms (see below). All brought fun, colour and audiences to 1970s ITV – and also cash to make all those other, less watched and infinitely more worthy programmes that kept the broadcasting authorities quiet.

1971 – World of Sport

In retrospect, World of Sport owed less to its BBC rival Grandstand and more to Sunday Night at the London Palladium. For good or bad, this was the first time sport had been presented on television as entertainment. The programme’s aim, declared LWT’s first head of sport Jimmy Hill, was simple – to get them talking in the pubs on Saturday night. The show had actually begun on ABC in January 1965 with Eamonn Andrews in the chair, but it wasn’t until LWT began producing the show in 1968 that it really took off, thanks chiefly to those stunt planes in the iconic title sequence. Hill recruited a new anchorman, Southern announcer Richard Davies, and decided to bill him in a more informal style, believing that the alliterative Dickie Davies would prove more memorable to the audience. The real force behind World of Sport, however, was John “Brommers” Bromley, a flamboyant hustler who’d negotiate deals on napkins over port and cigars at the Rififi Club. The problem for ITV was that too often the big contracts had already been signed by the BBC. Bromley turned this negative into a positive, buying in coverage of bizarre events from America and recognising that Grandstand‘s rugby league from damp Humberside might not be as appealing to some as cliff diving from sunny Acapulco or the latest Evel Kneivel record attempt.

So it was that, for an entire generation, Saturday afternoons in the 1970s meant log-rolling, truck driving or clown target diving. Horse racing, in the form of the ITV Seven, and the football preview “On The Ball” added respectability, before the bell rang at four o’clock for professional wrestling from some provincial municipal hall, heralded by Kent Walton’s timeless salutation of “greetings grapplefans!” The BBC still cleaned up on the big events, but World of Sport earned a devoted armchair fan club as well as turning Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki into playground legends. The 1980s brought a drive towards more live coverage of sport, ultimately sounding the death knell for ITV’s magazine format in September 1985. The wrestling endured for another three years, before Greg Dyke declared Giant Haystacks and co to be too downmarket. Yet World of Sport‘s innovative credo lives on in endeavours as diverse as Sky’s Soccer Saturday and Late Night Poker. Brommers, you feel, would have been proud.

1972 – Upstairs, Downstairs

“It’s very pretty but it’s just not commercial television,” despaired LWT’s new head of drama Cyril Bennett, “they’ll switch off in their thousands.” It didn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for Upstairs, Downstairs. Nor did the scheduling – late on Sunday nights – suggest ITV had much faith in its new period drama. Not that LWT had ever really indicated that it much understood an audience’s tastes, as we’ve already seen. Indeed, on its launch in 1968 the company had tried to counter the Palladium with Pinter and Brucie with Brecht, and had even attempted an “Anglo-Russian exchange of comedy plays”. Fortunately, actresses Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins had a surer grasp of popular drama, and between them devised the everyday story of an upper-class Edwardian family and their servants in Belgravia. The genre had previously been the preserve of the BBC, thanks largely to The Forsyte Saga, but in 1970 LWT commissioned 13 episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs … and promptly left them on the shelf for six months.

Yet despite the unpromising timeslot it eventually received, the programme became a critical and popular success almost overnight. If the residents of 165 Eaton Place had an uncanny knack for writing themselves into history, never more spectacularly than when Lady Marjorie drowned in the Titanic disaster, at least Upstairs, Downstairs refused to shy away from tackling some surprisingly gritty themes. Freed from the constraints of a literary adaptation that restrict the range of most costume dramas, the series chronicled a changing England, from suicide and homosexuality to Miss Lizzy’s flirtation with the suffragette movement and the horrors of the World War I. But perhaps the overriding theme of the series was class, or at least knowing one’s place, be it the obsequious dedication of Hudson, Rose and Mrs Bridges to their masters, or the decadence of unabashed bounder James Bellamy. The programme became a global triumph for LWT, especially in America, where it was rewarded with numerous Emmy awards and Gordon Jackson became everyone’s idea of the perfect butler. Upstairs, Downstairs prospered from its peerless ensemble cast, and launched the careers of practically a generation of television actors. The doors of Eaton Place finally closed after 68 episodes in 1975, but not before its residents had endured a memorable encounter with Russell Harty, interviewing the cast both in and out of character for a farewell Christmas special. Upstairs, Downstairs underlined the fact, as if proof was still needed, that there was nothing the BBC could do that ITV couldn’t match if it tried.

1973 – The World at War

Of all the programmes featured in this list, Jeremy Isaacs’s marathon 26-part epistle charting the causes, events and consequences of World War II the one it’s hardest to imagine ITV ever contemplating today. Its length, for starters, is utterly alien to 21st century programme-making, let alone scheduling. Its content – entire episodes devoted to the minutiae of obscure Far Eastern campaigns or counter-manoeuvres on the North African coast – is now strictly the stuff of dedicated history channels, not primetime terrestrial TV. Its ponderous, theatrical style replete with Laurence Olivier-voiceover, specially commissioned orchestral score from Carl Davis and laboriously translated interviews with endless former foreign leaders, seems positively extravagant. Its lack of any dramatic reconstructions, meanwhile, renders it a complete anachronism. Where are the exciting re-enactments, the actors reading contemporary diaries and letters, the sense of everything being relevant to today? Non-existent. The World at War is as much an embodiment of another age as its subject matter.

That’s not to downplay the achievement of Thames TV in getting the series made (it took four years), nor to belittle its ambition or message (an implored and sincere appeal to “never forget”). It’s just that – like, say, decimalisation or dental surgery – once over it was something its benefactors had neither the need nor inclination to ever do again. Of course it didn’t stop Jeremy Isaacs dining off the reputation of The World at War for years, even though the greatest practical contribution he made to the third channel was probably having the sense to axe the (by then) ailing Opportunity Knocks.

1974 – Man About the House

If ITV historically failed to develop much of a reputation for situation comedy, the blame couldn’t ever be leveled at Thames. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, its Teddington Lock studios rolled out a succession of reliable primetime comedies that never quite became undisputed classics, but did entertain millions as their plots unfurled – as TV Times forever pledged – “with hilarious consequences”. Man About the House is certainly one sitcom that merits near-classic status, if only for its sheer fecundity, spawning a celluloid romp and two spin-offs in the form of Robin’s Nest and George and Mildred, not to mention some memorable performances principally from Brian Murphy and the brilliant Yootha Joyce as the dysfunctional landlords. Perhaps the real problem for ITV sitcoms has always been their brevity. Robbed of what David Croft and Jimmy Perry called the “six minutes of honesty” in which BBC comedy writers could develop and explore their characters, their ITV counterparts had to sacrifice subtlety in order to get everything wrapped up in 24 minutes before the commercials.

In Man About the House this was unlikely to be a problem for creators Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, largely because the series never threatened to be that subtle anyway, right from 1973′s debut episode in which Paula Wilcox reveals to new flatmate Richard O’Sullivan that the only reason he had been permitted to lodge with the girls was because their landlord had assumed that the trainee chef was “a poof”. If the programme never accurately reflected the permissiveness of the 1970s, it did at least have a refreshingly lusty atmosphere, symbolised, of course, by the sight of Sally Thompsett’s arse in the opening titles and Robin’s bra-and-stockings apron, even if nobody ever actually seemed to be having sex at 6 Myddleton Terrace, to the chagrin of the perpetually frustrated Mildred. The protagonists split up after six series and relocated to the Fulham Road and Hampton Wick, but not before Man About the House had established itself as ITV’s first “young” sitcom, and proved that the genre didn’t have to be all crystal decanters or tin baths. In 1992, Thames practically revisited the premise in Men Behaving Badly. This time, however, ITV infamously proved less accommodating.