1975 – 1984

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

First published October 2005

1975 – The Sweeney

“I sometimes hate this bastard place,” winces Jack Regan en route to another tooled-up inner-London squabble. “It’s a bloody holiday camp for thieves and weirdos. All the rubbish. You age prematurely trying to sort some of them out. Try to protect the public and all they do is call you ‘fascist’.” About the only thing that was ever black and white about The Sweeney was, ironically, its bonanza of brown-and-orange haberdashery. At least that never threatened to grass you up, stab you in the back or send you on leave thanks to anonymous, ubiquitous “red tape”. Everything and everyone else seemed liable to turn turtle, bottle out or jump ship on a mere whim – Regan included.

Yet one of the greatest thrills to be had from watching an episode of the grimiest, funniest and noisiest crime series ITV ever made was deciding whose side you were on. Which of the frequently fallible cops or robbers was it worth rooting for this time? Whose turn was it to come good and head off into the mid-’70s recession-soaked sunset with heads held high? Were Regan and cohort George Carter going to end up having to hide from waspish boss Frank Haskins, or crow jubilantly in his face? And, as was so often the case week in week out, who should you really trust when it came to tipping the wink, giving the order, or pulling the trigger? The end credits, with their poignant, haunting reworking of the show’s blazing opening theme, seemed to always leave as many questions as there were answers. “It’s all bloody wrong my son,” Jack could only conclude, and he was so right.

1976 – Bouquet of Barbed Wire

Almost everything about this spectacular tabloid-twittering ratings magnet was out of place. The gentle cooing of its airy theme tune belonged behind a trade test transmission rather than a boisterous bodice-ripper. The laughably minuscule number of shabby-looking sets felt more at home in provincial repertory theatre as opposed to a high-profile ITV serial. Meanwhile the cast’s penchant for lugubrious stares into the middle distance while taking pendulous pauses during interminable frenzied monologues was surely the preserve of the afternoon soap, not the upmarket primetime blockbuster.

But of course it was exactly this clash of cultures that turned Bouquet of Barbed Wire into a dizzying hit. Andrea Newman’s tale of a husband falling for his daughter while his wife is busy bedding his son-in-law confounded a nation’s expectations about the aspirations and obsessions of contemporary TV fiction. “The house of Atreus transferred to Peyton Place on a long low loader” was Clive James’s handy one-line verdict. Indeed, “solid middle-class adultery and incest” had certainly never been served up in such pitiless, protracted detail on television before, and at the hands and feet (and everything in between) of such estimable faces as Frank Finlay and Susan Penhaligon. You couldn’t help but tune in, because you sensed that everybody else was. Thanks to its lack of precedent or pride, it remains the most outrageous drama ITV has ever transmitted. After all, by the time of such equally hysterical and unashamedly steam-driven efforts as Bad Girls and Footballers Wives, we all knew what to expect.

1977 – It’ll be Alright on the Night

Denis Norden may have famously claimed he thought up the idea over lunch in the LWT canteen, but producer Paul Smith claims the basic premise for It’ll Be Alright on the Night had been formulating in his head ever since he’d seen the renowned Lulu the elephant incident on Blue Peter. According to Smith, Norden wasn’t even in the frame by the time discussions turned to identifying a suitable presenter for the programme. Michael Grade, then Director of Programmes at LWT, apparently opted for Roy Castle before later coming round to the bespectacled comedy writer. Regardless of whose recollections are actually correct, It’ll Be Alright on the Night has long since become solely associated with a slightly avuncular looking Denis Norden, clipboard in hand, book-ending each compendium of clip packages since the first edition on 18 September 1977.

While his role was once considered superfluous to the format’s appeal, recent derivatives have shown Norden’s presence adds an oddly important element of gravitas to proceedings. He has always reassured the viewer that though the laughs may derive mainly from the belly as opposed to the brain, there is some inherent artistic merit to the programme – even if it is supplied purely by his whip round of the “clips we didn’t have time to show”. Right from the outset It’ll Be Alright on the Night (which Norden wisely resisted turning into a full-blooded weekly series) scored massive ratings and was a major hit for LWT. Indeed, one edition in 1985 secured the station their then largest ever audience. While recent outings might have felt a little lost amidst the morass of other outtake shows, it has proven itself to be an influential, if undervalued, addition to ITV’s light entertainment arsenal – no matter who actually came up with the original idea.

1978 – The Tomorrow People

Contrary to popular belief, ITV actually has a pretty decent track record in both children’s television and science-fiction. The Tomorrow People, however, offers up plenty of evidence for both the prosecution and defence. Chaotic, shambolic, yet imaginative and occasionally intentionally riotously funny, it may well have been the least disciplined series ever to make it to air. Sometimes it was inappropriately serious, covering topics that you suspect would never get airtime in a modern children’s programme. But when the fancy took it, The Tomorrow People could also be spectacularly silly.

In 1975, for instance, series creator and chief writer Roger Price had grown so tired of the established format he briefly flirted with turning the show into an out-and-out comedy series. By 1978, however, it was clear that even he was running out of steam as the plots became evermore perfunctory and formulaic. Over the course of those 12 months the self-styled “homo superiors” came face to face with the Loch Ness Monster, Hitler and Frankenstein’s monster – a more clichéd assortment of adversaries you couldn’t hope to meet. Equally, Nicholas Young who played the lead “Tomorrow Person” was by now looking a little too long in the tooth to be still hanging out with a bunch of kids. Come the end of 1979 ITV would call time on the whole affair. Yet The Tomorrow People lives on in popular consciousness. In part this is due to its sheer longevity: eight series broadcast over six years, plus three more in the 1990s featuring an all-new cast. It’s also because the show stands almost alone in the annals of ITV science-fiction as being brave enough to embrace the trappings of the space fantasy genre. Alien vistas, spacecrafts and extra terrestrial entities – you could find them all in The Tomorrow People, and almost nowhere else on British commercial television. And all on a minuscule children’s television budget to boot.

1979 – Morecambe and Wise

It was the light entertainment equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. “MORECAMBE AND WISE QUITTING BBC FOR ITV” screamed the headlines in 1978. Not that it was the first time the duo had appeared on the commercial network, having established themselves as Britain’s favourite entertainers in six series for ATV during the 1960s. But then Eric and Ernie had moved to the BBC in 1968 because they believed the future of television was colour, something a myopic Lew Grade had stubbornly denied them. Their foresight resulted in the finest entertainment ever seen on British TV, weaving Morecambe and Wise indelibly into the national fabric. Now the duo longed to rekindle their movie career, it was reported, and through its Euston Films studio, Thames could offer something the BBC couldn’t match.

However the pair’s celluloid dreaming had conspired to take their eyes off the ball. Thames’s weekday fiefdom meant that if Christmas Day fell on a weekend, then their festive show could not be transmitted on the big night. More importantly, scriptwriter Eddie Braben had resisted Thames’s entreaties and opted to remain contracted to the BBC. It was Braben who had shaped Morecambe and Wise throughout the duo’s imperial phase, remoulding Eric’s persona as a less gormless, more mischievous character, and recasting Ernie as the bumptious author of all those plays what he wrote. The duo’s final performance for the BBC, the 1977 Christmas show, had been a triumph in ratings and critical terms. Even if they had remained at Television Centre, they might have struggled to top it. Now, as Bruce Forsyth discovered when he too moved to ITV, people “expected glitter to come out of the set”, and when it didn’t, few could resist feeling cheated. The heart attack Eric suffered soon after joining Thames could not be helped, admittedly, but the increasing reliance on rehashed BBC scripts surely could. Not that the those shows were all bad, especially after Braben decided to return: think of Eric in his flat cap and raincoat, bumbling around with his carrier bag at the end of the show, or the banter in the apartment, or even those “Here they are now, Morecambe and Wise” idents. But the spark had gone, and a guest list featuring the likes of a tired Harold Wilson failed to capture the imagination as André Previn and Angela Rippon once had. Eric Morecambe never lived to see the sole product of that precious film deal, Night Train to Murder, be quietly transmitted one afternoon at New Year 1985. Perhaps it was just as well.

1980 – Family Fortunes

Arriving on screen with the new decade, Family Fortunes marked the final part of Bob Monkhouse’s great “ATV game show trilogy” (the other two being The Golden Shot and Celebrity Squares). Yet it was this programme more than any other that caused the public to pigeonhole the performer as a host rather than a comedian, thanks chiefly to his weekly über-slick turns in the company of fiercely competing clans and the ever-present electronic Mr Babbage. Hitting just short of 16 million viewers in its first year, Family Fortunes was the archetypal simple game show dressed up as solid family viewing (despite the fact the National Viewers and Listeners Association described the programme as “a combination of sickening boredom and empty-handed jokes.”)

After three years in charge, Monkhouse slipped the leash when an innocent remark about his remaining at the helm brought the tart response from his bosses: “Don’t push. Don’t tout for work”. When Max Bygraves was named as his successor, Monkhouse went public with his opinion that the seemingly lachrymose singer-songwriter wasn’t right for the job. It sparked a war of words that would continue for many years, despite the fact Bygraves later admitted: “With hindsight I don’t think doing it was a wise decision. I took the money my dad would have had to work 500 years to earn – then rued the day I did.” He continued: “When I did the show I could sense the turmoil going on inside the contestants and that made me want to linger to help them out. It might have made my way of doing it seem lethargic to viewers and it didn’t help my TV career.” Far more suited to the role was Les Dennis, who took over the reins in 1987 and stuck with it for 15 years. “I think he should go back to Family Fortunes,” said Monkhouse in 2003, “as that’s where people like to see him”. As a commendation of anyone’s abilities, they don’t come much finer than that.

1981 – Dangermouse

ITV’s Watch It! strand launched at the end of 1980. Loosely curated by ATV, it was the channel’s first attempt at linking their children’s programming into a cohesive package, albeit helmed by regional continuity announcers and boasting much uninspiring and import-based efforts. In these barren years before Children’s ITV debuted in 1983, however, one Cosgrove Hall offering stood out. Five years in production before premiering in September 1981, “the greatest secret agent in the world” was initially conceived as a straight Bond parody. It was jointly created by Mike “Rochdale Cowboy” Harding – responsible for the music and naming Baron Greenback after an irascible Yorkshire farmer – and chief writer Brian Trueman, also the voice of Greenback’s crony Stiletto. Trueman delighted in creating plots packed with jokes for all ages, knowing references – DM lived under a post-box outside 221B Baker Street – and surreal storylines ranging from washing machines rebelling against their owners and attempting to take over London, to the world’s tides being reversed due to the moon being turned into a space junkyard by an alien who agrees to move the waste in return for the eyebrows of DM’s faithful cohort Penfold.

Terry Scott based Penfold’s voice on the one he essayed in his novelty hit My Brother, and along with David Jason provided ample support in the lead roles. Jason also moonlighted as portentous narrator Isambard Sinclair, who once accidentally took over the episode and ended up sending DM and Penfold into the story of Robin Hood. Despite its very British approach, much-referenced London settings and cheapness of animation – quite a few episodes featured the North Pole because it was supposedly easier to draw the backgrounds – it became the first syndicated UK cartoon in America via Nickelodeon. 77 episodes were broadcast over six years, with another 12 following in 1991 – 92, and despite no great Bod-esque cult status it came third in Channel 4′s 100 Greatest Kids’ TV Shows in 2001. Wherever there was danger, he’d be there.

1982 – Game for a Laugh

ITV has a long and distinguished tradition of producing vulgar popular television. It’s something that’s seemingly innate to the network, so much that even its studio audiences sound earthier than their BBC counterparts. This has never been more apparent than when a collective roar erupts from the seats of ITV’s famous London Studios on the South Bank. Compared to the clientele over at Television Centre, this lot forever sound like there isn’t a scrap of dignity between them. Nevertheless it is a thrilling noise. Whether buoying Ant and Dec on their way down to the studio floor or baying for the blood of an obnoxious Blind Date contestant, the London Studio audience is utterly essential to the ITV Light Entertainment experience. But where did these baying, shrieking masses first come from? No one can be entirely sure, but it would seem they came into existence somewhere during the first edition of LWT’s Game for a Laugh.

By 1982, this innovative Saturday night series was already well established as one of ITV’s most popular shows. Fusing elements of magazine and light entertainment television, it discarded all the variety trappings that had defined much of Saturday night up to that point in favour of a number of brief, barely-related items that poked fun at some element or other of the great British psyche. The mixture of studio-based items, audience participation and filmed inserts provoked raucous, hysterical laughter from those present at the recording and, in the main, from audiences at home. Whether it was Jeremy Beadle flicking his prey around like a cat teasing a mouse or Matthew Kelly grinning nonsensically at some piece of whimsy involving garden gnomes, Game for a Laugh was the type of fantastically coarse television that made you feel as if breaking wind in public was probably an acceptable practice after all.

1983 – Coronation Street

Not long after eight o’clock on the evening of 22 February 1983, a message appeared on the electronic scoreboard at Manchester United. “Deirdre and Ken reunited,” it informed the 56,635 fans crammed into the stadium for a cup semi-final. “Read tomorrow’s Daily Mail for an action replay.” It’s fair to say that the sight of the Street‘s unlikely bespectacled siren choosing between Ken Barlow and Mike Baldwin gripped the nation, attracting an audience of 18 million. Perhaps more significantly, as the scoreboard at Old Trafford confirmed, it marked the point that soap opera became the property of the tabloids. But ironically the Deirdre, Mike and Ken love triangle practically brought down the curtain on a Coronation Street era. In little more than a year, Len Fairclough, Stan Ogden, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and Albert Tatlock would all be gone. In 1985, the BBC launched EastEnders, and for several years Coronation Street struggled to keep pace with the relentlessly contemporary events in E20. From now on it seemed everything that happened in the soaps had to be bigger, better and bolder than before to fuel the tabloid machine.

Eventually, in the late 1980s, the Street did reinvent itself, and has, give or take the odd serial killer or bogus airline pilot, largely resisted the temptation to rack up the melodrama. Instead it has kept faith with strong performances and the best scripts on television, a tradition Granada has managed to maintain to this day, in spite of its dubious decision to turn out five episodes a week. Mike and Ken’s feud has been periodically reignited down the years, to ever more diminishing returns. But it remains a source of satisfaction that the most successful programme in ITV’s history came not from the capital, but from the north. In case you were wondering, Manchester United defeated Arsenal 2-1 that night. Fitting, perhaps. In dramatic terms, Granada and Coronation Street have been beating their London rivals for the best part of 50 years.

1984 – The Jewel in the Crown

The biggest stick ever used to beat the BBC, until Jerry Springer – The Opera, this elephantine ramble around the Raj came close to alternately poisoning and drowning its illustrious cast besides almost burning down the Rovers Return. Famously plagued by problems both on location in India and back home at Granada, The Jewel in the Crown reworked the opulence, class-obsessions and willowy frocks of 1981′s Brideshead Revisited on an even broader-brushed emotionally rent canvas. Lips quivered, giant skirts flapped, brows furrowed and a million flies buzzed. It was declared an instant triumph, a peerless union of consummate acting and utterly engrossing, beautifully-shot storylines. But it was also on the same time as the Beeb was screening The Thorn Birds, and hence became easy shorthand for why the then-beleaguered Corporation was being run by incompetents and was on its last legs. Douglas Hurd, at that time a junior minister at the Home Office, briefed journalists that if the BBC didn’t rustle up its own Jewel sharpish it couldn’t expect any raise in the licence fee for a fair number of years. And why, he raged, had Panorama of all things been dumped to make room for The Thorn Birds?

The press had a field day, lauding Granada’s sumptuous saunter through the dying days of colonialism while lambasting Auntie’s preference for the clerical peccadilloes of Richard Chamberlain. It was one of ITV’s finest hours. Three long years passed before the BBC could offer any kind of response in the shape of the equally lavish Fortunes of War. In retrospect The Jewel in the Crown came to epitomise a kind of drama that played to all of ITV’s strengths and a style it made its very own. Yet it was also, thanks to the subsequent onset of more budget-conscious, less self-indulgent management, a kind of drama it wouldn’t go near ever again.