1985 – 1994

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

First published October 2005

1985 – Duty Free

Of all the many comedy series Eric Chappell wrote for ITV, it’s quite possible to argue that Duty Free was the best. First broadcast in 1984, the series actually took a sabbatical through 1985. But it was while off screen that Duty Free, like many great programmes, started to ferment and carve its place in the history of TV, not in the least thanks to a repeat run which notched up more viewers than the original broadcast. By the time its characters returned for a third and final outing the following year, Chappell found himself up against viewers’ inflated memories of what had gone before.

Quite why Duty Free worked so well is difficult to pinpoint, being mostly due to a happy confluence of elements. Although farces were even by then a derided style of comedy, Chappell’s plots adhered very closely to that tradition, ensuring each episode concluded with a suitably apt pay-off. The cast were excellent, uniformly able to produce characterisations that wallowed in the mediocrity of sitcom clichés. Keith Barron turned in a perfect stereotype of the hen-pecked hubby desperate to assert some degree of self-importance and get his leg over. Neil Stacy, already well established as a TV upper class twit (and who’d go on to reprise an almost identical turn in the BBC’s Three Up, Two Down) played the part to perfection. Meanwhile the two leading ladies, Gwen Taylor and Joanna Van Gyseghem, occupied their rather hackneyed roles with aplomb, relishing the familiarity of the situation. Yet if it was difficult to praise Duty Free as being anything other than an uninventive series done extremely well, there was nothing about its popularity that was in any way ordinary. Over the course of its run it regularly competed with the soaps for the title of most watched programme, and on 12 March 1984 actually scored the highest ratings of the week: an astonishing 16.7 million viewers. It remains ITV’s last ever successful sitcom, and while the network still occasionally flirts with the genre (usually involving a fashionable comedian of the time), you have to wonder if a foursquare traditional effort with a competent but uncool cast might be the way to go.

1986 – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

There hadn’t been a proper TV treatment of Conan Doyle’s irascible invention for almost 20 years when, in 1983, Granada decided to begin working through all the author’s short stories with all the cash, resources and late-Victorian smog they could muster. John Hawkesworth, the brains behind Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street, was put on script duties. A fully-functioning Baker Street was slung up just round the corner from the Rovers Return and peopled with numerous rozzers, coppers, tinkers and nabobs. And gazing down on them all, from the suitably cavernous windows of 221B, was Jeremy Brett.

Here was Granada’s trump card: a well-known and accomplished actor willing to go to the lengths of losing weight, dying his hair and taking up pipe smoking to properly inhabit the world’s most famous detective. Yet it must have come as something of a shock to first see Holmes portrayed with such a mixture of arch pomposity, blind fury and bone dry humour. Wasn’t he supposed to be a smooth sophisticate, the quintessential cerebral charmer? Even worse, where was the bumbling, incompetent Watson? David Burke had instead turned the ever-present “friend and colleague” into a sharp, youthful firebrand, alternately moaning at his comrade for not tidying up and supplying the all-important final clue. If the series didn’t pick up instant viewer appeal, though, it won plaudits from the off and slowly gathered a following. The extent to which Brett had clearly immersed himself in the role proved irresistible. Sadly it also proved fatal for him, leading to a nervous breakdown, repeated illness and a premature death. Still, the early run of episodes, peaking in 1986, remain a master class in intelligent, entertaining period drama where the humorous (“Watson, this is no time for eating humbugs!”) and the introspective (“It seems death is all around us”) are just as exciting as the discovery of the next dead body.

1987 – Spitting Image

For most of the 1980s, the Monday morning conversations in the nation’s factories, offices and playgrounds revolved around just one thing: last night’s Spitting Image. From pop stars and princesses to the Pope, it seemed nobody was immune from the programme’s brand of “latex lampoonery”, as a legion of ITV announcers insisted on calling it. Back then, you knew you’d arrived when you became a Spitting Image puppet. Based on Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s rubber caricatures, which had parodied the great and good in the colour supplements in the 1970s, Spitting Image first appeared on ITV screens in February 1984 to general indifference. Nobody seemed to know quite what to make of the format, least of all the writers, and it took a Christmas compilation of the best bits to turn around the public’s negative reaction. Once the script team led by the partnerships of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, hit its stride, Spitting Image became unmissable, dismantling the last remaining rusting taboos about the Royal Family while shamelessly toying with a Fleet Street up in arms at “rumours” that the programme was about to feature the Queen Mother (“Spitting Image have never made such a puppet, and were on holiday at the time it wasn’t made”). Truly, another age.

For all its supposed power, to its credit the programme never once took itself seriously. Kinnock and Steel might feel they had cause to rue their portrayal, but neither did any worse in the 1987 election than they had four years earlier. The series seemed to be lavished in care and attention at its height, although looking back, for every I’ve Never Met a Nice South African there’d be another rotten pop parody that missed its target by a mile (the programme didn’t seem to like pop music, full stop). Spitting Image has never been granted the blue plaque status it deserves as one of the most fertile comedy breeding grounds of the last 20 years, but practically everyone who could do anyone passed through the Central studios, from Rory Bremner and Chris Barrie to Harry Enfield and Steve Coogan. Less an exclusive Footlights revue, more a contemporary equivalent of the village stocks, Spitting Image democratised satire on television for the first time. It didn’t matter if you read a tabloid or a broadsheet, or could even tell apart all those Normans and Kenneths that seemed to populate the Thatcher cabinet, here was a house of mirrors reflection of Britain that everyone could recognise.

1988 – This Week

“I used to love Fridays,” wrote Roger Bolton. “It was a day I didn’t have to wear a suit, could come to work a little later, even have a banana milkshake from McDonald’s across the Euston Road from Thames Television.” All that changed on Friday 23 September 1988, when, as editor of This Week, Bolton suddenly found himself in the eye of the most traumatic political storm ever visited upon ITV. He’d put out an edition of the respected, long-running current affairs strand in April subtitled “Death on the Rock” examining why the SAS had, the previous month, shot dead three unarmed members of the IRA in Gibraltar. The programme considered whether the army was now operating a “shoot-to-kill” policy towards suspected terrorists, and how, in the words of Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, the victims’ “movements led the military personnel to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat.” Bolton and his team marshalled various witnesses to imply otherwise, to query the prevailing mentality of the army towards the whole issue of Northern Ireland, and to call for an official inquiry.

It was strong stuff and had necessitated sign-off not just by Bolton’s bosses at Thames but the Chairman of the IBA Lord Thompson. There’d also been frantic scrambles on both sides, with Geoffrey Howe trying to block its screening – without having seen the programme – while Bolton and presenter Jonathan Dimbleby only completed the closing link 10 minutes before transmission. But while “Death on the Rock” caused an immediate and huge stir, an even bigger furore kicked off that Friday in September when the Spanish inquest into the shooting heard testimony that This Week had supposedly pressurised and bribed witnesses. “Lies on the Rock” announced the Daily Mail. “I told lie after lie” paraphrased the Sun. “It’s a fucking disaster,” concluded Thames’s controller of news and current affairs Barrie Sales. And for a time it was, with vitriol being poured on the programme from almost all quarters. Bolton and co soldiered on, but it wouldn’t be until January 1989 that an independent inquiry cleared them of all charges save the handling of an unsigned witness statement and “being, to a limited extent, one-sided”. It was a pyrrhic victory, however, given the degree to which relations had irreparably broken down between Thames and the IBA on the one side and the Government (in particular Margaret Thatcher) on the other. When Thames lost their licence two years later many blamed “Death on the Rock”, and though it can’t have been that simple, the entire affair undoubtedly tested ITV’s ability to hold its own against the powers that be and found it wanting.

1989 – The Match

It’s difficult to believe now, but two decades ago the national game had become practically unbroadcastable. Racked by hooliganism, sterile football and endless disputes over television contracts, in 1985 the sport even disappeared from our screens for months. Ironically, television was about to change the game forever. In 1988, the impending launch of British Satellite Broadcasting coincided with the negotiations over the Football League rights. Needing exclusive programming to lure potential subscribers, BSB tendered a bid for the rights. Led by Greg Dyke, ITV responded by signing up all the big clubs, at one point even threatening a rebel “ITV Super League”. Eventually, after a summer of wrangling, Dyke’s £44 million bid prevailed, and one Sunday in October 1988 The Big Match became simply The Match. Fronted by Granada anchorman Elton Welsby, it promised new camera angles, half-time interviews with the players and even live pictures from the changing rooms.

In the event, the coverage looked much the same as it always had. But the network’s refusal to feature all but a handful of élite teams began to foster resentment among both fans and executives of the league’s lesser lights. Few at ITV listened, however, as the first season of The Match reached an improbable climax in May 1989. The fixture list, having been torn up in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, dictated that Liverpool’s final game of the season now became a Friday night primetime duel for the Championship against Arsenal. Memorably, with commentator Brian Moore roaring “It’s up for grabs now!”, the London club snatched the title in the last seconds of the season in front of 10 million viewers. Italia ’90 helped make the sport respectable once more, and envious eyes were being cast on the disposable income in the pockets of ITV’s football audience. Then in 1992, bidding for the contract for the new FA Premier League began. BSB had been taken over by Sky, although the satellite broadcaster was still haemorrhaging cash by the day. Football, it seemed, was the attraction that could get more dishes bolted to more houses than anything else. In the face of another compelling bid from Dyke, Sky appealed to the clubs too often left in the shadows by ITV, pledging a financial package that promised to blow their rival “out of the water”. It did exactly that, at a stroke changing the fortunes of both Sky and football. Little mourned by the fans, The Match remains significant to this day, having inextricably bound sport and television together for good. It was also the first real occasion that the BBC found itself left on the sporting touchline. Most significantly of all, it developed the national game into a commodity that could and did transform an ailing satellite network into a broadcasting powerhouse.

1990 – Jeeves and Wooster

One part of Greg Dyke’s master plan to make LWT king of Sunday night television involved ditching home-grown fripperies like Weekend World and The Six O’Clock Show to free up money to pour into London’s Burning, Poirot and other glossy in-house offerings. The other part required a few other ITV regions to do the same and pitch their own upmarket efforts into the battle. Yorkshire came through with The Darling Buds of May, A Touch of Frost and Heartbeat (see below), which walked all over the Beeb. Stealing a march on all of them, however, was Granada who in so doing managed to rustle up their first new hit drama serial for almost a decade.

Dyke was wary, given it was only a few years since the same company had been going around arguing how Albion Market would be the perfect lynchpin for Sunday evening viewing. But the critical and popular success of Jeeves and Wooster took not just him by surprise. The PG Wodehouse Society had kicked up a fuss about whether Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were appropriate to play the eponymous esteemed roles. In fact their casting, as the Society quickly came to acknowledge, proved to be an enormous boon. As long as each adventure remained somewhere in the England shires (six stories set in New York were resoundingly run-of-the-mill and boring to look at), it didn’t matter if every episode seemed to involve Bertie going to stay at some sprawling country pile, falling into some bushes and waking up finding himself engaged to three women at the same time. The charm and sophistication of the production, from the opulent period locations to the minutely-honed performances, to the hummable hoofing refrains provided by Anne Dudley out of The Art of Noise, meant that a bit of Fry and Laurie proved to be the perfect post-weekend tonic.

1991 – 35 Up

“The shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 are now seven years old,” Granada’s World in Action told its viewers in 1963. 14 children were promptly paraded across the screen, each gently quizzed by programme researcher Michael Apted about their lives, their hopes, and their perception of the future. “I read the Observer and Times,” bragged one. “What does university mean?” asked another. “I had a dream when all the world was on top of me, and I just about got out, and everything flew up in the air and it all landed on my head,” countered a third. So it went on, adding up to an absorbing and amusing evaluation of the merits of the old Jesuit proverb “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

And there it would have ended, had Apted not decided, mostly out of curiosity, to make a point of looking up the subjects seven years later – and hence take the first step towards creating the most enthralling documentary series ITV has ever shown. Seven Plus Seven in 1970 was followed by 21 Up in 1977, and so it continued, each update delivering fresh illuminations on the legacy of upbringing, education, class and family. Yet at the same time each sequel showed its cast of contributors wising up not just to society around them but the consequences of their seven-year appointment with Apted and his camera. 35 Up remains the last time – to date – all 14 took part, albeit in some cases under duress (one, John, agreeing only as part of promotion for a Kurdish benefit concert) or desperation (Neil, homeless and destitute in 28 Up, needing to prove he was back on his feet). Most had children of their own now, and appeared uneasy about subjecting their offspring to the same kind of exposure they had called upon themselves. For the first time the series was starting to invite its participants to look backwards as well as forwards; many profound observations on age, experience and those many unfulfilled dreams of youth ensued. Yet for a while this most poignant of instalments looked like being the last to be shown by ITV. For some reason the channel didn’t want 42 Up, resulting in the BBC wisely stepping into the breach. A last-minute change of heart, however, meant 49 Up was back where it belonged with, fittingly, its concluding part transmitted on the very night of ITV’s 50th birthday.

1992 – Good Morning Britain

For one of the shortest-lived ITV franchises, TV-am went through more turmoil than most of the others put together. Famously “floating in on a cloud of bullshit” in February 1983 with Good Morning Britain, Peter Jay’s demented ideas on what the average viewer wanted to see over breakfast (18-minute interviews with Arthur Scargill) and the massive clash of egos between its presenters left the station close to meltdown within months. Greg Dyke’s tenure in charge ushered in a more lightweight, unchallenging affair, sneered at by critics but massively popular with bleary-eyed housewives and kids, and one that was a distinctly ITV service as opposed to Jay’s preference for concepts more suited to late night BBC2. A relentless pursuit of audiences continued unabashed thanks to maverick Australian Bruce Gyngell, who won acceptance by the rest of the broadcasting establishment at the same time as losing it with the unions, prompting chaos in 1987 when a protracted industrial dispute led to nearly a year of shambolic, shoestring transmissions majoring on repeats of Happy Days and Anne Diamond pointing at pictures of Princess Diana in the papers.

By the early 1990s, however, recovery was such that TV-am went into the latest ITV franchise auction as, apparently, the most profitable television company in Britain. Yet Gyngell, chiefly out of bravado, entered a bid to retain his licence worth less than half that of his rivals. As such, and despite Margaret Thatcher writing to apologise for introducing the auction system in the first place, that was the end of the matter. GMTV won the licence, all TV-am’s plans for religion, youth drama and education were ripped up, and the company spent its last 15 months broadcasting a shameless mix of gossip, cartoons and repeats. Unsurprisingly this coincided with a ratings increase as an audience who had turned off from TV-am’s flirtation with ostensible licence-winning content tuned in again. On the last day of 1992 TV-am passed away in typically gaudy style. Its successor had its own problems, quickly ditching its own upmarket pretensions for strangely familiar fare on the behest of none other than Greg Dyke. Gyngell, meanwhile, resurfaced in charge of Yorkshire Television, merrily axing titillating network documentary Hollywood Lovers for rather more salubrious editions of Whicker’s World.

1993 – This Morning

Having enjoyed token competition since its launch in 1988, by 1993 This Morning was 12 months into its deadly battle with the BBC’s copycat magazine Good Morning … with Anne and Nick. Although this was a war Richard and Judy would eventually win in 1996 with very few casualties on their side, the skirmish was significant not least for the Beeb’s unprecedented attempt to duplicate an ITV format. “They even inserted funny little breaks like our commercial breaks,” observed Richard in 2002. “It was all strangely disquieting, as if new neighbours had moved in opposite and painted their house the same colour as ours, put up the same curtains in the front windows, drove the exact model and colour of car we did, and even got up and went to bed at the same time as us.” However such attempts by Good Morning … to steal a march on their ITV rivals only succeeded in highlighting the subtle nuances that made This Morning such a winning formula. For example, whereas the various Good Morning … experts all had an aroma of television professionals masquerading as agony aunts or cooks, over at the Albert Dock there seemed something entirely real about the likes of Susan Brookes or Denise Robertson, who behaved almost as if they didn’t even know the cameras were there. The authenticity was utterly compelling, and extended, of course, to the relationship between the chief hosts themselves.

In this respect Anne and Nick never stood a chance. While their banter might have fizzed a little, they couldn’t hope to match the complexity and realism of Richard and Judy. The manner in which the married couple’s relationship (dys)functioned was not only completely gripping, but also allowed them to appear genuinely involved in the various topics featured in each programme. We knew that Judy was concerned whether or not Richard took the advice of the show’s GP Chris Steele to check his testicles regularly, whereas there was no way you could imagine Anne even making the most cursory enquiry into Nick’s self-examination routine. As such it would be a big loss to ITV when Richard and Judy hotfooted over to Channel 4 in 2001. Though This Morning continues to this day, you sense it is no longer the impregnable fortress that it once was. Time for a Good Morning … revival, perhaps?

1994 – Cracker

Once it had cottoned on to the fact there was a large public appetite for crime drama, you sense ITV hadn’t entirely reckoned on what they were going to get when they commissioned Jimmy McGovern to write Cracker. Of all the flagship ITV dramas down the years it’s still without doubt the brashest and most extreme, trampling all over the likes of Prime Suspect and (especially) Inspector Morse in its lack of respect for the popular crime TV genre. Though closely associated with both McGovern and Robbie Coltrane, it’s worth noting Cracker started life without either of them. The series was actually the idea of producer Gub Neal, while the first actor in the frame for Fitz was Robert Lindsay. Yet it was undoubtedly the combination of McGovern and Coltrane that turned Cracker from just another proposal on the desk of Granada’s head of drama Sally Head into the visceral creation it later became.

Although debuting in 1993, it wasn’t really until the first offering of the second series in ’94, “To be a Somebody”, that Cracker began to pick up column inches and provoke magazine articles. The story featured a compelling performance by Robert Carlyle as the murderously traumatised Alby, but also demonstrated how McGovern recognised the show’s potential for addressing topical contemporary issues – in this instance the long-term aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, and in later episodes blistering takes on racism and religion. Never one to shy away from dramatic truths, McGovern even rounded off this second series with perhaps the starkest portrayal of rape ever seen in an ITV drama. Ironically it was only when Cracker was entrusted in the hands of the much-celebrated Paul Abbott that the series began to turn into just another crime show. Shorn of McGovern’s zeal, Fitz diminished in stature, so much so that by the time he was operating in Hong Kong he was no longer the incredible beast of the early years and was simply another idiosyncratic investigator to be filed alongside the likes of David Jason’s DI Frost, or Abbott’s own Detective Inspector Dave Creegan.