Little Britain

Graham Kibble-White on Triangle

First published May 2001

Kate O’Mara lies, topless on a grey ferry deck. The sky behind her is grey. And despite her saturnine good looks there’s a greyness about her too. Larry Lamb, Michael Craig and Paul Jerricho all look on. Each to a man a little paunchy, a little unkempt, but roguish. Jerricho wills her to roll over onto her back so he can see her chest – but we know her bosom will stay plopped onto that cold deck or concealed beneath a towel. Because this is BBC1. And coming up next is Star Trek.

The above tableaux marked the beginning of the remarkable Triangle on 5 January 1981 (the same night that saw Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy debut on BBC2). And as a portent of what was to come it was so acute as to almost parody the series – particularly when we recall that it was preceded by garish quarter-split screen titles featuring a staggered zoom lurching in time to the urgent pah-pah-pahs of Johnny Pearson’s theme music. Fondly remembered by no one it seems, Triangle has come to be regarded as the Eldorado of its time – and whilst there are some distinct parallels between the two (both being an experiment in production practices and representing the BBC’s curiously dowdy take on glamour), it’s unfair to taint the seagoing serial with the failure of the sunshine soap. However, in 1992 when BBC2 ran a night of TV Hell, 40 critics consulted voted Triangle as “the worst of recent British failures”.

Triangle was the brainchild of Bill Sellars who produced the successful ’70s business drama The Brothers. He recalled the initial impetus for setting a serial onboard a ferry: “Jennifer Wilson from The Brothers launched the Tor Scandinavia and at the time I wanted to film inserts for an episode on board but it was not possible”. Come the ’80s, Sellars finally had the technology to pull it off.” Triangle uses new lightweight cameras, sensitive to much lower lighting levels than normal television cameras” said the Radio Times before transmission of the first episode. Thus the Tor Scandinavia was renamed the Dana Anglia for the programme and began its perpetual voyage between Felixstowe, Gothenburg and Amsterdam.

The majority of filming was done on the ferry, making Triangle almost wholly location based. Where Brookside would be praised for this innovation a year later, Triangle was generally lambasted for the pokiness of its interiors. The necessity to film cabins with blinds drawn over portholes (to avoid continuity problems with external lighting) only contributed to the overall impression of drabness. To make matters worse, the crew were regularly seasick, and only able to work for a limited amount of time behind the camera lens before motion-sickness overcame them. Despite this, their schedule dictated that they turn in 10 minutes of completed footage a day (Sellars boasted about the efficiency of his “floating studio”) and a routine was established where one episode was shot on the outward trip from Felixstowe and another on the return when they would then drop off the tapes.

Triangle represents the first of the BBC’s occasional flirtation with “avarice” dramas, a peculiar sub-genre that would prove hit and miss throughout the ’80s before finally dying out at the start of the ’90s (of which, more later). Palpably affected by the sudden propulsion of Dallas in popularity (the previous year saw the infamous “Who Shot JR?” storyline) Triangle sought to carve out a little of the action for itself. Kate O’Mara’s Katherine Laker – a femme fatale-style reinvention of her Jane Maxwell character from The Brothers – arguably set the actress on a fixed career-path for the next decade as the hard-nosed, but sexy “bitch”. However whilst the Ewings argued over billion dollar oil wells, Triangle translated this into a spat about the lack of Scandinavian dishes on the ship’s menu, and a tart exchange over the toddlers creche From the off there seemed to be a contrast between the way the programme saw itself, and the way in which it was actually perceived. The Radio Times’ billing for the first episode trotted out the party line: “Who is the scantily-clad attractive female on the crew’s private sun-deck? Matt Taylor, Chief Engineer, assumes the task of telling her she shouldn’t be there.” Meanwhile the then Head of TV Drama Graeme McDonald was heard to comment that Triangle was not a “Harrods soap”, but a “Safeways brand”. The latter was probably the truer picture, with the actual realisation of Triangle failing to depict a lifestyle anyone would sensibly covet. Writer Ted Rhodes’ description probably got closest to the mark, however; Triangle was directed towards the “family audience” and “aspirational”. Somehow this seemed to evoke two contradictory elements.

Nevertheless setting out on its maiden episode this series, couched in between Nationwide and Star Trek, did try and lay in some unsubtle sex-appeal. “Keep your knickers on until I get to your cabin” was straightforward stuff, but worse was to follow. Having established herself as a not-to-be-messed-with-temptress, Katherine Laker lures Matt Taylor (Larry Lamb) to her cabin. Here a ludicrous sort of seduction occurs with Laker apparently offering herself to Taylor, and then suddenly withdrawing. The intention here is plainly to show how Laker can manipulate men, and to establish her credentials as a formidable woman, but it is all played out through a series of such tortured innuendo, metaphor and double-talk as to not really make any sense at all. Here was another facet of BBC glamour; the notion that sophisticates spoke in an absurdly roundabout way would persist all through Triangle onto Howard’s Way and Trainer (and turn up on The Other Side from time to time too, particularly in Connie‘s risible “snout in the trough” speech). But never was it so convoluted and entertaining (for all the wrong reasons) as in Katherine Laker’s cabin – “Just think of me as your universal aunt … the crook of a finger isn’t always the promise of happy times”.

Triangle was something of a departure from previously established early-evening programming on BBC1, and The Guardian greeted it with the observation that “twice weekly drama gets out of the hospital wards” – a reference to the Julia Smith soap Angels. Reaction to the series wasn’t particularly positive, however, with The Telegraph drawling: “As a successor to the axed Buccaneers which actually was about air freight and only incidentally about the sex life of pilots, Triangle seems intent on proving that if you have a failure, to redeem go down market … As a contribution to the Beeb’s well-known concept of family viewing it must raise a few eyebrows.” At the end of the first series on April Fool’s Day W G Mather from Nottinghamshire felt moved to write to the Radio Times to comment that “one might have expected to see the captain handling docking or overseeing the pilot … Other possible episodes could have involved the engines, the problems of passengers, the loading/unloading of cars and cargo, union troubles, of general day-to-day problems such as fog, maydays and close misses.” While The Telegraph’s appraisal was on-the-nose, W G Mather was perhaps a little misguided in his hopes that a new family serial would dwell on the actual minutiae of running a ferry service. But not everyone was so negative; Mrs H Taylor also felt compelled to write to the Radio Times, although she opened with a caveat that the programme makers probably wouldn’t have appreciated: “I feel I must write to thank the BBC for the series Triangle before anyone else starts to say how poor it was. I was interested from the very first programme and am pleased that the series has turned out to be so interesting.”

Although not a critical success the first series of Triangle managed to secure ratings of around the 6m mark – enough to ensure it another the following year and the release of two spin-off novels: “Triangle” in 1981 and “Triangle: A Question Of Command” in ’82. Returning on 26 April 1982, Triangle was to find itself upstaged less than seven days later by the start of Dynasty on British TV; a series which threw into sharp relief the catalogue chic of the BBC’s effort (although it would actually employ Kate O’Mara as a sort of second-rate Joan Collins in 1986 when she appeared as Casandra “Caress” Morell). This was also the year of Fame; intensifying the appropriation of US aspirational culture that the sea-bound soap was so crudely trying to mirror. Despite this, Triangle was again recommissioned, with the third series starting on 5 April 1983. By this stage, O’Mara had jumped ship. She would later remember that from the off the series hadn’t panned out as she’d anticipated, when the actor playing her father (with whom she was scripted to have a long-running feud) died shortly into production of the first series.

When it was finally put to rest on 6 July 1983 it was well established as a sort of “floating Crossroads“, but this belies the fact that Triangle spawned some notorious (if not notable) descendants throughout the rest of the ’80s. In 1985 Gerard Glaister and Allan Prior created a serial with the working title “The Boatbuilders”. Howard’s Way, as the business drama came to be known, poached many of its themes from Triangle, and personnel too, roping in Kate O’Mara as the ball-busting Laura Wilde, and Tony Anholt (Nick Stevens in Triangle) as Charles Frere. Although glossier than Triangle, there was still a sense of low-rent glamour here, best personified by Stephen Yardley as the slimy Ken Masters. (It was said that Yardley himself instigated the awful practice of wearing a V-neck jumper over a bare chest.) Put Ken Masters and the sun-tanned Charles Frere together in the same room and there was the quintessence of “BBC glamour”: two old sweats in open-necked shirts, rolling around ice-cubes in huge glasses of scotch whilst angrily trading mild profanities. In short, everything A Bit of Fry and Laurie parodied in their “damn, blast and double-damn” sketches.

Howard’s Way was to prove more successful than Triangle, and became for a time a well-established Sunday night fixture. Eventually axed in 1990, Kate O’Mara has since claimed that this was because the BBC were unwilling to spend the money on it. This is doubtful, however, as the similarly budgeted but far less memorable Trainer followed in 1991, taking the business onto dry land and the world of horse racing (arguably spinning off from a horse racing subplot in Howard’s Way). Again, created by Gerard Glaister and this time boasting a theme sung by Cliff Richard, but by this stage “avarice” was looking decidedly creaky. However, Trainer made it to a second series in 1992 – when it was then axed.

That same year Julia Smith and Tony Holland brought us full circle with Eldorado. Cheesily boasting “sun, sex and sangria” Smith described it as “more escapist than EastEnders“, but succeeded only in presenting us with another poorly constructed, albeit innovatively produced soap. When Alan Yentob axed the series in 1993, he also put the whole genre of aspirational TV to the sword.

In Triangle and the programmes that followed we could find some of the most mockable British television ever produced. Common to all was a sense of limited horizons. Where each sought to escape from the mundane, depicting lusty lifestyles just beyond reach, all ended up a drab reflection of Little England sensibilities. For all its faults though, Triangle is probably the most acceptable of the lot. Granted, in terms of tattiness it fell further than the rest, but at least it was a pioneer, carving out a new genre and doing so with some innovation. And whilst it was less stylish, less plush, less inviting than it had hoped for, we should always bear in mind that the crook of a finger isn’t always the promise of happy times …