Were the Seventies the Golden Age of television?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

My children are probably fed up with me telling them that there were no means of recording TV programmes when I was their age: no video recorders or DVD players or Sky+. When I add that until I was 13 I also watched everything in black-and-white, they look at me sympathetically, as if I was telling them that I was brought up in a workhouse on one bowl of gruel a day. But that's how it was. If circumstances prevented you from missing your favourite programme, circumstances sometimes as prosaic as your dad wanting to watch whatever was on the other "side" (we never said "channel" in those days), then you were stuffed. There were programmes I missed in the 1970s that I'm only catching up on now, thanks to UK Gold and ITV4.

Still, the flip side of missing favourite programmes was that, when you watched them, you were in the company of tens of millions. The modern proliferation of channels means that the collective viewing experience, whereby you just knew that Mrs Watson next door, Mr and Mrs Abbott at number 62, the Taylor family round the corner in Clovelly Drive, your primary school teacher Mr Petrie-Brown, your grandma in London and possibly even the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, were all watching the same programme at the same time, has gone for ever. But at least there is a collective nostalgia experience; if nothing else we can get together in pubs and talk about life before the remote control unit.

With there being only three channels to change, of course, a remote-control unit wasn't quite the essential accessory that it is now, in the 400-channel age. Moreover, in some households, the choice was effectively limited to only two channels; the third, ITV, was considered not only downmarket but downright pernicious, what in the north-west of England might have been known as persona non Granada.

I must say that I don't remember my own parents looking down their noses at ITV, but quite a few of my friends' parents did. Jonny Cook's mum and dad thought ITV irredeemably common – "a bit council house" in Jonny's words – and banned their three children from watching it. Coronation Street was a no-no, as was Man About the House. No exceptions were made, not even for the irreproachable World in Action. I considered myself lucky to be able to choose from the full complement of three channels.

This is something else I tell my children and again they look at me with sympathy, mixed with a degree of wonderment that their old dad experienced such privations in his boyhood.

I was not, I must confess, a huge devotee of Top of the Pops. The reason I watched it every Thursday evening was principally so that I wouldn't feel left out in the school corridors on Friday mornings.

It wasn't that I didn't like music, just that I couldn't work up as much enthusiasm for the top 40 as those of my contemporaries who listened to the countdown every week as attentively and solemnly as folk during the Battle of Britain listened to Winston Churchill exhorting them to defend our island whatever the cost might be. Some of them even wrote every entry down, and started panicking when they missed one. "Hey, did you get number 11? Was it 'Save Your Kisses For Me', Brotherhood of Man, or 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart', Elton John and Kiki Dee?"

Still, I could see the appeal of Pan's People, as indeed could Ronnie Barker's immortal character Norman Stanley Fletcher in Porridge, Ian La Fresnais and Dick Clement's third TV masterpiece, after The Likely Lads and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?. In one of the earliest and indeed most often repeated episodes of Porridge, in 1974, they had Fletch fantasising: "I could call up a couple of birds, those darlings who dance on Top of the Pops, what are they called? Pan's People. There's one special one, beautiful Babs." A beat, immaculately timed. "Don't know what her name is."

I have ransacked not only my own memories while writing this; I have also tried to plunder the memories of others. I duly made contact with Beautiful Babs herself, the former Babs Lord, who in 1975, in a marriage of beauty and showbiz almost as noteworthy as the later union of Bruce Forsyth and Miss World Wilnelia Merced, became Mrs Robert Powell.

For television viewers of my generation, Robert Powell is and will forever be Jesus of Nazareth, eponymous star of the only ITV drama, so far as I am aware, ever to get a plug from the Pope. On Easter Sunday 1977 Pope Paul VI stood on the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square dispensing the usual blessings, and then exhorted the crowds to "go home and watch the rest of Jesus of Nazareth". ......... He never did that for Coronation Street.

When Jesus of Nazareth was transmitted in two epic parts on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, I was among the estimated 25 million Britons watching, although possibly one of the relatively few to cite as the most enjoyable moment of the entire six hours and 16 minutes the fleeting glimpse – among a glittering cast that also included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, James Mason, Rod Steiger and Anthony Quinn – of Harold Bennett, the actor best known as Young Mr Grace in Are You Being Served?, playing a village elder.

I ached for him to tell his fellow villagers that "You're all doing very well" as he regularly did Mr Humphries and the rest of the Grace Brothers staff, and was most disappointed that he didn't, but there was compensation in the marvellous discovery that Ian McShane, a wonderfully roguish Judas Iscariot, was married to Sylvia Kristel, the saucy Dutch actress who played the title role as the sex siren Emmanuelle in the 1974 X-rated film to which my friend Andy Boothman and I had unsuccessfully sought entry when it was shown, as part of a double bill with Confessions of a Driving Instructor, in the autumn of 1976.

Being married to Emmanuelle seemed to me to be entirely in keeping with the character of Judas. And McShane, whose twinkle-eyed roguishness later found an enjoyable outlet as the resourceful Suffolk antiques dealer Lovejoy, was perfectly cast. My favourite Jesus of Nazareth story concerns the scene when Judas creeps out of the room during the Last Supper. With Zeffirelli's cameras rolling, McShane stole out surreptitiously as bidden by the script, then popped his head back through the doorway and said, "Now have I got this right? Nine cod, four haddock, all with chips and mushy peas?" I would pay good money, perhaps even 30 pieces of silver, to see that out-take.

Whatever, while it made perfect sense to learn that Judas and Emmanuelle were an item, far more surprising was the revelation that Jesus himself was in real life married to Babs from Pan's People.

Unlike many of my friends, I always enjoyed Pan's People's contributions to Top of the Pops, mainly I think because even then I recognised the irredeemable cheesiness of many of their routines. Some of the cheesiest pop up on telly even now. And Legs & Co, the troupe that succeeded Pan's People on Top of the Pops in April 1976, were no less cheesy, once donning masks and carrying swag bags when dancing to "Bank Robber" by The Clash. If Joe Strummer was watching, it can only have been through his fingers.

Legs & Co continued the tradition of clumsy but impressively strenuous literalism begun by Pan's People, one of the finest examples of which was a routine Babs & Co did to "Get Down" by Gilbert O'Sullivan, which reached the number one spot in March 1973. The girls shared the stage with several Labradors, which, as dear old Gilbert sang "told you once before / and I won't tell you no more / get down, get down, get down", they admonished with wagging fingers.

In fact, the song was about a tempestuous love affair between two human beings and had nothing whatever to do with Labradors, but because the lyrics included the words "you're a bad dog, baby", the ever-literal choreographer Flick Colby saw an unmissable opportunity for paws and wet noses.

Like television as a whole in the 1970s, watching the adverts (a delectation, don't forget, offered only by a single channel, ITV) was a communal experience, and it was no surprise in 2006 when a survey of more than 3,000 people conducted by Good Food magazine found that of the 10 food adverts voted "the most iconic", most of them originated in the 1970s, including the top one: the 1974 advert for Cadbury's Smash instant mashed potato, and its various sequels, in which an entire family of aliens, including the cat and the dog, laughed uproariously at the earthling habit of going to the trouble of peeling potatoes with our metal knives, boiling them for 20 of our earth minutes, and then smashing them all to bits. We were clearly, they reasoned, a most primitive people. "For mash ... get Smash," went the concluding jingle.

Most of the really memorable adverts in the 1970s came with a jingle attached, and anyone who spent as much time as I did in front of the telly during that excellent decade can still remember every word, offering an easy bonding opportunity with people of roughly the same age. I tried it on my wife just a few minutes ago, sneaking up behind her while she was doing the ironing and saying "boom boom boom boom", to which, without even turning round, she added "Esso Blue!" It must have been a great time to be a jingle-writer; you could knock out any old crap and watch it being more or less instantly clutched to the collective bosom.

The funniest adverts, most people agreed, were for Hamlet cigars and Cinzano. Both traded on the kind of accident-prone haplessness embodied by Michael Crawford's beret-wearing Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, whose "Ooh Betty, I think I done a woopsy" routine was a staple ingredient in the repertoire of anyone who fancied themselves a half-decent impressionist.

The stoical unfortunates in the Hamlet adverts therefore represented the decade perfectly. In 1974 we saw a sculptor working on the Venus de Milo whose arm dropped off with the last tap of his chisel. In 1975, it was the guy in the neck brace and sling, sitting in the crowd at Wimbledon trying in vain to follow the flight of the ball.

In 1978 a cowboy with an arrow through his heart turned up at the Pearly Gates where St Peter refused him entrance. And in 1979 it was the turn of the golfer, forlornly hacking away in a bunker. In every case they found solace by lighting up: happiness was a cigar called Hamlet, the mild cigar from Benson & Hedges.

Even if tobacco advertising were allowed on television now, the wording would have to be changed to "possible lung cancer and subsequent death is a cigar called Hamlet, the mild but potentially deadly cigar from Benson & Hedges". We inhabit an altogether less joyful world than we did back then, and while I for one am delighted to live in a country where smoking is outlawed in most public places, I rather miss tobacco advertising. It's hard to make a witty advert for Nicotine Replacement Therapy, and I don't suppose there'll ever be a NiQuitin Man to replace the iconic Marlboro Man.

The Cinzano adverts were conceived by Alan Parker, later to bring us Mississippi Burning and The Commitments. His masterstroke was to match the glamorous Joan Collins with Leonard Rossiter, already famous as the seedy landlord Rigsby in Rising Damp, and the troubled Sunshine Desserts executive in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Both played the parts to perfection: Rossiter as the bumbling suitor, Collins as the long-suffering Melissa, who always ended up with Cinzano sloshed down the front of her dress. It was great stuff, which is more than can be said, in my humble opinion, for Cinzano itself.

There has arguably never been a greater British TV phenomenon than the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special at its height. Eric Morecambe had a mastery of comic timing that remains unsurpassed on British television, and unlike almost all of his fellow comedians he did not rely on gurning, cack-handedness or vulgarity, or props, or, to be frank, on Ernie Wise. More than any other comedian of that or any other era, he just seemed to be himself.

It was André Previn's guest appearance in 1971 that established the Christmas show as unmissable, as well as priming us for the rest of the decade to expect the unexpected. Eric and Ernie, and their producer John Ammonds, then had to meet these public expectations, but to their surprise and delight they found that the most dignified of performers were all too willing to poke fun at themselves. Yehudi Menuhin duly turned up with a banjo, Rudolf Nureyev was told that he owed his big break on the show to Lionel Blair's sudden indisposition, and Shirley Bassey sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" wearing one of Eric's boots. None of this was achieved without diligent preparation.

Morecambe and Wise liked to spend five weeks rehearsing their Christmas special and expected similar commitment from their guests. Yet when Ammonds rang Previn's agent, the exquisitely named Jasper Parrott, to request that the great conductor make himself available for five days, Parrott nearly fell off his perch, or at any rate his chair.

Eventually they compromised with three days, but then, after the first day's rehearsal, Parrott told Ammonds that Previn was very sorry but he had to fly to America to be with his sick mother and wouldn't be back until the evening before the show was due to be recorded. Eric's response to this was withering: "Well sod him, then, we'll do without him. We'll use Ernie as the conductor instead." But Ammonds promised him that he would send a car to meet Previn at the airport, and whisk him straight to Television Centre for four hours of rehearsals. This duly happened and Previn, who had learnt his script by torchlight on the way in from the airport, turned out himself to have a great, and previously untapped, sense of comic timing. Eric, however, still fully expected the sketch to flop.

According to Michael Grade, now executive chairman of ITV, who was close to Eric and Ernie, it is possible to see on screen the point at which the apprehension left them. Previn – "Mr Preview" – agreed that he would conduct Grieg's piano concerto and would go and get his baton, to which Ernie said, "Please do that," and Previn acidly added, "It's in Chicago."

For more than a decade Morecambe and Wise contributed many such wonderful moments to the collective Christmas experience, peaking – at least in terms of ratings – with the 1977 Christmas special in which a troupe of newsreaders and various others "performed" their acrobatic dance routine while singing that old favourite of the Black and White Minstrels, "There is Nothing Like a Dame". An estimated 28,835,000 tuned in to watch that show, and a worrying number of them thought that it really was Richard Whitmore, Richard Baker, Frank Bough, Michael Aspel, Barry Norman & Co turning the cartwheels and somersaults. Baker was subsequently inundated with requests to open garden fêtes with a short tumbling routine.

I will make only one more reference to the cultural deprivation suffered by my children and their generation and here it is: they will never know, in this age of digital TV and cupboards-full of DVDs, the thrill of leafing through two fat listings magazines to find out what big films were going to be on the telly over the festive period. For my friends and me, there was hardly any conversation all year more enjoyable than the one in which we told each other which Christmas films we were looking forward to and why.

Nowadays, just about everyone over 40 remembers one definitive Christmas film from their childhood, the one that seemed to be on every year. For some it's The Sound of Music, for others The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape or It's a Wonderful Life. For me it's Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 film showcasing the genius of the special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, and even if by the mid-1970s we could begin to see the joins in Harryhausen's wizardry, I was never less than riveted. The sequence in which seven skeleton warriors rose from the earth to give Todd Armstrong's Jason yet another run for his money looks primitive now in the era of Harry Potter pyrotechnics, but as a kid – right up to my mid-teens – hardly anything unnerved me so much as those skeletons. I hope that my memory is reliable, but it might be letting me down, because Jason and the Argonauts can't have been on TV every Christmas for 12 consecutive years, yet I can't remember a Christmas when I didn't, at some point, sit down to watch it.

Maybe, in the final analysis, that's the whole point about nostalgia. It's an emotional impulse, not an intellectual one, and as such it is vulnerable to inaccuracy and even delusion. I dare say that a regular refrain of mine was that there was nothing worth watching on the telly, but if it was I don't remember ever uttering it. Television loomed almost as large over my childhood as my mother and father did, and if they made me the person I am today, telly had a hand in the process, too. Opinions vary dramatically between those who consider the 1970s to have been a golden age for TV and those who insist that there was far more trash than gold.

All I can subjectively, and indeed Bruciely, say of telly in the 1970s is that, all things considered, it was nice to see it ... to see it nice.

Taken from 'Nice to See it, to See it Nice: the 1970s in Front of the Telly', by Brian Viner, published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. To order a copy at a special price (with free p&p) call 08700 798 897