Media: Experiment in nostalgia

You could be forgiven for thinking the Seventies were back. But it's not just a remake, the producers insist. Paul McCann checks out the format
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The Independent Online
At the high end of hip, the Seventies have had a good year. Boogie Nights, The Ice House and Jackie Brown have made Seventies sex and soundtracks cooler than an Yves St Laurent jumpsuit and blue eyeshadow.

And now, in the less glamorous world of British telly - and in the Seventies it was definitely telly - the much-maligned decade is also making a play for credibility thanks to a sudden rush of nostalgia to the head of TV producers.

Two weeks ago ITV's newish programming director David Liddiment announced the imminent disinterring of Crown Court's real live jury format in Accused, a new drama series for peak time. Despite the jokes about staying off school sick to see the verdict, ITV has acknowledged the universal appeal of a simple but beautiful idea - get an unscripted ending and an unpredictable jury of non-actors and you have a guaranteed cliff-hanger.

And Crown Court is not alone. Working Title, the television arm of PolyGram, is working on scripts of a new version of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), the ghostly detective series of the early Seventies in which a detective duo is able beat baddies thanks to one them being able to walk through walls.

Equally silly, and just as fixed in the nation's consciousness, is The Professionals, which is currently being re-made at Shepperton Studios. The screeching Capri is likely to have been replaced by something a little more classy, to say nothing of stars Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw, but writer-producer Brian Clemens is adamant there will be just as many car chases as in the original.

Add to this flare-up of Seventies formats The Avengers movie currently in production with Warner Brothers and the healthy ratings which repeats of The Sweeney are getting on Channel 5 and you have a full-blown Seventies- copper phenomenon. And despite the long lingering death of The Bill, the BBC, with City Central, is attempting its first full-blown police precinct drama since Z-Cars.

The question is whether the Seventies was a peculiarly fecund period for TV drama or is it just that Nineties producers are lazy?

Brian Clemens, writer of The Avengers and The Professionals, believes the Seventies police action series has something to say to the Nineties precisely because it had precious little to say the first time around: "People like these programmes because you are not constantly being confronted with burning social issues. It's just froth.

"There is plenty of room for social issues in programmes, but nowadays everything seems to be getting into EastEnders territory - everyone is digging in the same ground. This explains the popularity of costume dramas too - people in them contain their emotions, don't 'learn' anything and you don't see their arses going up and down all the time."

In fact the Seventies telly revival is more than just policemen jumping into cars and shouting "guv'nor" at each other. Crown Court was a genuinely experimental piece of TV theatre that tackled little else but social issues.

Actors such as Juliet Stevenson and Colin Firth made their debut on the show and the "Granada school" directors such as Howard Baker, Michael Apted and Mike Newell got behind the show's cameras.

"It was made in an economic environment that allowed us to experiment," says David Plowright, the former programming director and managing director of Granada who introduced Crown Court. "You had the same fixed set and you could make two or three in a day so it was cheap.

"Because you worked in a culture where programming was put first you looked for ways to give young talent a chance to experiment. Crown Court allowed generations of young writers and directors to learn some street wisdom. They worked on that or on Coronation Street before getting their teeth into single dramas."

Plowright, who left Granada after the broadcaster was taken over by current chief executive Gerry Robinson, believes that spirit of experimentation has departed television because of competitive pressures.

"The feeling now is that audiences will only watch domestic dramas. They have done as many soaps as they can think of, so now they are looking at how to make series dramas that combine high volume with low costs and low risks. If you experiment it is naturally more expensive and more speculative, but if you don't, TV will dry up and run out of ideas."

Brian Clemens believes that the Seventies was a creatively fertile period because television was then run by impresarios and film-makers like Lew Grade: "Not the grey-faced accountants of today who think the programmes get in the way", who, he believes, are responsible for the vet/detective/pathologist- in-the-countryside genre programmes of the Nineties.

Not surprisingly Nick Elliot, head of drama for ITV, rejects the accusation that Nineties TV is plundering the vaults for ideas. "We are revisiting the Crown Court format, but there is nothing very Seventies about the format itself - it is not all flared trousers and men in Capris. The court room drama is with us every day.

"And I am not particularly interested in Seventies ideas. Someone walks in with The Onedin Line or The Forsythe Saga every couple of months and I show them the door. The other great favourite is a 'Crimebusters' series with a mature older gentleman, a sexy young woman - usually great on computers - and the hunky ex-SAS man. The trio don't make 'Crimebusters', they're The Avengers and we're not interested in them.

"The problem is that in the international market there are people who think flogging a re-make is easier because it's easier for broadcasters to understand."

Elliot says his greatest ever programming disaster was a re-make of The Saint in the early Nineties that lasted only a few episodes and proved that simplistic, unbelievable baddies and car chases are no longer enough for a contemporary audience.

Which rather begs the question of why the hell people still go to see that king of the format - the James Bond movie.