For better or worse 

30 August 2003

Like most people who are approaching half time in their lives, you tend to look at the past in rose tinted glasses.

Talking to some friends who are in the 35-45 age group last night, the subject of what we used to watch on the television 25 years or so ago came up. All the old favourites like Dr Who, The Two Ronnies, The Sweeney and the old American police series such as Starsky and Hutch were all praised fervently and modern television was derided as dominated by soaps, football and reality shows.

However, like all golden eras, you only remember the good things and not the bad. So was television in the seventies as marvellous as we remember and is modern television as dreadful as our discussion thought?

After all, a survey for the Off The Telly website found that 68 per cent of contributors thought the quality of television is worse now than 20 years ago. Well, for a start, back in 1978, there was far less television to choose from and chances were, if you were poorer – my family did not go colour until 1979 – you would be watching it in black and white.

Even a terrestrialite like me now has an extra two channels – when Five’s reception is good, that is – to choose from and the option of watching the box 24 hours a day. Back in 1978, everyone had a maximum of three channels to choose from, so unlike the hundreds that cater for every taste that satellite and cable subscribers now have available.

Bear in mind also there was no breakfast television 25 years ago, that daytime television mostly consisted of schools and children’s programmes, and that during the energy crisis, television closed down at 10.30 every night.

Like other industries, television also attracted strikes. ITV was off air for 10 weeks during 1979 and the BBC was hit by several strikes in 1978 and 1979, the most farcical being a walkout by technicians during Miss World which saw the contest being blacked out.

Unlike now, if you did not like what was on the BBC or ITV, then you switched off. Video recorders were also very rare at the time, so there wasn’t the option of renting a video. So, would you really want to go back 25 years, have at least two of your television stations taken away, no video and poorer people to have their televisions monochromed?

Could you get used to the test card again or have your favourite programmes taken off by the ACTT? Footie fans, how would you like having only Match of the Day every week and three live matches a year like we had in the seventies? I very much doubt many people would really want to go back to the three-channel world of the seventies.

Yes, we do have an amazing amount of television compared to the seventies. Sports fans in particular have never had it so good, with four dedicated sports channels on Sky.

Even on terrestrial television, football fans have live Champions League matches, FA Cup ties live, and a whole plethora of highlights and fan shows that simply would never have existed in the three-channel world.

Unfortunately for football-haters like me and some of my friends, last night the charge that football has saturation coverage on modern television does have some credence. However, one welcome development with satellite is rugby league – the local sport in West Cumbria – does have a far higher profile with the advent of Sky and you are guaranteed two live matches a week, rather than a couple of cup matches a year in the Eddie Waring era.

But, of course, that’s only sport, some people would say. The dramas and comedies were far better in 1978, weren’t they, and we didn’t have as much soap? Yes and no I would reply.

While it is a shame television comedy output has fallen like a stone in recent years, and the seventies produced some of the greatest sitcoms of all time – Fawlty Towers, Porridge, Rising Damp, Dad’s Army – bear in mind for every Fawlty Towers there were ten dud sitcoms.

The traditional 8pm ITV sitcom slot on a Monday night produced such monstrosities as Chalk and Cheese – one of the worst sitcoms ever made, with Michael Crawford as a foul mouthed cynic – and was often regarded as a comedy free zone. (ITV and comedy were rarely mentioned in the same sentence in the seventies.)

Then there were the twee, smug middle class sitcoms on BBC1 such as Terry and June that were about as funny as influenza, and even the theme tune to Terry and June still makes me ill now. And it would be best not to bring up the subject of Love Thy Neighbour. At least nowadays we don’t have to endure Terry Scott in his semi detached house in Purley and Rudolph Walker being called names now thankfully alien to us every 30 seconds.

Seeing Rudolph Walker in EastEnders now and not seeing him be the butt of a racist joke shows how far society has moved on. Yes, it’s true we had fewer soaps on the television back in 1978, but also remember, soap fans had to endure the wooden acting and wobbly sets of Crossroads and a Coronation Street full of ‘ee bah gum’ stereotyped Salfordians like Stan Ogden and Albert Tatlock, all of whom would look comical today. In fact, by today’s standards most seventies dramas look very cheap.

Even though there were some excellent drama series made in the seventies, you have to remember that location filming was very expensive and most dramas were filmed in a studio.

I remember watching an episode of Doctor Who from the seventies – the Green Death, one of my favourites from the John Pertwee era – a few years ago and it looked cheap and, in places, comical. In one scene a giant killer fly is chasing the Doctor’s car and you can see the fly on strings and a cheap studio background that passes for the Welsh countryside.

These days, if the Green Death was to be remade, the fly would be a remote control model costing quarter of a million pounds and the chase would also be filmed on Snowdon with a massive stunt team.

Possibly, though, unlike the seventies, the Doctor would probably swear, have some kind of personal problem and be involved in love scenes with Jo Grant. That’s one very positive thing I would say about the seventies dramas, they were far more innocent than now. I very much doubt a storyline about a serial killer would have appeared on Coronation Street in the seventies. Perhaps we’re more cynical and used to violence these days.

Another thing we don’t have on the television now are variety shows. Yes, there were some excellent variety shows in the seventies, especially if a top league singer such as Shirley Bassey, always a regular on seventies variety programmes, and a comedian like Dave Allen were involved, but more often than not the standard of entertainment was excruciating by today’s standards.

Few people will seriously want to remember Seaside Special, a BBC1 favourite, which seemed to be hosted on a regular basis by Roy Castle and featured such unfunny acts as Norman Collier – I’ve never found a man dressed as a chicken or whatever it was he did remotely amusing – and the predictable array of dance troupes and plastic pop combos.

As for such horrors as The Bernie Clifton Show, Wednesday at 8, or Little and Large, they are best kept in a sealed bunker. I’m not surprised, when Barrymore tried to resurrect the variety show two years, ago it died on its feet. No one wants these types of shows anymore and the variety format has been dormant for nearly 20 years.

However, the main problem with television in 2003 is the lack of good current affairs shows and investigative journalism.

Panorama can still be good, and we have a huge array of satellite news channels and the internet nowadays, but the five terrestrial channels have largely given up on current affairs.

I still miss Nationwide, which was a top-notch mixture of regional features, lighthearted articles and serious items. It is very unlikely these days that Gordon Brown – if the show was still running – would reprise the roll of Denis Healey and appear on Nationwide to discuss the IMF crisis on one week and then appear in the Nationwide pantomime on the following.

Similarly, ITV has long since axed such excellent current affairs shows as World In Action and This Week. The former World In Action slot is now occupied by either a second Monday episode of Coronation Street or a tired Bond movie.

I would very much doubt the excellent reports by John Pilger on Pol Pot’s Cambodia in 1979 would see the light of day on peak time ITV1, as Coronation Street or yet another reality show would take priority over everything.

The standard of ITN news bulletins has dropped to something of an all-time low, judging from lead items like George Best getting drunk in a pub, followed by the Beckhams at a wedding.

If a nuclear war broke out, I wouldn’t tune into ITN. Robin Day would weep if he saw that news bulletin and would probably be heartbroken over the way ITV has turned News at “When?” into a national joke. At least the BBC still has a sense of standards with its news bulletins.

I find television’s obsession with sex rather tiresome, too. Twenty-five years ago, sex on television was largely confined to a human biology schools programme or as part of a daring Play for Today scheduled after 2130.

Not that I’m a prude – by any stretch of the imagination – but do we really want a programme like Sex Tips for Girls and its multitude of imitators clogging the airwaves after 10pm? Surely viewers can buy sex manuals, look at the internet, ask friends about tips on how to spice up their love lives or tune to a dedicated satellite channel for this type of information?

I think television would be better employed on advising people how to avoid catching sexual diseases and how to save their relationships rather than forcing endless programmes about sex on the audience.

I particularly find these shows voyeuristic; I certainly would not want my sex life or preferences bared to the nation. (On the other hand I have no objection to programmes which appeared in the eighties such as Out On Tuesday which were aimed the gay community, as long as they are done in a non-voyeuristic fashion and don’t appear tokenistic. Bear in mind, back in 1978 gay people had nothing but mincing stereotypes like Inman and Grayson on the box.)

In other ways, television now is worse than it was in the seventies. The near destruction of the ITV regional stations by the dreaded Carlton has seen the death of such proud outfits as HTV, and even my local Border has Granada as part of its credits, something that would have been anathema in the seventies.

ITV’s regional output and its regional identity has been reduced to a shadow of itself, it upset me to read that the old ATV Centre in Birmingham – the home of Tiswas, a favourite show of mine in 1978 – is now a vandalised wreck and the Euston Studios in London have long since been vastly remodelled.

Even the BBC has been tinkered with so many times, especially during the Bad King John Birt days, that a lot of the old respect the Corporation had in the seventies has evaporated.

Television nowadays does seem to be too obsessed with soaps, football and reality shows, so there is a fair amount of truth in the conversation I had with my friends.

However, at least you do have a lot more to choose from these days and we are unlikely to see Norman Collier back on the screens. It wasn’t all wine and roses in TV land 25 years ago, but neither was it totally bad. Perhaps television, on balance, was always awful?

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