Light Entertainment 1970 

5 September 2017

From ITV 1970 – A guide to Independent Television, published by the Independent Television Authority.

THE JOHN DAVIDSON SHOW. Mireille Matthieu. (ATV)

Making people laugh is hard work-producers of light entertainment say that it is the hardest work of all in television.

Half the art of it is making it look easy – the ad lib, the ‘throw away’ line that comes out so smoothly because it has been rehearsed a dozen times, the immaculate ‘timing’ of a gag so that it is delivered at the right split-second: the funniest script on earth can be ruined by bad timing. And where the comedian of fifty years ago could live for a year on a single sketch, touring it round the music-halls, it now lasts for just a few minutes of a single show: then it must be scrapped and new material found. It used to be said that the best comedians were the saddest of men: it was never quite true. But the people who work in light entertainment in television are often the most anxious of men, always looking for new ideas, new jokes, new ways of putting their programmes on the air.

But there seems to be one unfailing characteristic of a good comedy series; that it should be firmly rooted in the common experience of ordinary people. As soon as the fantasy, which is an inescapable part of all comedy, goes over the top and leaves the real world too far behind, it inevitably stops being funny. People only laugh when the comedy arises naturally from situations they recognize. This, perhaps more than anything else, explains the success of shows like Please Sir!, in which the setting of the tough Fenn Street secondary modern is drawn straight from life; or, to take another example, the earthy humour of Nearest and Dearest, which exploits the fundamentals of human nature as only comedy in this broad, Northern tradition can.

This type of comedy series apart, the scene in light entertainment has undergone some rapid changes recently. At one time that phrase ‘light entertainment’ conjured up a mental picture of net-stockinged girls high-kicking their way across a variety theatre stage, between the juggling act and the stand-up comic. That picture is becoming increasingly untypical. Not only are the conventions of the variety theatre slowly being discarded, but the subject-matter of the jokes, the songs and even the dances, has widened in scope to include many topics that had no place in the old-style ‘leg-show’.

Without necessarily becoming any more solemn, modern variety material can often be more specifically relevant to the social and political happenings of the day. The colour bar, students’ protest and even Vietnam now find themselves alongside mothers-in-law and ‘a funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre’…

The Frost programmes have been in the forefront of this trend, and it is interesting that at least one of these programmes each week has been the serious treatment of a current political issue. Interesting, because part of the trend is the erosion of the barriers which have hitherto served to separate, perhaps too rigidly, the established categories of television programmes.

All this is not to say that the glitter and the glamour of old style variety entertainment is no more. Shows like This is… Tom Jones and Sez Les are still with us to maintain Independent Television’s tradition of colourful variety shows for the family. It is simply that another dimension has been added to television entertainment giving a wider choice to the viewer and reflecting the range of comedy, music and theatre which has enriched all popular entertainment, on and off the small screen.

Neither does it mean that the essential basic ingredients of light entertainment have changed. It remains as true as ever that fun shows must be fun. They can be witty, glamorous, exciting, tender or relaxed; but whatever else, they must entertain.

NEVER MIND THE QUALITY, FEEL THE WIDTH. John Bluthal and Joe Lynch. (Thames)

THE SATURDAY CROWD. Sheila Burnett [sic] and Leslie Crowther. (London Weekend)


DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE. Geoffrey Davies, Barry Evans and Robin Nedwell in the comedy series based on Richard Gordon’s ‘Dr’ novels. (London Weekend)

THE LIBERACE SHOW. Liberace with guest Anita Harris. (ATV)

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