Destination 1974 

12 February 2018

Speeding into the future – Joe 90, latest from the Thunderbirds stable

From the TVTimes Tyne Tees for 21-27 September 1968

Independent Television starts its season of autumn programmes this week and moves firmly into the contract period extending to 1974. Here anthony davis outlines the new ideas and new shows coming to ITV screens around the country

Independent Television takes a second step towards a new image this week. It begins its autumn schedules, with new shows and new series of old shows, some starting in the next seven days and more in the weeks that follow.

Is first step, the long-awaited entry of the new and reorganised programme companies a few weeks ago, had barely been taken when the rug was pulled under it by the dispute with the technicians.

There had scarcely been time to observe whether some companies showed promise, others showed unchanged, unimaginative thinking; the worth of their plans was still undetermined when the service was driven into makeshift emergency schedules and a standstill in the studios from which recovery has inevitably been slow.

So this week means a second chance, a fresh start to ITV’s attempt to establish a new image, not just for the rest of of year but to set a pattern for the rest of the contract period to 1974.

Looking through the schedules and listening to the promises of the planners, it seems that most attention is being paid to comedy shows, children’s programmes and sports coverage — three areas in which ITV has been admittedly weak in the past, areas in which the Independent Television Authority complained of “a general impression of staleness” and called for “a concerted drive towards greater originality, variety and liveliness.”

In relatively few weeks three completely new comedy series will begin. Peter Eckersley, producer of Nearest and Dearest, most successful of the recently introduced comedy series, is also responsible for Her Majesty’s Pleasure, set in a farcical prison, with John Sharp and John Nettleton.

Inside George Webley, by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, stars Roy Kinnear as a Walter Mittyish bank clerk, while Father, Dear Father has Patrick Cargill as the wifeless father of two nubile daughters to follow it.

There is also Never a Cross Word, the so-called “scampi belt” series with Nyree Dawn Porter and Paul Daneman which had a premature preview during the dispute, and a new series of George and the Dragon with Sidney James and Peggy Mount and Home a’ Plenty with Kenneth Home. Later there will be a variety-format series with Mike Yarwood, Jimmy Tarbuck and Roy Hudd each starring in his own show.

Children’s shows have been notorious for their endless repeats of Robin Hood and reliance on American material. New shows on the way include The Tyrant King in which children chase villains through tourist London, Man from Nowhere, described as “the modern odyssey of a man who cannot die,” and Little Big Time, programmes of music hall for children too young to have seen it when it lived.

Inevitably there is a string of puppet shows from Joe 90, the latest from the Thunderbirds studios about a nine-year-old secret agent, to Pinky and Perky, gained, like Sooty, from the BBC. Sexton Blake will return, and Freewheelers and How, the programme of random information.

First big test of ITV’s new sports coverage will be at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The new central sports unit, formed to acquire rights to transmit sporting events and plan sports programmes for the network, is now in being. Already it has brought Test cricket to ITV and obtained the rights to show most major motor races at home and horse racing at Newmarket. It promises to screen more major events and fewer irritating, small-time fixtures.

Coverage of the arts, spasmodic and under-financed in the past, is improving already with the new flexibility in Saturday night planning. And much more music is being screened.

This week for example, Geraint Evans in Covent Garden, next week Leonard Bernstein conducting Berlioz, then Georgia Brown singing Kurt Weill and a performance of The Beggar’s Opera.

And to prove that the boundaries of art can be set wide, a programme on the art of the footballing brothers Charlton.

Turning to areas where ITV has been stronger, there has seldom been anything but praise for its coverage of news and current affairs. Now, to This Week, World in Action and the idiosyncratic programmes of Alan Whicker will be added Robert Kee Reports, a monthly 45 minutes in which this respected commentator surveys important topical issues. Man of the Month is intended to feature noteworthy interviews. And while few of the documentaries under consideration can be listed because the field is topical and competitive, two series will be Cities at War, a three-parter on embattled London, Leningrad and Berlin during the last war, and the massive historical biography, The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten, which starts in the new year.

Religious broadcasting has already moved away from church propaganda to programmes of merit. The epilogues have moved on from the parsonic homily and new ideas are being tried out in the early Sunday evening.

Roundhouse will be an indoor speakers’ corner, with 200 or more people milling around speakers of all denominations, with the cameras roving from group to group and the results transmitted live.

Drama from ITV has also achieved creditable standards although it has not competed with the sensationalism of the Wednesday night plays on BBC. New series will include Premiere, one-hour plays performed live to test the theory that this makes for more vital, spontaneous performances; The Sex Game, a series of romances by Fay Weldon, Barbara Cartland, Margaret Drabble, Nigel Balchin and others, and Company of Five, six performances by a repertory company headed by John Neville, who will be seen in different plays at ages from early thirties to 60.

Mystery and Imagination plays in preparation include an intriguing new production of Frankenstein with 5ft. 4in. tall Shakespearian actor Ian Holm as the monster.

Drama series have been less respected. There have been too many third-rate American series, too many British ones appearing to be made with more thought for possible American sales than for audiences at home.

But now comes The Caesars, a six-part study of the power of the emperor-dictators of ancient Rome, and The Discovery of Sex, a six-part series on the life of Freud.

Scotland is producing Redgauntlet, a serial based on the story by Sir Walter Scott. There is Judge Dee, the adventures of a Chinese investigator, and Alarm, a series concerning the work of the London Fire Brigade.

More conventional is The Champions, the story of three super-powered agents of an international security organisation, in which the cast is headed by America’s Stuart Damon.

Among returning series are Rogue’s Gallery, set in Newgate Gaol, The Avengers, with Linda Thorson as Steed’s new partner; Mr. Rose, with Eric Woofe as the new assistant; Honey Lane, with Market dropped from the title to indicate a new concern for the characters rather than the market setting, and The Saint for positively the last time.

In the New Year comes possibly the most eagerly-awaited return of all… Patrick Wymark, as Sir John Wilder, ambassador at large, in a new series of The Power Game.

Overall, the schedules seem to place less reliance on imported American programmes, though one costly major series will be The Name of the Game, 90-minute dramas of a magazine publishing company starring Gene Barry and Robert Stack.

Of course, the new shows do pot change the look of ITV completely.

They are not meant to do so. Feature films and variety spectaculars, Coronation Street and wrestling will all continue. There will be David Frost and Tony Blackburn, The Eamonn Andrews Show, the Dave Allen Show and Opportunity Knocks!

Nor will all the new programmes come to every region at the same time. Some regions may never take all the programmes. This regional autonomy is at once the strength and a weakness of ITV.

A strength because it enables companies to arrange schedules to suit their conception of local viewing habits and preferences. Yet at the same time it is a weakness because it makes it harder for ITV to present a corporate image, because it creates an inflexibility which does not help ITV to network urgently-produced topical programmes. And because companies have dropped important programmes sometimes in favour of rubbishy old American ones, either for economy or even because of simple lack of co-operation.

But indications are that the companies, encouraged by Lord Aylestone and the ITA, are now co-operating better, thinking more imaginatively and that a new era really is beginning.

What the critics say

Leading TV critics make their choice of hits and misses

No surprise for the cynics

MILTON SHULMAN of the London Evening Standard

THE CYNICS were not surprised. They expected no fresh start, no new era, no TV millenium, and merely shrugged their shoulders when their gloomy predictions were verified.

Just because new companies had taken over — some of them controlled by exactly the same breed of programme executives that ran the ousted TV companies — was hardly a justifiable basis for expecting anything fresh, different or unorthodox. So they reasoned. Their protests subsided into an indifferent murmur.

But the season of protest should not be stilled so easily and so sceptically. It will be a shocking scandal, indeed, if nothing does change. The ITA’s unprecedented action of shifting one group of people out of financial clover and arbitrarily installing another set of mini-tycoons in their place will look even more dubious and distasteful than it already does. No one expected the new companies to discover suddenly a treasure of hidden talent — writers, actors, directors — that their predecessors had neglected. But there was much that was obviously wrong with what the old companies had been transmitting — a reliance upon safe formulas, a lazy faith in ratings, a smug assumption that the public wanted no better — which one assumed the new companies would make some effort to change.

However, the comedy series. Thingumybob from London Weekend and Best of Enemies from Thames, show that in this field mental paralysis seems to have set in amongst the commercial companies. The idea of a retired pensioner in the shape of a benign Stanley Holloway going through domestic misadventures which have been the stock-in-trade of this kind of series for at least a decade hardly sends viewers into laughter spasms. And it should have occurred to almost anyone that a comedy series about politicians would never succeed because any authentic fun would run into resentment and opposition from our over-sensitive politicians. Best of Enemies already promises to be one of the worst comedy ideas of the year. I expect it will have a very short life.

Yorkshire TV’s Gazette has demonstrated a curious inability to understand or portray the atmosphere of a north country weekly journal. But Frontier, on the other hand, does convey the feel of 19th century Imperialism on the North West Frontier of India.

The hits and the misses

PETER BLACK of the Daily Mail

ONE of the curious things about ITV has been that whereas the prestige shows (news, documentaries, some drama) have been as reliably good as any television in the world, you never know whether the shows aimed at the mass audience will be really trying or will settle for the rating.

Philip Mackie’s series on the lives of The Caesars may or may not be as good as other adventurous series Granada has undertaken but it will be trying to give us something a little better than we’ll put up with. So will This Week.

What I want from the big popular shows is a similar effort. The job is to improve what most people like, to give them value for their money.

So far there’s pathetically little evidence that the new era of ITV is going to do any better than the old.

To offer a huge generalisation, TV succeeds when style and subject fit. In Peyton Place everything, even the individual looks of the actors, was souped up to a hectic level of non-reality; in Coronation Street everything is souped down with equal skill to a sort of mild-and-bitter non-reality. In both cases the result is dramatic plausibility.

The new shows hit or miss this quality as wildly as though the makers aren’t aware of its existence.

Frontier hits it on the nose by finding plots, characters and treatment that fit the original idea of telling stories about the thin red line in the years when the British took the responsibility and pride of Empire for granted.

Crime Buster does it on a much lower level by concealing the unreality of its hero in fast action stories.

But the dramatic emphasis of Frontier applied to Gazette simply tears it apart. What drama there is in running a small-town weekly newspaper is quiet and comic, never heroic; and though the stories are soberly and responsibly conceived these very virtues only widen the credibility gap.

The biggest disappointment so far is comedy, where ITV has always been weakest. I’d confidently looked to Frank Muir to show us a thing or two; but Thingumybob is a tepid and innocuous series in which laughs are like blackberries in December; and Never a Cross Word, with Nyree Dawn Porter and Paul Daneman in a script by Donald Churchill, is exactly the type of mechanical comedy that the Americans do so well and the British so wetly.

I remain mildly optimistic

MAURICE WIGGIN of the Sunday Times

I MAY be less critical of the new era in Independent Television than some of my colleagues, for the simple reason that I expected less. The heavyweight propaganda that preceded the changeover failed to obscure one simple fact — that all the names and most of the faces behind the new schedules were quite, quite old. So why expect a revolution?

In fact, things have gone very much as expected. We have seen enough to know the worst — though not enough to know the best, I fancy. I remain mildly optimistic that Independent Television, at least as seen in my area, the south east, will settle down at a level rather above what we have been familiar with for so long.

There is any amount of pious and hopeful talk about the virtues of “regional” television. But there have been only a few significant contributions to the national network — from Anglia and Southern, and to a lesser extent, from Tyne Tees.

Yorkshire’s contribution to the national network has been competent if not scintillating. We have seen some average plays, quite lively but not extraordinary, and in Gazette they have another of those locational-occupational series, like The Newcomers and West One and so many more, which provide a great many people with the illusion of being in touch with the close-knit life of a group.

Thames Television, inheriting the entirely dissimilar spirits of ABC and Rediffusion, has not yet managed to weld them into something homogeneous. Apart from Frontier, a straightforward and far from negligible evocation of British imperialism, it has not yet thrown up anything worth enthusing about.

Already it is plain that the weekend pattern is definitely invigorated. It is nice to have the play back as a staple of weekend fare.

Nothing new – but what did we expect?

PHILLIP PURSER of the Sunday Telegraph

THERE’S no virtue in the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. After all, a successful basic motor car design will last for at least 25 years. It was unrealistic to expect a cascade of dazzling new ideas from the new companies. What I think we might have hoped for was some more enterprise in planning and making programmes within the broad pattern the audience have learned to expect.

If there has to be some trivial folk opera around four in the afternoon then Driveway represents absolutely no advance on Crossroads. If Sunday evening around six must be confined to goody-goody subjects (you know, religious without actually being religious) I wish it could be anything but the pretentious Rain On The Leaves, which must remind every old soldier of compulsory string quartets in the NAAFI.

The critics have been kind to Frontier because it is a well-written and well-researched series which perms such familiar dramatic qualities as loyalty and discipline and responsibility against a romantic and previously unexploited setting.

Most of the new shows which have caught my interest reveal the same kind of intelligent derivation. Nearest and Dearest is a comedy series which owes its gusty humour, as well as some of its jokes, to a long tradition of music-hall sketches and seaside postcards. Applause! Applause! takes legendary stars of the same music-hall and by expending on their stories careful research and unusual candour brings them to life as never I saw them brought to life before. The three Frost shows for London Weekend separate the three faces of Frost which he wore, sometimes rather confusingly, in his single Rediffusion programme.

There are, I think, a couple of genuine experiments, both as it happens from Granada. I’ve had a weak spot for Nice Time ever since I chanced on it as a local show in the north. Jonathan Routh and Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer have evolved an audience-participation programme which is quite new and inventive and, in the best sense of the word, matey.

The other venture is at the other extreme. The Caesars is immense, deliberate and professional. This is a consecutive story newly dramatised from the violent and extraordinary history. I saw one episode at a preview and nothing yet about ITV reborn has excited me so much.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 12 February 2018 at 3:33 pm

As a Midlands viewer in 1968, I was disappointed to discover that we were getting ATV at weekends as well as weekdays, I certainly missed ABC who gave viewers such a great variety of entertaintainment, on ABC, there was something for everyone, ATV at weekends seemed rather dull in comparison, we still had Robin Hood repeats on Thursdays, no cartoons, and somewhat early closedowns. It was a good job our old B/W dual standard set also received Granada, but that’s another story.

L 12 February 2018 at 4:08 pm

Milton Shulman never seemed to like anything!

Oh, and the LWT logo didn’t appear until 1969. At that time they were still using the very boring ‘this is london weekend television’ caption, or ‘from london weekend television’.

Was nice to get a proper logo … probably in preparation for colour.

Russ J Graham 12 February 2018 at 8:51 pm

Yeah, we used the 1969 logo because the 1968 one is so chronically dull!

Sixtus Smugg-Reeces 16 February 2018 at 1:24 am

“The Caesars, a six-part study of the power of the emperor-dictators of ancient Rome”

Probably the best (and historically authentic) English language dramatization of the Julio-Claudian dynasty ever produced for television.

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