Back in time for TV: 1971 

20 February 2019


Following a short break I’m heading off back in time again. I’ve packed some flares, glitter and candles and am ready to fully embrace the 1970s. In the 1960s there were so many programmes I’d never heard of or knew nothing about and seeing shows I probably wouldn’t normally have chosen has been one of my favourite aspects of Back in Time For TV. Not everything has been great but some has been superb.

When I was in 1969 I wrote that it felt ‘like we have half a foot in the 1970s’ and though once I would have felt adrift diving into a week of 70s television, gradually moving there has made me realise just how blurred the lines are. It’s taken a while but this is the first year in which everything I’ve watched this week has been in colour.

This week my Independent Television programmes are coming from ATV.

9 December 1971
…And Mother Makes Three ‘The Matchmakers’

Widowed Sally Harrison is mother to teenaged Simon and ten-year-old Peter. After she gets upset when they ask questions about their deceased father, they decide they should try to find her a new husband. It’s not clear from this episode how long Mr Harrison has been gone for but Peter doesn’t appear to have proper memories of what he was like so we can presume several years.

The boys dismiss the men they already know for various reasons including one who has short hair, making the boys concerned he would make them get their hair cut. While both boys sport fashionably longer hair, Simon has particularly impressive blonde rockstar curls. Combined with his tie-dye t-shirt, we are firmly plonked in period. I was surprised by how good both boys were as was worried that having child actors as two of the central characters would render the show a bit… well… crappy.

A saviour appears in the form of Allan Plunkett, a man who had previously pursued Sally’s heart. The boys and Sally’s Auntie Flo are delighted but Sally isn’t keen. He’s clearly setting himself up, remarking, “Nice kids. Must be very difficult handling them all by yourself.” Well she’s been doing fine so far sunshine so hop it. He even managed to reference another Thames sitcom (to be broadcast next year) as he told her, “What they need is a man about the house.”

Sally is eventually saved by inviting her boss round and also resorts to dragging in the TV repairman off the doorstep. With his floral shirt and classic porn ‘tache, he is the trendiest television repairman I’ve ever seen.

10 December 1971
The Onedin Line

I knew nothing about The Onedin Line but it is often mentioned in ‘great series’ lists. It is set during the 1800s and follows the Onedin shipping line, which seems to be run by two brothers. My greatest distraction throughout the episode was that one of these, James Onedin, sounds like Bernard Bresslaw but isn’t. It seems obvious that they must be based by the coast but this episode didn’t make it clear whereabouts, only that they are a fair distance from London.

In this episode the Onedins are facing bankruptcy after a ship sinks and the insurance is invalid because the ship was carrying gunpowder. We have a villain in the form of a competitor who wants to buy out their shop. I found it strange that there were no scenes between James and his brother, who seemed at odds and therefore we were denied the chance of great arguments.

Overall I found The Onedin Line rather slow. It was perhaps more of a struggle because I was trying to work out who the characters were and we seemed to keep moving between scenes that were distant from one another. I felt my patience was rewarded as I did enjoy it, but it’s one I think I’d prefer to watch from the start of the series.

11 December 1971
The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine

I’m familiar with Marty Feldman due to his participation in At Last the 1948 Show‘s Four Yorkshiremen sketch, later made even more famous by versions performed by Monty Python. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this sketch show but straight off it already felt very Pythonesque as the titles are similar to Terry Gilliam’s wonderful animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus – in fact they are so similar they must be his. These simple, rather basic animations nonetheless stand out and it was nice to see a couple during the show.

I’ve mixed feelings about Comedy Machine. Feldman isn’t the only one to star in sketches, with Spike Milligan and Orson Welles also appearing – the latter was quite unexpected. They all offer different styles and it doesn’t all gel for me.

Feldman’s own strengths lie in physical comedy. In ‘The Car’, what starts as an oily hand on the boot descends into complete destruction. Tyres explode, the bonnet comes off until eventually there is less of a car, more a collection of loosely-connected parts. The fury and incredulity of the cravat-wearing owner is contrasted with the laidback attitude of the mechanic. Bar a few coughs and grunts, the sketch is entirely speechless.

A dark game show called Holocaust was an interesting piece. Feldman plays an American host with a relentlessly upbeat persona as guests compete in bizarre rounds. One man has to violently abuse his boss.

“Do you really hate him?” asks Feldman.

“With every fibre of my being,” he replies.

“Isn’t that marvellous ladies and gentlemen?”

Having not gained many points, his prize is an execution by firing squad. It has an intentionally obvious laughter track that cuts off unnaturally early. While I’ve seen similar comedy since (That Mitchell and Webb Look’s Numberwang springs to mind), this seems so out of its time. With the added laughter track it was hard to tell if the actual studio audience were on board but while it could have been tighter in parts, I was impressed.

In a musical break an unnamed band of Black musicians dressed in ‘African’ garb. This music is unlike anything I’ve seen on television during the 1960s. I don’t even know what genre I’d put it in. There are saxophones, an organ, electric guitar, drums, bongos, a whistle, and a trumpet player who looks like he’s in ecstasy. I liked it but was surprised by how long it was for a music segment in a comedy show.

‘The Fly’ is probably my favourite sketch from this episode. Feldman is the cymbal player in an orchestra who attempts to catch a fly. My classical musical knowledge is slim but I did recognise several of the pieces. Smashing the cymbals together in time to each piece, Feldman clambers around the orchestra, leaping across instruments, destroying drums and all sorts.

A ‘nobility safari’ is narrated by Welles and after an introductory scene with him, we head off to see aristocrats in the wild. The nobles reminded me of those in Flying Circus’s Upper Class Twit of the Year, being played similarly as dim with noises instead of speech. Spike Milligan attempting to lure them out with a cucumber sandwich was great. Unfortunately this suffers from the same problem that plagued several of the sketches: it goes on just a bit too long. The joke is stretched further than I think it should be.

I have to give Comedy Machine its dues as despite any perceived faults it did provide me with a manner of things I could not have expected, right down to the titles and break bumpers. The sounds used are like those of early computer games and something I would expect more from the 1980s than 1971.

12 December 1971
On the Buses ‘Vacancy for an Inspector’

I last saw it in black and white for the second series but On the Buses is now in colour and comfortably into its fifth series. This episode sees conductor Jack step up to join Blakey and have a go at being a bus inspector, something Stan becomes disgruntled with when Jack starts revealing all their scams in an attempt to suck up to Blakey. These scams vary from clocking in for each other to avoiding picking up passengers so they can have a crafty fag break. My favourite is their removal of the cardboard in a broken glass pane, which enables them to put a hand through to steal an iced bun from the canteen. Yes, yes, workplace theft is awful but I’d be right by Stan’s side for this sweet perk.

Back in July a cinematic version of On the Buses was released, one of the first of several sitcoms that would get at least one film version during the 1970s. It seems phenomenal to me that some of these films were so popular (On the Buses was the highest grossing film in Britain for 1971) – personally I don’t think On the Buses is a fantastic sitcom. I do enjoy it though – enough to sit down with a few more episodes after seeing it in 1969 – and I think it does make clever use of its set up. Being able to set episodes around both the home and work must have been useful to the plots as they managed to create seven series in four years.

13 December 1971
Steptoe and Son ‘Come Dancing’

It seems wrong that I managed to miss Steptoe and Son during my time in the 1960s but there just isn’t time to stay and watch everything (try as I might), and the few repeats means there were several years with no Steptoe broadcast between the fourth and fifth series. This episode is a repeat from the sixth series broadcast last year. Viewers can treat it as a warm up for Steptoe‘s first foray onto the big screen, which premieres next month. I’m rather lucky to still be able to watch ‘Come Dancing’ in colour as though series five and six were both made in colour, wiping means this is currently the earliest colour episode to exist.

I feel like I have always known of these rag and bone men and although I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, I think they are marvellous characters. Steptoe has the perfect sitcom ingredient of two people stuck together and in this case they are father, Albert, and son, Harold. In this episode, Harold must call on Albert’s skills and the sight of the dirty old man teaching Harold how to dance is quite something when the milkman appears.

Alias Smith and Jones ‘Six Strangers at Apache Springs’

Finding a cowboy series on at prime time during the 1970s was a surprise as I was sure we were all done with them by now. However, I soon discovered Alias Smith and Jones to be a nicely refreshed version of the genre. It’s much more lighthearted than earlier series and having two leads means there is plenty of opportunity for them to play the humour off one another. The pace seems much faster and also a tad knowing. It was great watching the two guys sat back calmly smiling in the bar as the poker night descended into a mass brawl. They’re a little out of place and it isn’t just their modern haircuts.

The titles show them as ex-train robbers who never harmed anyone and I was a little sceptical to how they’d fare without gunning down the opposition every week but they held up pretty well.

14 December 1971
Joe ‘Joe Moves House’

More Back in Time for TV: 1960196119621963196419651966196719681196821969BBC-21970

I do love Watch with Mother and thought Joe was adorable. Joe is a small boy of 3 or 4 and in this episode he is the most annoying child of any car journey – the “are we there yet?” child. But in fairness Joe is excited to see the new house, even if he’s forgotten why they’re moving. Mommy and Daddy helpfully explain that they are moving somewhere bigger so there is room for his new little brother or sister. It seems like they are moving a very long way and all we know is that their new house is by the sea. The journey feels long and in this way reflects Joe’s point of view, as any journey over 10 minutes seems endless to a small child.

I liked the minimal animation style of Joe and, combined with its focus on storytelling, it reminded me of Mr Benn. Yet the child-centred viewpoint makes it rather different and instead we get to focus on very small, but very significant incidents.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Andrew Hesford 20 February 2019 at 6:13 pm

The titles for the Marty Feldman Comedy
Machine were the work of Terry Gilliam, the unnamed band were Osibisa.

Patrick Williams 21 February 2019 at 12:54 am

The Onedin Line — setting of story

“It seems obvious that they must be based by the coast but this episode didn’t make it clear whereabouts”

From my vague memory of the show, none of the episodes gave any real indication where it was supposed to be set, except perhaps in the first episode or so.

It is eventually made clear in one of the later episodes that, believe it or not, the port was Liverpool although nothing looked at all like Liverpool and there was not a Scouse accent to be heard (from what i recall) in any of the dialog.

Joanne Gray 28 February 2019 at 8:43 pm

I was born on 18th December 1971, so it was interesting to read about the sort of things my mother could have been watching as she waited for me to make an appearance.

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