Back in time for TV: 1973 

28 March 2019


I have wanted to visit 1973 ever since seeing Life On Mars, the BBC series in which a policeman from the present day gets stuck in the 1970s. When I wasn’t cowering from the terrifyingly creepy Test Card Girl, Life On Mars helped spark my interest in The Fairly Recent Past. I couldn’t understand why Sam Tyler was so keen to get back to 2006. The present day was rubbish! 1973 seemed far more interesting.

The new year means my trip to 1973 is only a couple of weeks after my Christmas spent in 1972 but I’m nonetheless looking forward to see what televisual feasts it has to offer.

This week my ITV programmes are presented by Yorkshire.

6th January
War and Peace ‘Moscow’

This period series is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. The only thing I know of the novel is that it is very long and very heavy going. Based on this episode, number 15 of far too many, I can confidently say I’m unlikely to ever attempt the tome.

From what I gathered, Napoleon has been sweeping his armies across Europe and has finally reached Moscow. Despite being told they mustn’t, soldiers begin looting and pillaging all over the city, driving citizens out. This is not as exciting as it sounds, as we see little of it.

There is an important man who pretends not to be an important man. He ends up getting very drunk with one of the French soldiers until they both pass out. They seem to ramble about nothing and while it may be realistic, it makes dull television. When the Important Man leaves the next morning he seems remarkably unaffected by his wine hangover and even steps up to rescue a child from a burning building. This is certainly a more interesting part of the episode, but in between we keep cutting back to Napoleon with his right hand men and I lost interest. I’m afraid I gave up before the end. Perhaps if I’d watched it from earlier in the series I might have been more intrigued but we’ll never know. If I come back to 1973 again I’ll be over on BBC-1 with Cilla instead.

7th January
Blue Peter ‘City of London’

It’s a Blue Peter special and Valerie Singleton is exploring London. After some time around the Tower of London, we visit Billingsgate Fish Market, which I thought was fantastic. You can bet the porters were minding their Ps and Qs in front of Valerie. I learned that halibut is one of the biggest things they get in and we were shown one that weighed five stone. Valerie chatted to a man in a suit who told us they were planning some changes for the market building. I’m not sure whether any changes were made but the Market moved to new premises in 1982 and eventually the porters’ role disappeared. It makes programmes like this all the more interesting when you realise you are getting a last look at something that is now gone forever.

We meet the new Lord Mayor of London, who tells us you get to become Lord Mayor by coming up through the ranks. Previously he was an Alderman. But I haven’t got a clue what any of this means. What does an Alderman do? How do you become one of those? I’ve heard of the Lord Mayor’s Parade but what does the Lord Mayor actually do? It all seems a bit much for something solely ceremonial and I’m left curious – perhaps that’s the idea. Blue Peter probably could have done a special solely about the Lord Mayor.

We visit Petticoat Lane’s market and if Valerie stood out in Billingsgate, it’s nothing to here. There are Del Boy characters all over the place. I used to think the style of market traders in Only Fools and Horses were made up but having seen a few clips of London markets it seems the inspiration for Del Boy was utterly real. Valerie describes it as “a fair, a spectacle” and I think it’s a wonderful one.

Valerie also takes a look at London’s architecture, describing the City’s buildings as becoming “more and more a jungle of styles”. I love this description. I find the mixture of old and new directly alongside one another in places like London absolutely beautiful.

We end on a note that shows us just how much the capital has evolved over the centuries. During the great fire of London, over a quarter of a million people lived in the centre of London. Now a mere 4,000, yet, “400,000 people leave the city between the hours of 5 and 6 o’clock each weekday evening.”

8th January
Emmerdale Farm

Emmerdale Farm has been running for nearly three months now in a lunchtime slot. It will be a few years yet before it moves into an evening one. The daytime soap opera is introducing us to life in the Dales and mostly focusing on the Sugden family and their farm.

Emmerdale Farm would become simply Emmerdale in 1989, reflecting its inclusion of the rest of the area too. While it predates EastEnders, I’ve always rather viewed Emmerdale as the lesser soap of that and Coronation Street. This is admittedly utterly unfair considering I’ve never seen an episode of it before, but I’ve simply been sceptical of how exciting rural farm life can be. As today’s episode is unavailable, I’m watching an episode from 22nd January.

I felt my prejudices were partly justified as incredibly little happened in the episode. There are sheepdog trials being set up and the locals stand around in a field drinking beer, as the local landlord has entrepreneurially set up a bar in a tent. One of the men has recently sold his farm, I gathered, and is enjoying being rather flush in a new suit, proud that he has “earned it all”. Some of the younger, shaggy-haired lads are supping while ogling young ladies. Jim is particularly keen on one of the girls and sure he stands a chance with her.

This all seemed innocent and pedestrian enough. As the girls left, Jim follows, catching up with the one as she’s taken her shoes off by a stream. It’s rather creepy as he stands watching her from above for a while. When he eventually comes down the slope, he takes her shoes and won’t give them back. It’s not playful – he’s being very intimidating in her personal space and the credits appear before we see what happens next. Well, this felt a bit serious for daytime but I was impressed they were daring enough to write something like this.

What felt like the most significant aspect of the show was it’s location filming. Almost the entire episode was set outside. This might seem obvious for a programme centred around farming but there are few programmes at this time that are able to utilise so much location filming. It’s previously been expensive and therefore most shows use it in a much more limited way, if it all. For a soap in the early years of daytime television to be doing this seems extraordinary and certainly makes it stand out.

9th January
Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? ‘Strangers on a Train’

This is the first episode of the sequel to 1960s’ sitcom The Likely Lads, following two young men from Newcastle. While I’ve seen little of The Likely Lads, I caught repeats of Whatever Happened… 10 years ago and loved it. As I haven’t seen it since I’ve been really looking forward to it.

Bob is getting married to Thelma and looking through old photos she reacts in horror to one of his old mate Terry, who she was never keen on. Bob hasn’t heard from him in years.

We meet Terry on a train, holding a baby and talking with a small girl standing nearby. It suits him and it’s clearly meant to be a shock to familiar viewers but when their mother appears we discover he was just looking after them while she nipped out. I can’t quite imagine anyone leaving their children with a stranger for any amount of time now.

Terry has just got out the army and he’s heading to London to see some friends for the day. His friend turns out to be a young lady on a small stage, wearing nothing but a very small pair of knickers, star stickers (you can guess where) and a boa constrictor. Crikey. This was most unexpected for 8.30 in the evening. We don’t get to see exactly what she does with the boa constrictor on stage, although Terry’s expressions are enough to set the imagination reeling. Unfortunately he has to leave to get his train. His eyes though, like those of the rest of the audience, never leave the stage, which is how both he and Bob miss clocking each other.

They eventually bump into each other, literally, on the train back north. There’s a refresher of how The Likely Lads ended as Bob joined the army, Terry missed him so decided to join up too, but Bob was let go due to flat feet and Terry was stuck. The bulk of the episode is a two hander and reflects some of the things that will recur throughout the series. Bob casually mentions seeing Terry’s mother through the car window and Terry is astonished that Bob has his own car. Bob’s aspirations to join the middle classes are evident when he expresses his interest in tennis. Terry never hides his surprise and occasional scorn for any of these things.

Terry himself is slightly bitter that after five years he’s missed out on “the sexual revolution”, although Bob tries to soften the blow by reassuring Terry that few topless go-go dancers made it as far as Newcastle. He at least feels the army has given him a unique sight of the world, except the world isn’t so small anymore and Bob has managed to visit the same places in more palatial surroundings than a Nissan hut. I think Terry is rather selective about the changes he’d like to experience as we will see that he is really quite a conservative, insular person. When he gets back to Newcastle he soon begins bemoaning the fact that many of his favourite places, such as The Roxy dancehall, are now gone. He’s expecting to return and pick up his life where it left off, which just won’t and cannot happen.

The Old Grey Whistle Test

I’m having to watch an episode from next month but I can’t complain as I’m pleased with the musical lineup. I’ve never seen The Old Grey Whistle Test before and I’ve been looking forward to this late night music programme as the lineups always sounds just my sort of music. Tonight, presenter Bob Harris welcomes Rory Gallagher, Duncan Browne, and Bette Midler.

I’ve become a fan of Rory Gallagher fairly recently and immensely enjoyed his performances. He’s enjoying himself so much, despite performing only to Bob and the show’s crew. I find his music mesmerisingly wonderful and beautiful, which seems an odd word for rock music but it fits for me.

Bette Midler’s interview was introduced by her version of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, which was accompanied by a fun cartoon. I was most surprised to see a type of music video. It was a rather simple black and white hand-drawn one so I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been made for another version some years previously. It was probably used so they didn’t have to try to squeeze an entire orchestra in the studio.

Having previously heard the presenter named as ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, I could immediately see why. His voice is quiet and soothing. This week’s edition goes out at 10.50 and his voice seems perfect for that time of evening. I liked his laidback interview style with Bette Midler. I missed seeing him light his cigarette but he slowly took drags between questions. He also seems quite happy to be here and clearly has a genuine interest in Bette and her music. I would like to spend more evenings chilling out with Bob.

10th January
Arthur of the Britons ‘The Duel’

My history feels seriously lacking but the title of this HTV series helpfully sets this in the reign of King Arthur. A couple of rival groups team up to ensure they can fight off Saxon invaders together. It’s an uneasy alliance already but when one of the Cornish guys decides to jokingly sneak up on a sleeping man, Mahon, he pays with his life as the old fighter instinctively brings his sword up. Brian Blessed is Mark of Cornwall, who vows revenge on Mahon. There is tension throughout the episode as Mark keeps repeating his threat, even after Mahon has saved his life from a Saxon. With the small local invasion defeated, Mahon challenges a now reluctant Mark. Mahon’s advantage turns out to be a literal iron fist.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this children’s series. The episode was entirely set outdoors and this week has made me realise just how much of the 1960s was stuck inside studios. Location filming offers much more realism and while black and white helpfully hid a thousand things, far more can be seen in the new wonderful world of colour.

The Persuaders! ‘The Gold Napoleon’

Yorkshire are repeating an episode of ITC’s The Persuaders!, which originally went out a couple of years ago. In a few months Roger Moore will be stepping onto the silver screen as 007 but for now he is still in place on the small screen as Lord Brett Sinclair, alongside Tony Curtis’s Danny Wilde.

These two young playboys spend their time flocking around the Mediterranean, or at least the parts of it that the south of France can convincingly double for in location filming. When not wining and dining young ladies, racing around in expensive motor cars or arguing over how many olives go in a cocktail, they’ve been blackmailed into fighting crime by a retired judge and discovered that they rather like it.

In this episode, someone shoots a young girl stood by Danny, just as they are boarding a plane. With Danny being a well-known oil magnate, it’s only natural that everyone suspects he is the real intended target. However, a little digging soon shows that the girl’s uncle is caught up in a gold smuggling operation and the boys have to foil it.

There were a few enjoyable things of note from this episode. Danny is initially flummoxed as to why anyone would want to kill him. Brett, however, has no hesitation in providing a list: “Could be anyone of four outraged fathers, three disappointed dollies, two consul generals or… a partridge in a pear tree.” It’s similar to a scene in Moore’s second Bond film, The Man With the Golden Gun, which will premiere next year. Bond can’t think who would want to pay a million dollars to have him killed. His boss instantly offers some suggestions: “Jealous husbands! Outraged chefs! Humiliated tailors! The list is endless!”

I feel the episode is worth seeing just to experience Roger Moore as Brett Sinclair doing a German accent, which is certainly interesting. For some reason he spends much of the scene speaking in the second person as he tries to convince a jeweller that he has a stash of Nazi gold.

Danny finds out the name of the hospital the girl has been taken to from the local paper. On the day a young girl has been shot for as-yet-unknown reasons by an unidentified assailant, who remains at large, this is, perhaps, not a good idea.

Later, Danny plays a classic game of blagging it. As he walks around a foundry, hoping to discover something gold and Napoleon-like, he picks up a clipboard, pretending to check coins. He dons a beret and generally acts as though he knows what he’s doing. His pièce de résistance is getting the head bad guy to sign some paperwork. It’s a well-worn trick but Tony Curtis pulls it off with silent humour to refresh it for us.

This is far from my first outing with The Persuaders! as I’ve watched the whole series several times. More than anything, I find it enormous fun. In many ways, it’s similar to Roger Moore’s previous ITC series, The Saint, and indeed the idea for the show first came from an episode of The Saint that paired Simon Templar with an American. Yet while the Saint is usually the smartest, most heroic person in the room, with his halo’s brightness occasionally blinding you, Brett Sinclair feels a little closer to Earth, even with his Lord’s title. By making The Persuaders! a buddy show, both characters always have someone to bat off and someone to take the piss out of, ensuring neither one takes themselves too seriously for very long. It’s another ITC adventure series but this relationship and the fact they are both quite clearly enjoying themselves keeps bringing me back.

While I adore The Persuaders!, I fully accept that you’ve got to take it for what it is. I recently burst out laughing at the suggestion that Danny and Brett sometimes appear ‘more like a pair of middle-aged, medallion-wearing sex tourists than the debonair playboy crime-fighters they are supposed to be’*. Yet for me the pure escapism of The Persuaders! wins through. It’s about fast cars, sunshine, luxurious locations, brightly-coloured clothes, cracking guest actors, fights, stunts, winning against the bad guys and getting to be the hero for the day alongside your best pal.

*James Chapman, Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (2002)

You Say

3 responses to this article

Karen Smith 28 March 2019 at 12:41 pm

Really interesting and entertaining piece of writing.

Alan Keeling 28 March 2019 at 3:32 pm

Amongst my favourites in this lovely article was Arthur of the Britons, which marked the return of the filmed TV swashbuckler after a ten year absence + repeats of Robin Hood. It appeared to be filmed on 16mm stock, maybe with the US market in mind. This 24 episode series was seldom repeated in later years.

Trevor Smith 30 March 2019 at 6:36 pm

Glad you liked Rory on the Whistle Test. I was lucky to see the great man a few times. He was a joy to see live. ‘Whispering’ Bob was a great presenter who suited the programme perfectly.
I thought you might like to see this tribute to Bob from Danny Baker

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