Back in time for TV: 1974 

8 May 2019


In 1974, the United Kingdom is in a bit of a mess, to put it mildly. Several industries have been taking industrial action but that of the National Union of Mineworkers has had the greatest impact. In the middle of winter, for a nation so dependent on coal, it’s reached breaking point. To conserve power, much of British industry is operating on a three day week. It’s cold, everyone’s poorer, and to make matters worse all television has to close-down by 10.30. The BBC and ITV take it in turns to close down first so one night the BBC finish at 10.20 and ITV stay on until 10.30, then vice versa the following night. This prevents a sudden surge as people switch their televisions off and turn on other appliances, like the kettle or radio. The latter, perhaps unsurprisingly, saw a large increase in late night listeners as audiences tried to remember what on earth they used to do to avoid speaking to their families at night.

You might think this has left me a rather bare week of television but on the contrary, I’ve found a great deal worth watching. TVTimes optimistically prints a full regular schedule with notes advising, ‘In the event of Government restrictions on broadcasting hours continuing, programmes are likely to be re-scheduled’ and telling us to ‘Watch for screen announcements’. As a result, the daily newspaper is a more reliable guide and thankfully most of what I was hoping to see has still gone ahead, just at slightly different, usually earlier, times. Let’s hope the power stays on.

This week my ITV programmes are coming from ATV, LWT and Thames.

17th January
ATV Today

I’ve briefly swung by 1974 a couple of days earlier than planned to catch a short clip from ATV Today, the Midlands regional news programme. I previously saw some clips of the show in 1967 and 1969, which both came from Birmingham. However, this edition is far more local to me as Bob Warman is reporting from my home village of Huntington in South Staffordshire.

Bob is looking to find out whether people are actually doing what the government says they should to conserve energy, or if they feel they are better supporting the miners’ cause by ignoring the government’s requests to essentially live in one room. Bob presumably had his pick of locations across the Midlands from which to source interviewees so it’s quite a deliberate decision that ATV Today have chosen to come to a pit village and interview women that all seem to be miners’ wives. It’s very strange hearing accents like these on television, let alone such familiar ones. Their responses are surprisingly mixed and it’s clear from their hesitation that some hadn’t really given it much thought “I suppose…”

By the time I was in the village the pit had gone, but it was of course quite exciting to see a flicker of somewhere I know so well filmed for television, especially with it being such a small place. I was able to pinpoint the exact spot Bob Warman is standing for his piece to camera, which is about a mile down the road from the Littleton Colliery that can be seen in the background. In the near background we can see part of a red brick building. The shot doesn’t do the magnificent building justice as the photos I’ve seen are wonderful, yet within a few years this gorgeous Victorian pumping station would be demolished. The pit would be around for a while though, eventually closing in 1993.

19th January
What’s My Line?

I quickly realised I’d seen clips of this game show before, which helped as I had already worked out the rules. A guest signs in, does a brief mime and sits beside the presenter, then a panel of celebrities has to try to guess their job title. The guest can only answer with yes or no and the celebrities are only allowed a limited number of nos. You can play along at home by looking away when the job title appears on the screen and I thought this would be fun until I realised I’m terrible at it.

Our panel consists of Isobel Barnett, Kenneth Williams, Nanette Newman and William Franklyn. Tonight our first guest is a woman detective. Not just a detective, but a woman detective. That’s her actual title. The young lady is part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and tells us they have only had woman detectives for the last year. Northern Ireland is in the midst of the Troubles at this time and I’ve seen that some serving and ex-police officers were specifically targeted, so I was slightly surprised by this admission.

I played along for one round and thought I’d got it. I was sure from his mime that he was a baker, then after a few questions I was convinced he put little ships in glass bottles, but he turned out to be a taxidermist, at which point I got rather disheartened at how difficult I found the game and was content to watch the others try to work it out. There was also a burglar alarmist and an electrologist who removes hair, the latter eliciting a nasty gasp from the audience!

As well as the members of the public, there is one celebrity guest round in which the panel are blindfolded and must try to guess who it is. The guest makes attempts to disguise their voice and tonight’s guest must have found it easier than some as it was impressionist Mike Yarwood. While I know of him, I’d never seen him on any programmes before. He treated us to several voices from his repertoire, including the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson (after next month’s general election their titles will be the other way round). I was very impressed. He also gives a decent attempt at Kenneth Williams, despite claiming he couldn’t do him properly.

Upstairs, Downstairs ‘The Sudden Storm’

I’ve only seen a few episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, all from the first series, but that does mean I know most of the characters from this episode, the final one of the third series. Set in a grand London home in the early twentieth century, it follows the lives of both the wealthy family and their servants so it’s clear where some of Downton Abbey‘s influences came from. It’s less glossy and less dramatic but I have still found the plots good and enjoyed starting to get to know the characters.

This is an episode of contrasts as the servants get a day off for some fun at the seaside, but in the background war is looming. Head butler Mr Hudson is played by Gordon Jackson, and I’m still getting used to this as I’m much more familiar with him as head of CI5 in the action series, The Professionals, which would come a few years later. He appears to be the most senior servant and often comes across as quite severe. If I was one of the young servants, I’d be a tad scared of him.

Everyone has opinions on the prospect of a war and Hudson’s are that, “A wee bit of bloodletting would do this country the power of good.” The cook, Mrs Bridges, is willing to do her bit, saying, “If that there Kaiser has the impudence to come over here, I’ll give him what for!” and “I’ll pull every feather out of his helmet.” I’m sure her rolling pin is as lethal as one of Mr Hudson’s glances.

For the audience, there’s a terrible sense of foreboding as the servants all laugh while paddling in the sea and then relax to sit and eat a picnic. Mr Hudson is asked to put the newspaper down and they all cheery on, enjoying the day out.

The news is being discussed by those above stairs too. Georgina is a character I haven’t met before but seems to be a young relative of the family. She has a beau and they chat in beautiful sunny gardens, where he insists he can’t shirk the war and needs to get in quick else he’ll miss it all.

When war is finally announced, champagne is out in the house. Although the master refuses to drink a toast to war, the younger ones are excited and think it sounds great fun. They have been out cheering the news, along with plenty of others. Below stairs, Hudson tells the others, “Our cause is a righteous one. May the Lord mighty in battle give us victory. God save the king.”

Most of them seem so happy about it. I found this bizarre as I had never seen the outbreak of the First World War depicted with this sort of reaction before. Presuming it to be accurate, it is a rather refreshing take to see the characters’ negative views in the minority. I hope the series covers the war years as I think it would be great to see how it changes the household.

21st January
Love Thy Neighbour ‘Two Weeks To Babies’

I knew that Love Thy Neighbour was a sitcom about a white couple living next door to a black one. It also comes with a reputation of racism, something I have found uncomfortable in other programmes, so I wasn’t sure how I would get on with this but curiosity had a firm hold on me.

My swift conclusion from this episode was that Love Thy Neighbour‘s racism would not prevent me from watching it again, but the fact it isn’t a particularly good sitcom would. Hearing words like ‘sambo’ and ‘nig-nog’ casually thrown into conversation was a little shocking, as, even in 1974, I’m not convinced these were entirely acceptable terms. Yet they did feel shoved in to try to show up the feelings of the white neighbour, Eddie, whose wife, Joan, doesn’t bat an eyelid.

Both wives are pregnant and this episode revolves around a misunderstanding after Bill, the other neighbour, overhears Joan and wrongly believes the window cleaner is the baby’s father. When he tries to subtly bring this up with Eddie, Eddie then comes to believe that Bill’s wife, Barbie, is the one who has been impregnated by the window cleaner. Both men are depicted as being as bad as each other, desperate to get one over on the other.

Humour is very subjective so I am now slightly cautious to condemn any one show. I previously wrote that I didn’t think On the Buses is a fantastic sitcom, and yet I do still like enough of it. Love Thy Neighbour is another sitcom that I don’t rate and, similarly, had several series and a film made within only a few years. Television seems to have hit on the idea at this time that if a sitcom is popular, you should ride the high and knock out as many as possible while it lasts.

22nd January
ATV Today

I can’t decide what I like more about West Bromwich shopkeeper, Barry Fellows: his hair, his sideburns, his leather jacket or his attitude. In a survey on food prices, his shop has been voted the cheapest out of 192 stores in West Bromwich and Bob wants to know how he manages to undercut the big supermarkets. Barry is superbly casual about it all, saying, “I don’t sit on me backside. I’d rather serve bread.” He makes about a penny on a loaf, though reckons the supermarkets are making at least three. I’m struggling to get my head round paying such minuscule amounts. “You don’t feel you’re running yourself out of business, do you?” asks Bob. “Well if I was running meself out of business, I’d soon find that out, wouldn’t I, in about a week.”

Diana ‘The Gilt Complex’

As this week’s isn’t available, I’m watching another episode of this US sitcom starring Diana Rigg. I felt someone should have told me that Diana Rigg had done a sitcom but it really isn’t something to get too excited about.

From the episode, I would have guessed that Diana works in an advertising agency of some sort as she works alongside a copywriter and she is drawing something, but some research tells me she’s actually a fashion designer. The episode revolves around misunderstandings. There is the half-naked man who has let himself into Diana’s flat and the plumber who also takes some clothes off. No wonder her female friend is getting excited when she turns up. Diana’s boss invites her out for dinner while his wife is working away, but spends the evening anxious that someone will think their platonic meal is a date.

The BBC started showing Diana last year on Tuesday evenings but after only six episodes they have decided to change tack and, deviating slightly from the US broadcast order, have moved the remaining nine episodes to afternoons. My inference is that Diana wasn’t particularly popular and US audiences must have agreed as only one season was made. It does have some curiosity value though and as I mainly know Diana Rigg from The Avengers and the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it was interesting to see her in something so different. Avengers fans would also be intrigued to know that Patrick Macnee guest stars in an episode.

23rd January
The Liver Birds ‘Where’s Beryl?’

After meeting them briefly during Christmas 1972, I was keen to see more of The Liver Birds. Beryl and Sandra head off for a weekend in London. Sandra’s boyfriend has sorted them a hotel and the plan is for Beryl to surprise her fella. Sandra definitely seems to be the straight (wo)man of the pair, while Beryl gets most of the laughs during this episode. She doesn’t put up with anything from the snooty hotel receptionist and insists things are fixed in her room.

Ultimately, there’s a theme running in these sitcoms as like Love Thy Neighbour and Diana, the episode comes back to a misunderstanding. Beryl’s boyfriend never gets her message to ring the hotel because he’s gone up to Liverpool to surprise her, so she spends the whole weekend sitting around the grotty hotel room. She does get visited by a randy maintenance man, who she invited up over the phone, believing it was the boyfriend.

I was a little disappointed by this programme, although it was entirely my own fault as it just wasn’t what I expected. I was hoping to see more of the ladies together and I suppose I was imagining a Liverpudlian version of The Likely Lads. With them spending the episode away from home, it makes me wonder if this was an exception and so I am still curious to see more of Beryl and Sandra.

Man About the House ‘In Praise of Older Men’

This falls into the category of sitcoms mentioned above, being another with several series and a film done very quickly. However, having seen them all before, I do actually really like Man About the House. Again, I don’t think it’s a fantastic sitcom. The rushed nature of these seems to compromise the plots and there is nothing particularly clever or new about the comedy either. I feel like I need to figure out what it is that makes me enjoy MATH so much, but I guess it’s a combination of likeable characters and humour fuelled by plenty of double entendres that make it easy viewing.

First off, its premise alone shows us how much things have moved on as its great shocker is that a man, Robin, is sharing a flat with two ladies, Chrissy and Jo. Men and women clearly can’t be so close to one another without constant canoodling. This was all initially rather baffling for me, having shared mixed-sex student accommodation in the twenty-first century where it never occurred to any of us that this was anything other than normal.

It’s a different time though and sometimes you aren’t sure just how much Robin is winding up the other two or whether he is genuinely slightly sexist in his remarks. For a man with long hair working over the stove in a pinny, you would always hope he was more enlightened. Most of their humour is back and forth banter and MATH makes a lot of use of innuendo, something I will always applaud. It can be subtly clever or simple and childish – I don’t care, I enjoy it here.

In tonight’s episode Chrissy is dating an older man, Ian. Even with his ‘tache adding a few years, he must be 35 at most but her good friends obviously talk like he should be readying to collect his pension. This is a somewhat terrible ploy to use when we have Richard O’Sullivan in the cast, who started playing student Robin while in his late twenties, and eventually gains a slight silver streak during the series. Chrissy’s older man turns out to be married, something she is more upset than angry about, though she does tip a cup of tea over his head.

This episode gives us a couple of extra locations in a restaurant and the unfaithful Ian’s family home, as well as the regular sets of the flat and the local pub. In the restaurant, Chrissy and Ian start their meal with sherry, an aperitif usually being standard in restaurant meals at the time, and why not. I’m not used to seeing anyone under 70 drink it though.

I love seeing pubs on television and there are always nice things to pick up on in these scenes, whether it be the drinks being ordered, the taps on the bar or the brand of ashtray. In addition, this episode gives us Robin sauntering into his local in a magnificent sheep-skin style coat. To think, a few years ago the only men on television without a suit were cowboys and spacemen.

The World at War ‘Whirlwind’

The World at War is one of the greatest television programmes ever made and I find the fact it exists at all a complete marvel. Only twenty-odd years after the Second World War had ended, a series charting the entire course of the war was made, and because it was only twenty-odd years after the war, there were plenty of participants still around to contribute their memories.

I feel I could go on about the series forever, but there are a few things I love most about The World at War.

Laurence Olivier’s narration – it’s a voice that is just lovely. I say I could listen to it for hours and the number of episodes to the series means I probably have. It isn’t just nice though, Olivier’s voice also carries the gravitas that the series calls for.

The maps – I first saw the series while studying A-level History and I found my mind became full of maps with arrows moving across them. It’s a very good way of explaining events as there were so many places affected by the war that it would be unrealistic to expect most people to know them all.

The interviewees – those featured range from influential figures like Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Albert Speer to ordinary soldiers and civilians. The programme gives their experiences equal footing as everyone’s introduction is the same – simply a caption with their details, with no one built up to be any more important than anyone else. The production have also done their best to get contributions from both sides, so there are plenty of Germans featured. I can imagine there being some upset about this at the time but I find these some of the most fascinating inclusions. It allows the series to show the experience of the German people under Nazi rule and makes the series more rounded.

The war was so very close still in a lot of people’s minds, yet there were a whole generation of adults by 1974 with no direct experience of it. Their knowledge was informed by war films and what their parents chose to tell them. ‘Whirlwind’ examines the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign and includes footage of German cities on fire. The descriptions of what it was like for civilians is quite vile. It’s good to see the series examine the way the Germans suffered. Choosing to tell the story of the war through people is what makes The World at War such a brilliant series.

Till Death Us Do Part ‘Strikes and Blackouts’

In the present day, the BBC did a Sitcom Season a few years ago that included remakes of missing episodes of sitcoms. One of these was Till Death Us Do Part and it was the only episode of the sitcom I’d seen until my visit to 1974. As I gather, the series is partly supposed to mock Alf, a controversial figure with strong right-wing views, contrasted by his son-in-law’s more liberal ones.

What struck me most about the episode was how topical the dialogue was. I’ve never seen any sitcom that was so specific about current events. The three day week was announced only last month but along with domestic power cuts it is a central part of the episode. That’s astounding to me. They must have been on a ridiculously tight schedule to both write and film so close to transmission, which is probably why other shows haven’t attempted it.

I’ve previously read that there has been disagreement over the show, with the belief that many viewers tuned in as they agreed with Alf’s opinions. Enoch Powell is still very much present in politics and appears to be Alf’s hero when it comes to race relations. I do feel this episode hits a snag with Alf’s anti-miner statements. With half the country plunged into darkness and people losing pay, Alf would certainly not be the only one expressing venom towards the miners and other workers taking industrial action.

What actually made me dislike Alf more than anything during this episode was not his politics but the way he treated his wife, Else. While I’ve grown used to period sexism, the way Alf spoke to Else was shockingly disgusting, and she took it all because it was clearly what she was used to. It appeared such a horrid marriage and I felt quite sorry for her.

24th January
Callan ‘Rules of the Game’

This episode is part of a repeat of the fourth and final series, first broadcast two years ago. An incredibly popular programme, Callan‘s lifespan extended beyond the TV series. At this point its creator, James Mitchell, was writing short stories based on the series for the Sunday Express and a third novel would be published this year. There was also a film version and as these repeats ran until April, they would have been helping to promote its May release date. The public clearly had an appetite for Callan and I am completely on their side.

David Callan is a reluctant employee of the Section, a government department that doesn’t officially exist because it deals with the matters deemed “too dirty” for other branches of intelligence. It would be accurate to call Callan a spy and not inaccurate to call him an assassin. He knows too much to ever be allowed to leave the Section but his request to stay out of fieldwork has led to a compromise and Callan is now head of the Section and known as ‘Hunter’, although he still has superiors in Whitehall to answer to.

Tonight’s episode sees the Section asked to harass a Soviet diplomat, supposedly in retribution for the expulsion of a British one from the USSR. After being briefed by his boss, Bishop, Callan assigns the job to James Cross, a young and slightly arrogant member of the Section who is keen to prove himself. They are visually quite a contrast, with Cross sporting long locks and fashionable clothes (including a sheepskin similar to Robin’s from Man About the House) that are quite a change from Callan’s standard short cut and uniform suits. I quite like Cross’s look as I think it helps him blend into a lot of early 1970s London.

And on blending in, it is perfectly clear that the colour palette for Callan is the many shades of brown. It’s everywhere: suits, dressing gowns, curtains, carpets, beds, wallpaper, furniture, cooking pots. It’s broken up by sections of beige and the occasional splash of orange, which in this instance I will count as simply a lighter shade of brown. Yet the brown dullness suits anonymous government offices as well as being a reminder that the early 1970s wasn’t all that bright for a lot of people. Its predominance in the colour episodes of Callan has grown on me. The programme began in black and white – a natural fit for the murky world of espionage that worked with the series’ style. I was concerned that colour would ruin all that but I think the production struck the right balance and the brown colour chart is well matched to Callan‘s dreary tone.

Callan never just got on with a job and moving up the ladder hasn’t changed that, even if he can afford to escape some brownness with a new blue suit. He designates another Section employee to look into who has been coming in and out of the USSR, wanting a proper reason for the operation. When a familiar name crops up, Callan can’t resist heading out to do a bit of fieldwork himself.

Asking ‘why?’ is Callan’s weakness as an agent as far as the Section are concerned but it’s also what makes him a redeemable character. While he is technically a killer, deaths in Callan tend to feel quite dramatic and you can see the anguish on the man’s face. The Section are seen to do nasty things to achieve their ends and seem to regard any innocent parties as necessary casualties. Callan has always cared about the people he hurt and wants to do what he thinks is the morally right thing, which is a bit of a problem for a spy. The Cold War isn’t all black and white. Despite the seemingly clear divide of East versus West, there is no definitive line of good and evil. Callan meets some very nice people, who just happen to be Communists and that makes them security risks. He also works with some absolute bastards who are supposedly the good guys. Government employees don’t get to make their own rules to follow though. People get harassed, blackmailed and murdered because today it happens to be convenient to the powers at be.

We spend most of this episode with Callan or our Soviet diplomat, Medov, played by Mike Pratt, who I feel I will barely mention yet I do think is excellent in the role. Cross’s harassment goes from phone calls in a dodgy Russian accent to sniper shots as Medov’s wife picks up the milk. Throughout the episode we aren’t quite sure whether he’s just a composer or if he’s really a high-ranking member of the KGB. Regardless, the Section are seen to cause great distress not just to Medov but to his wife and daughter too.

I don’t think this is one of the best Callan episodes as like most of those with Callan as Hunter, it feels like the script is struggling to find plausible ways to get him out from behind a desk. We end up with a lot of scenes of him sat around chatting to various people in offices. Bishop is brought in to continue providing the conflict Callan traditionally had with Hunter but the relationship doesn’t work as well and those scenes lack the same tension. Callan’s confinement to base also means we get few scenes with his friend Lonely, a petty thief whose skills had previously been called upon regularly. There is little reason for them to meet now so we miss out on the humour their scenes usually provide, which are a welcome light-hearted interlude in a series that is otherwise often grim in tone.

My other gripe with ‘Rules of the Game’ is that the following episode is a central one for Cross in the series but it doesn’t get enough build up here. Cross is a silent, almost invisible man throughout much of the episode until the final few scenes and I think more could have been done. For instance, Callan has been looking through Cross’s file and tells him to “keep clear of little girls”. Nothing else is made of a line that has rather disturbing implications, especially with Medov’s young daughter as part of the story.

Despite the above, my opinion of the episode actually improved with this viewing. Callan’s quite settled into the role of Hunter now but he hasn’t changed and instead seems to be becoming frustrated with the role’s limitations. It shows that having more power won’t necessarily enable him to alter anything. We find out he’s overseeing 13 jobs, which is a nice insight into how much work the Section does. It gives us a vague idea of the department’s size for the first time, considering we have previously only ever seen a handful of its employees engaged at once.

If you inferred from my earlier mention of Callan’s morality that he is a nice man, then wipe it from your mind. The interrogation he carries out in this episode is done in a wonderfully subtle way. Scenes like these make me grateful for Callan’s omission of incidental music. As Callan repeatedly taps at the man’s face with a wet cloth, the tension evolves from the fear of what he might do, of what the man and we the audience know Callan is capable of doing. The overall episode is a great demonstration of the lengths the Section is allowed and indeed encouraged to go to in order to carry out its assignments. In a, by Callan standards, fairly quiet episode, we also get a brief reminder of the sort of man you have to be to reach the top of the Section.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Nigel Stapley 9 May 2019 at 7:32 pm

Another big plus point for World At War was Carl Davis’ superb score. The theme music is as near perfect as a TV theme could be.

Sue Flower 19 May 2019 at 5:25 pm

First time on this blog after being recommended by a friend and I’m eager now to read the other years.
I was 15 in 1974, so remember most of these programmes from watching them live. Interesting to see the point of view of someone younger seeing them from a different point of view.

Yes, Upstairs Downstairs did cover the whole of First World War in season 4 and extremely well, showing how the characters’ and nation’s views changed over the period, as the horrors unfolded. I’d very much recommend it to anyone interested in that period of history.
While Downtown Abbey obviously has the better modern production values, I still think Upstairs Downstairs is the superior series, in the way they handle the characters.

You found it hard to adjust to Gordon Jackson as Hudson – think how difficult it was for us when he became Cowley !

That episode of Callan was on Talking Pictures last month. The lack of background music was replaced by the hiss of audio level balancing – reminded me of the days of 80’s many-time copied pirate videos, which back then was usually the only way to see old programmes.

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