Back in time for TV: 1976 

12 June 2019


Nudity, violent deaths, religious jokes, and Tiswas. This week I have travelled all over to find the most interesting-sounding programmes to watch, so my ITV broadcasts are coming from Border, Thames, ATV and LWT.

16th February
The Adventures of Black Beauty ‘The Fugitive’

I’m not too sure which episode of London Weekend International’s Black Beauty Border are showing today so I’ve simply decided to go with the very first one. I’ve long known of it but all I knew was that Black Beauty is a horse. However, once I started watching the episode I realised I did know a little of the story, thanks to Blue Peter. Back when I visited 1966, Blue Peter were showing a hand-drawn and narrated serial version in roughly 5-minute chunks and I had rather enjoyed the edition I saw.

Our initially-nameless horse escapes from a nasty horse dealer and is found by the children of a doctor who has just moved into the area. The horse is ill and needs rest, and the boy and girl want to keep him. The horse dealer is vile and we’ve already seen him horribly ill-treat one horse, but his father seems slightly nicer, if severe. When the father is taken ill, the doctor comes to his rescue quickly thanks to the horse and the family are later told they can keep him.

Despite the doctor and the housekeeper suggesting what I thought were rather cool names, like Jet and Lightening, the little girl decides on the duller, more descriptive and frankly bleeding obvious, Black Beauty.

This live action serial seemed to be almost entirely on location, impressing me in the same way Emmerdale Farm did. There are great shots of Black Beauty running across fields and the programme seems to make the most of its rural setting. I was also more than satisfied with the children’s performances. The actors are definitely playing slightly younger than their actual ages but it’s passable enough and I think they can hold the show as leads, if indeed they are supposed to. Going out at 5.20, Black Beauty is in an almost family viewing slot and having thoroughly enjoyed this light-hearted fare myself, I can easily see it appealing to adults as well as children.

17th February
The Old Grey Whistle Test

As I didn’t have this week’s episode, I was watching one from a couple of weeks later. This featured ‘Rory Gallagher in a concert from the Television Theatre in London’ according to the synopsis and as I enjoyed Rory’s performance when I last saw Whistle Test, I was looking forward to it.

The episode does indeed feature only Rory and his band performing to an audience, making it feel like a very different sort of programme to the intimate event I watched last time. It does also mean we’re denied the lovely tones of Bob Harris, but you can’t have everything. I hadn’t expected anything like this to be shown and even though it’s less than an hour, it was strange to be having a live atmosphere brought into the home.

I was impressed by the production as we had lots of coloured lights alternating, making it feel like we are finally getting some wider benefits from colour television. The programme also made use of mixing the images from two different cameras to appear side by side on screen – not a split screen, but rather merged together. I really enjoyed the way this was used to be able to show the musician’s face at the same time as their fingers moving around the guitar’s frets.

18th February
The Tomorrow People ‘Into the Unknown – Episode 1: The Visitor’

Besides a vague idea that it had an element of sci-fi to it, my knowledge of The Tomorrow People was zilch. We start the episode with a teenage boy, Mike, who is using a computer called Tim to help him write a song about a girl. I can already guess that he is on a spaceship. The boy has a magnificently dreadful 1970s’ haircut and the sort of working-class, London accent that I expect to encounter on Grange Hill in a few years time.

After nothing particularly exciting occurring in this pre-title sequence, we cut to some black and white titles, which are a visual treat, zooming into various objects, including repeated shots of the opening palm of a hand. Combined with some eerie music, I found them mesmerising.

Mike is son joined by two adults, a man and a woman, John and Elizabeth, who are much more well spoken than him. Another slightly older boy, Steven, also shows up, and he and John don spacesuits to go and investigate a signal coming from an unknown spaceship.

I was stupidly excited for us to see some special effects in the form of what I presume to be CSO – Colour Separation Overlay. It’s used to impose the image of John and Steven moving through space to the spaceship and also to display a large window to see outside their own spaceship. It is essentially an early form of green screen technology, and I’ve seen it explained as being filmed against a blue screen. Space seems an ideal place to utilise it and I’m sure I’ve only ever previously seen it used in Doctor Who.

Being able to film humans against a screen and then impose them onto a different location has all sorts of potential, as future film and television will reveal. Up until this, I’ve only encountered a couple of options. One was simply a painted backdrop, something regularly employed by the likes of The Saint to cheaply set the episode in a foreign location. However, it was also used in various programmes to make sets look bigger, so rooms and corridors would appear to stretch beyond the actual confines of a set. The other option was rear projection, which was mostly used when filming scenes set in cars. A previously-shot film would be projected so that it appeared as though streets and countryside were whizzing past the windows of a car.

Some uses of CSO look better than others. It does tend to produce a fuzzy, shuddering outline that inevitably gives it away, or else something moving is imposed on a still image of, say, a forest, and the lack of any moving leaves or branches stands out. I’m used to spotting this but I wonder if 1970s’ viewers may have been less discerning.

Back exploring the spaceship and they have found a humanoid on board. After John and Steven bring him/it back to their own ship, Mike wants to be allowed to go and see the new spaceship, but is turned down. He spends much of the episode as a stereotypically grumpy teenager, ignored as he moans, “I might as well not be here! I’m not allowed to do anyfin’!” He sneaks off anyway and the others are forced to follow him.

There is a creepy statue on the other spaceship and after waking an unconscious Mike, the team lose contact with their own ship. John, Steven, Mike and the alien are separated from Elizabeth and we must come back next week to find out more.

I have a lot of questions about the background to all the characters and how they have ended up together. Is the programme set in the future? Or have they simply been picked up out of the 1970s? Maybe enormous collars are de rigueur for future space travellers. In some ways The Tomorrow People feels very basic, but they fit a lot into a 20-minute episode. The mystery kept me interested, the CSO wasn’t used too much nor too badly to be unwatchable, and I felt the show built up its tension well. I would undoubtedly class it as a children’s show and it’s a very good one.

Dave Allen at Large

I was introduced to Dave Allen on a compilation DVD many years ago and when I first started exploring 1960s’ television schedules I was surprised by how often his name appeared, as I hadn’t realised just how much work he had done.

Tonight BBC-1 are broadcasting a repeat of Dave Allen at Large. Like several programmes, it first went out on BBC-2 before a repeat on its big brother channel, so I’m presuming tonight’s episode is from the fourth series that originally went out last year.

The programme is made up of sketches interspersed with Dave Allen simply sitting in a chair telling jokes. I say ‘simply’ but this is undoubtedly his strongest area. He completely nails these monologues and it is an absolute delight to listen to him. Despite sitting in a smart, three-piece suit, it’s easily a relaxed style as he casually sips at a glass of whiskey while smoking a cigarette. It feels as though you’ve been invited over to Dave Allen’s home for the evening, and you always hope that you won’t be asked to leave before the early hours.

The jokes themselves aren’t bang-bang-bang, but instead often consist of short stories. Allen’s quiet steadiness makes it all the more effective when the characters in his stories shout or suddenly explode. While some jokes are along the lines of two drunks in a bar, in some Allen also turns his attention to subjects such as sex, violence or religion, the last one being a recurring feature in the sketches as well. Religion itself isn’t even always the subject of the joke, but the sketch will feature priests or be set in a church and it’s clear from how often it’s used that Allen must have enjoyed getting to knock this authority figure from its pedestal.

I enjoyed several of the religion-based sketches from this episode. In one, a group of atheists have been invited to a church and are about to be introduced to a man who is “renowned for his ability to convert the non-believer. You might say a success rate of 99%.” As the Father takes the pulpit, he addresses the audience, saying, “I want each and every one of you gathered here tonight to look into your hearts, and having looked is there any person in this congregation who will stand up and definitely deny the existence of God?” A man in the front row stands up and defiantly answers, “I do.” The Father takes out a revolver and shoots him. “Is there anybody else?” Everyone promptly flings themselves to their knees.

I find the sketches to be hit-and-miss, with some just taking too long to get to the punchline and others falling a tad flat. With our lead man featuring in all of them, there are occasionally ones that would be seen as racist now. While alone on stage Dave Allen is the master storyteller, I think that some of the sketches that work best are visual ones. His monologues usually link to the first of the upcoming sketches and for one tonight he tells us that in Ireland (his birth country) two funerals cannot take place in the same graveyard on the same day, as only one person buried that day will be allowed into heaven. “So can you imagine what would happen if one funeral met another funeral going to the same graveyard?” The sketch that follows depicts a race with underhanded tactics and appropriately sped up music as two groups rush to reach the graveyard first.

Used for both the opening titles and credits, I was immediately struck by the programme’s funky theme tune. My guess that it sounded like it was from KPM turned out to be correct, as it is Studio 69 by Alan Hawkshaw. KPM provided a great amount of library music for television shows during this period, so the chances are that most people had heard some without knowing where it came from. Since discovering KPM’s collections I’ve found I love a lot of the records in their own right.

19th February
When the Boat Comes In ‘A First Time for Everything’

This drama is set just after the First World War in a mining area on the North East coast. I expected a nice, early Sunday evening-type drama but found that it wasn’t quite as pleasant. This is no nostalgic dip in the past.

There seemed to be quite a lot of characters at first but I eventually worked out how they are all connected in each other’s lives. One of them is Jack Ford, who is called on by Mrs Sneaton to help put some shelves up. He’s getting married but doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic, suggesting he would leave for Australia if he had the passage.

The Sneaton’s daughter, Jessie, is a teacher and the main story that gripped me was that of a small boy in her class, Ronnie. He’s showed academic promise but his mother is a widow and she needs him to work now. He’s going to go down the pit and Jessie is horrified. The lad seems very excited, which struck me initially as odd as it’s hinted that his dad died down there, but he then says that all his mates are already working there.

Tom, Jessie’s brother, agrees to take Ronnie with him into work on his first day. As I have never been down a working pit before, it was interesting to see a little of it. I’ve seen footage of miners in the 1980s, by which time bright overalls, hard hats and torches seemed to be standard. I’m unsurprised to find none of that here and everyone simply has shirts, waistcoats and flat caps.

Ronnie is to start off clearing water out of a hole near to some rail tracks. Tom explains that when a cart is coming, someone will bang on the pipes to let him know to move off the tracks. Later on the lad is alone and upon hearing the clanging, he quickly moves and, putting a hand out to steady himself, he feels a rat. He screams and jumps back, straight into the path of the cart. We cut away but when we cut back, Ronnie is lying on the tracks, eyes wide open, dead. I found it such a shocking sight and while Tom is seen to be upset, feeling slightly guilty, the episode makes it clear that mining accidents are an everyday occurrence.

This is horribly apparent from the statistics. In 1919 1,183 people died in mining accidents in the UK, with 239 of those deaths being from haulage accidents. Coal mining had peaked during this period with around 1.2 million people employed in mining across the UK, but as was apparent from my time in 1974‘s Three Day Week, while there had been a steep decline, there were still a significant number of miners in Britain in the 1970s – around a quarter of a million. Mining was much safer by the mid-1970s and children had long stopped working in pits but there were still deaths every year, even if it was only the larger disasters that made the news.

The dangerous nature of pit work really is the focus of this episode. With both Ronnie and his dad now having died down the pit, later in the episode Mr Sneaton, who also worked at the pit with Tom, comes home from hospital in a wheelchair. The exact cause of his injury isn’t explained but as Mrs Sneaton is looking to open up a shop in their front room, we can assume its effects are permanent. Having since seen some other episodes, it is clear that Mr Sneaton is a very proud man. He’s also active with the union and though we only see him briefly in this episode, I think he’s going to struggle to come to terms with his accident.

I found When the Boat Comes In an excellent piece of television and I went on to watch several more episodes almost immediately. It’s full of layered characters whose stories are allowed to slowly grow throughout the series. It shows the importance of the town’s community and its plots are powerful. It also feels very much like a regional programme in both the stories and the voices. It’s not just got a few decent North East accents, but it has their language too. When the Boat Comes In was created by James Mitchell, who came from South Shields, and he obviously wanted the series to retain its sense of place as all the other writers from this first series were also from the North East, with two hailing from County Durham and one from Northumberland.

20th February
Fall of Eagles ‘Dearest Nicky’

This appears to take place in the build up to the First World War, with this episode mostly focussing on Tsar Nicholas in Russia. I was surprised to discover that this is a repeat, having been shown on BBC-1 in 1974, as I’d expect something like this to have first been on BBC-2. I’ve had mixed experiences with 1970s’ period drama as I found The Onedin Line too slow and War and Peace too dull, but this year I’m feeling better after loving last night’s northern contribution.

Fall of Eagles is quite different, being a fairly heavy political drama, set in the final heyday of the European monarchy as the winds of change arrive. I was sceptical of how much it would hold my interest but found myself gripped. The programme chooses not to use any accents so occasionally there is confusion over which country we are in, but I can say this is only a minor fault as the dialogue usually quickly clarifies it.

I did some Russian history at school so this episode stirred vague memories. It was all well-acted and I was most impressed that it held my attention so well. I’d definitely like to explore the rest of the series.

21st February

I knew it was going to prove rather difficult to get hold of an episode of Tiswas as very few editions exist, and as a result I was watching one from six months earlier. I’ve long been aware of Tiswas and have seen several clips, with it usually touted as the first proper Saturday morning kids TV show. Up until now, weekend mornings haven’t offered much for anyone unless you fancied taking up a language or learning about business. This personal development theme continues as this morning other channels have programmes like Angling, Skiing with Gina, Play Rugby and Kitchen Garden. In the years leading up to 1976, there seem to have been more repeats and films but it often looks like a random collection of mismatched programming – you’ll perhaps watch one thing but then switch off.

Currently, Tiswas seems to be confined to the Midlands, although I know it did eventually reach other regions. It has a reputation for anarchy, though I found that rather sparse here and I get the feeling it’s something that was to develop as time went on. While the show is its own programme, it still has a lot of room to grow from being just something to link cartoons and other shows.

The two main presenters sit behind a desk most of the time, with one wearing a bright orange tshirt that sports the CAMRA logo. The Campaign for Real Ale was only formed a few years ago so this young man has got in early with the growing movement to promote traditional cask ale in the UK.

Behind the two presenters, there are a load of kids, slowly and quietly trying to elbow each other out the way to reach the front. I imagine that as soon as the cartoon is running, some of them are being reprimanded by the crew. Towards the end of the episode, the kids are actually moved far back from the presenters behind a rope. Though there are some segments with a few kids involved, mostly competition winners, this studio audience feels quite pointless at the moment. I want to see them shouting, cheering and screaming. Instead it looks like they may as well be on a school trip.

There seem to be loads of competition parts of the show as this week’s tests are served up and we meet winners from previous editions. As well as some creative entries, there are also simple quizzes in which the audience is asked to identify places from a photograph shown on screen. We do also move out of the studio to meet the real Black Beauty.

Although this early version of Tiswas lacked the mania I was hoping to see, it was nonetheless interesting to see the beginnings of the genre. It all had to start somewhere and Tiswas would eventually inspire a tradition of Saturday morning shows that lasted until fairly recently.

Thick As Thieves ‘Holy Deadlock’

The repeat of this 1974 sitcom grabbed my attention, mainly for featuring John Thaw, and I was curious to see him in a comic role. Thick As Thieves sees burglars Stan (John Thaw) and George (Bob Hoskins) cohabiting with Annie (Pat Ashton), George’s wife. Stan and Annie began an affair while George was in prison and they have somehow come to an agreement for this to carry on. It’s surprising how easy it is to get past this bizarre arrangement once you’re watching.

Stan and George are rather inept thieves, although Stan does argue that he must be “more crafty” as he’s “done less bird”. Annie’s not exactly happy with their chosen professions but will turn a blind eye so long as they deliver. Except they haven’t been. She’s seen someone she knows with a new fur coat, someone else with a new car, and all her friends have got washing machines and immersion heaters. While she goes to work, cooks, and does the laundry and ironing, we see the lads head off down the pub.

There is a sense of competitiveness between Stan and George, with George attempting to boast about his involvement with a big time crook, Vic, although it turns out he was simply the gang’s alibi. They both tell the other they have a big job planned, clearly hoping to impress Annie. The best comic moment of the episode comes when they bump into each while simultaneously trying to burgle the same flat.

Last year in The Sweeney we had Jack Regan lying in bed with a women, chest visible (his not hers), and in this programme George spent an entire scene sat at the breakfast table with a towel around him, having just come out the bath. Although this mild nudity (if we can even call it that) may seem perfectly reasonable and ordinary to more modern eyes, to me it’s a sign that there has been a noticeable jump in what is deemed acceptable on television. Only a decade previously in Meet the Wife a married couple were embarrassed to lie down next to each other on a bed in a furniture shop. Characters have always been fully clothed, to the point of sometimes getting into bed with a dressing gown over their pyjamas and only taking it off once they were under the covers. In some respects television has actually been a bit formal and is only just beginning to become more naturalistic.

‘Holy Deadlock’ is the final episode of Thick As Thieves, which only lasted one series, but I don’t think it’s a complete duffer and there could be a couple of other reasons for its short run; John Thaw went on to do The Sweeney the following year and the writers, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, had also been writing another sitcom about criminals, Porridge. I felt like Thick As Thieves had a lot of potential in its plot and its writing so I’m curious to see the rest of it. I think several of its ideas may have ended up being developed and transferred well to Porridge.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Harold Plumber 13 June 2019 at 4:23 am

“Fall of Eagles” — one of the best and most historically accurate television historical dramas ever produced, unlikely to ever be repeated on air or equaled in a new production due to the limited attention span of the modern viewer who prefers historical entertainment to historical truth.

Patrick Stewart gave his finest ever historical performance as the manipulative and ruthless Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin).

Although Barry Foster gave a good performance as Kaiser Wilhelm II, he always seemed to be an inappropriate choice for the role.

Andrew P 16 June 2019 at 7:28 am

Just a quick missive of thanks and appreciation for the above – particularly the most fascinating “cold” reading of “The Tomorrow People” which reminds me that it was actually quite a difficult show to access if you didn’t know the format. How fascinating! Takes me back to the days when if you ambled into a new series mid-way though, you couldn’t find the Wikipedia page and devour the format and history in seconds. And I think this is why I’m find the approach so refreshing.

Delighted to see you continuing to be fascinating and captivated by these shows.

James Paul 6 November 2021 at 1:03 pm

Star Maidens came out in 1976 an anglo-german science fiction series whcih feature dGareth Thomas from Blake,s Seven

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