Back in time for TV: 1979 

21 August 2019


My time in the 1970s has flown by and I’m leaving it at a historically interesting time. No one actually wants to live through interesting times so with the politics of the present day feeling tense, I’m delighted to be joining the UK at a time when it has just emerged from the Winter of Discontent and the government is crumbling. I’m tuning in to some more topical programmes for a change but still found time for my usual drama and comedy, and, for the first time during my time travelling, I’ve been able to see an episode of Top of the Pops.

This week my ITV programmes are coming from Granada.

28th March

Tonight’s Tonight is entirely focussed on the House of Commons where the UK’s MPs have been completing a vote of no confidence in the government and Prime Minister James Callaghan. The results were not announced until after 10pm, part way through Tonight, so far too late for this evening’s Nine O’Clock News. I’m not entirely sure what Tonight‘s remit usually is but I’m going to presume that it covers politics and current affairs.

Tonight begins outside the Palace of Westminster and we get commentary with the voice of a reporter, David Holmes, who is inside. All we get to see is the face of Big Ben and a drawing of the inside of the House of Commons, which didn’t allow cameras at the time. The programme provides the sound recording of speeches, with a photograph of the relevant speaker appearing. Radio broadcasting of Parliament’s proceedings has only been allowed since last year, so I’m presuming that even these sound clips are a relatively recent innovation for political reporting. This lack of action felt so strange to me as I am used to televised clips from the Commons being a regular feature of news reports.

When the results are announced, the Prime Minister has lost by a single vote. The result essentially means that the majority of MPs think he’s rubbish, isn’t up to the job and they’re not afraid to tell him to his face – well, they are at least willing to tell it to the tellers in the lobbies.

Although my political knowledge of this period is not in-depth, the background to poor Jim’s troubles seems to go back to at least 1974, where I spent some time in the Three Day Week. Various industries are still striking and I know governments had attempted to impose limits on pay rises to try to control inflation. I’m also familiar with the images from the Winter of Discontent during 1978/79 that saw rubbish bags piled high due to striking collectors. Even grave diggers went on strike, demonstrating that almost everyone was in some sort of union during this period – it’s a way of life that is quite alien to me. It gave a lot of workers considerable power when it came to pay demands. Combined with unemployment, a row over Scottish devolution, and the fact that Labour were running a minority government, Callaghan’s time was up.

In the studio, Bob McKenzie looks at what could happen in the general election that the result has triggered. He’s a got a long line showing the support in opinion polls for both Labour and the Conservatives over recent months. While the difference was only slight and swung to both sides for several months, it has firmly favoured the Conservatives for the last couple.

For the rest of the programme, various people are asked for their opinions. This includes some Lords, a couple of journalists (one with the magnificent name of Peregrine Worsthorne), before Robin Day sits down with MPs. It’s all a bit dark and grim as the journalists are interviewed outside when it’s gone 10 o’clock at night, while the MPs and Mr Day sit inside in front of black curtains. Francis Pym is here for the Conservatives, Michael Foot for Labour, along with John Pardoe, the Liberal Party MP for North Cornwall. The line of questioning is essentially all the same: what date do you think the general election will be called on? Foot is the only one of these MPs whose name I know – he will become leader of the Labour Party next year.

We later return to Bob McKenzie, whose presentation style I rather like as he provides good explanations. He takes us through the result needed by either side to secure a majority, deploying a swingometer that makes it clear and simple.

It feels like an incredibly strange time for me to be watching all this from the present day of 2019 where there has been significant political turmoil and we experienced a vote of no confidence only a couple of months ago, although the government was not defeated by that one. It means that while the circumstances are wildly different, I have a good deal of empathy for the British people of 1979, who aren’t at all certain what lies ahead.


29th March
Nine O’Clock News

The late night evening news has various names including Main News and just News but tonight it is actually scheduled at 9pm so it goes out as Nine O’Clock News. I was looking forward to being able to see some of the news this week as apart from a few Midlands-focussed clips from ATV Today, I haven’t been able to see any news programmes during my time travelling.

I’ve previously seen Angela Rippon’s appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, so it was nice to see her carrying out her actual job with her legs firmly planted beneath the desk. There is a brown, wood-effect wall behind her, a colour that has been prolific in everything throughout the decade. Angela is wearing a gold necklace that I find distracting as the studio lights keep reflecting off it.

Following on from last night’s events in Parliament, it is unsurprising that the majority of the programme focuses on British politics. Leader of the Conservatives, Margaret Thatcher, is shown with a throng of journalists outside her home. She’s wearing a patterned headscarf, something that I tend to associate more with old ladies. It’s certainly not a look I would ever have imagined for a future prime minister. On James Callaghan’s side, we get a short speech to camera against white curtains.

Further down the headlines, there is unrest in the Middle East, with talk of embargoes against Egypt and the US. Iran is the main focus, where the journalist shows commitment to his vocation as he mentions that the team have been shot at and beaten, with some of their film destroyed.

In the US, there has been an incident at a nuclear power plant and though it wasn’t named as such, I spotted a sign for Three Mile Island. I had the impression that this was quite a serious and significant incident so was surprised to see it so far down the headlines.

For the other stories from around the world, the programme is often lacking any footage so stories are often represented by still photographs or maps. One story from Jerusalem does have footage but it’s in black and white, leading me to conclude that the BBC may have used footage from local broadcasters if they had no reporting teams nearby.

We end on another note about the upcoming election as MPs are trying to get some last minute legislation through Parliament, including an increase in pay. One MP, Andrew Faulds (Labour), is quoted as saying, “Bank managers are becoming increasingly impatient and wives need the standard of living some of us used to have in previous occupations.” Where do you even start? Having reached 1979, I’ve lost all hope that many men’s attitudes for women will have changed. I also think that if Faulds entered the Commons expecting to consistently earn the same sort of money on offer in the private sector, his constituents had got a dreadful deal based on where their representative’s priorities lie. I was delighted by Angela Rippon’s response of, “Presumably, after the election some of those MPs will be returning to those occupations.”


31st March
Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’

I had seen an episode of Tales of the Unexpected before, with Alfred Burke guesting, and I found the ending so disturbing that I wasn’t all that keen to return to the series, despite believing it to have shown excellent storytelling. I think most of my articles now reflect that I have a preference for drama that is fun and thrilling – I have to consider it more carefully before I elect to sit down to something unsettling. The plot of the previous episode followed a child, leading me to wrongly believe Tales of the Unexpected to be a children’s programme. In fact, tonight’s episode went out at 10.30pm.

This episode showed us a seemingly happily married couple. Mrs Bixby goes to visit an ‘aunt’ a few times a year, who turns out to be a lover. She really seems to care about him, yet when he breaks it off with no explanation she seems content enough with a new coat he’s bought her. Unable to explain the expensive fur to her husband, Mrs Bixby comes up with a convoluted plan to pawn it, present her husband with the ticket that she claims she found, then return the next day and get it. Except the sexist sod claims pawn shops are dodgy and therefore no place for a woman so he will retrieve the item alone. The ticket doesn’t say what the item is so only the wife knows. The next day she goes to meet Mr Bixby at his dental practice, where he presents her with a rather vile fur scarf. Having to hide her disappointment and confusion, Mrs Bixby leaves via the lift, joined by a young dental assistant who is wearing her coat.

I was rather disappointed with this twist as I felt it was slightly obvious and I suppose the previous episode I watched had set me a certain type of expectations. But my reaction did then make me step back and query the culture of the time. Affairs and divorce are viewed as less of a scandal nowadays and I have to ponder when exactly that change in societal attitudes became evident.

I previously wrote about changes to the law that made it easier to obtain a divorce by the early 1970s but that did not immediately remove the stigma that came with divorce. Affairs had always been commonly included in television drama – they make good plot devices – but it is different here as the couple seem so very ordinary and perhaps that is part of what was supposed to make the final revelation so shocking. I just found it sad that two people had been putting on a brave front to each other, clearly having some thought for the other’s feelings, despite both having long lost any romantic interest in the other – something clear from the opening scenes as they climbed into their separate single beds.

1st April

Another current affairs programme, Assignment allows us to take a more in-depth look at a few features. Our host is a serious young man, whose tone gives the impression that the show is pitching a bit more highbrow than the regular news programme.

First, Assignment is in West Germany, where there are protests against the proposed construction of a new nuclear facility in Gorleben, which is close to the border with East Germany. This will be different to others in the country as nuclear waste can be reprocessed and disposed of on the same site. We are shown vast salt caves beneath the ground, which have been there for centuries, and this is where nuclear waste is packaged up and stored. It’s never really occurred to me to consider where nuclear waste goes before, so this particular setup was fascinating. The caves are considered safe and reliable because they have been there so long, but the caves below the new site are manmade, so some people are more sceptical.

This feature interviews several people connected to the proposed plant, with voices both for and against it. It initially appears that the BBC sent a camera operator to West Germany alone as the interviewer provides a voice over to footage but is mostly off camera and we don’t cut back to him during the interviews. Half of his face appears at the edge of a shot during a brief interview, but otherwise we don’t actually see him until his final piece to camera, stood in front of a former forest that is now wasteland and is the site of the proposed plant.

The hazards associated with the nuclear industry are more topical this week. “Can nuclear plants ever truly be accident-proof?” asks our host as he introduces the feature, and the answer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a loud ‘no’, as the incident there is now known to be fairly serious, with some people evacuated. “If some of the fears have been exaggerated, at least some of the official reassurances have been phoney,” he adds, with the choice of ‘phoney’ being a strong kick at either the nuclear plant’s management, the US government, or possibly both.

Next, Assignment introduces us to “The Sweeney of the bird protection business” and immediately had my attention. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a Chief Investigator for this flying squad. “The Sweeney of the air”, is introduced to us with The Sweeney theme tune playing as he cruises across a driveway in a burnt orange Ford Granada, then we cut to follow him to his office, which has a newspaper cutting of the word ‘SWEENEY!’ pinned to the door. It shows just what an impact the programme has had since I watched its first series in 1975. There have been three more series since as well as two films. A large part of me was shouting excitedly because we’ve got a Thames theme on the BBC.

In his shirt, tie and leather jacket (it’s a triumph that this become acceptable work attire), Chief Investigator Peter Robinson is the Jack Regan of the bird world, if Regan had decided to don glasses, grow a beard and become rather softly spoken. Regan-Robinson shows us some nasty bird traps, explaining that though long outlawed, they are still used to catch birds of prey. It breaks their legs, which they need to hunt, so indirectly kills them.

We’re told that taking or selling the eggs of wild birds has been illegal for 25 years. That seems surprisingly recent but Robinson and the reporter’s voiceover explains that egg collecting began as a hobby. This “British, almost uniquely English hobby” is said to have “developed into a slightly eccentric field sport” in the Victorian era, with Robinson telling us the eggs are taken mainly for their attractiveness and hunters enjoying the pursuit of tracking a habitat. Unfortunately “what was zest then […] is destruction now” and following some dramatic music over shots of birds, we see some actual work. As Robinson has no powers of arrest, he heads off to the local cop shop for a chat so they can come out with him when he goes to investigate potential thieves of eggs and birds. The penalties just for egg collecting can be quite severe, something I was glad to hear, with fines of up to £900 [£5,100 in 2019, allowing for inflation] and three months in prison.

This was an interesting feature on an area most people would probably know little about, yet I think (perhaps hope) the majority of us would care about the selfish destruction of our country’s precious wildlife. What’s most astounding to me is that this work is entirely down to one man, relying on information being reported from across the whole country.

Assignment‘s final feature on this edition concerns cricket. An Australian man called Kerry Packer has set up World Series Cricket and this has been very controversial. I don’t follow cricket and know little about it, which hindered me during this report as I couldn’t really work out why it was so controversial. What was the difference between this and test cricket? There were a few words from Packer himself, but it was those from Alan Rae, from the West Indies Cricket Board, who had been watching World Series games in the West Indies, that revealed a little. He said, “The fast bowling is excellent, isn’t it? Excellent. The batting is quite distinctly substandard” and felt that the crowds liked it because the game was a “novelty”. All I had gathered was that the bowling was faster but still remained mystified by the uproar.


2nd April
Chalk and Cheese ‘Spasms’

Alarm bells often ring when I see that a sitcom only lasted a single series. While some programmes are planned to only ever be one series, for sitcoms this still tends to make me feel cautious. Yet I try to go in with an open mind and that was very much the case here as I had chosen the programme from the listings solely because of Michael Crawford’s name in the cast. I knew nothing else about it and this was the first episode. Comedy is subjective so others may be their own judge but I don’t advise it as I must place Chalk and Cheese as one of the worst sitcoms I’ve seen.

Crawford plays Dave Finn, a loud and scruffy cockney man, who meets Roger in the waiting area for a maternity ward in the middle of the night. The middle class Roger is a bit less forthcoming and does his best to hide his initial awkwardness at being stuck in a room with Dave while they both await the arrival of their new offspring. The episode is almost entirely based around the conversation between the two of them.

Dave is sexist, homophobic and comes out with some cruel and vile comments. I found a lot of it cringe-inducing and not in a humorous way. Unfortunately I don’t doubt that some of the audience would still have agreed with his attitudes, even if they were not all so outspoken with them. He’s clearly meant to be a complete contrast to the well-spoken, reserved Roger, right down to the fact that Dave is in his pyjamas while Roger has managed to put a smart suit on. But Roger never really challenges much of what Dave says, even commenting, “I just want to be left alone, do you hear? I didn’t come here for a round in the class war – my wife is expecting a baby,” so there’s going to be no reasoned argument and at times it comes to simple bickering. None of the humour appealed to me and their supposed conflict feels very predictable.

Being a brash, confident working class Londoner, Dave could have shown similarities to Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy, but he’s so incredibly unlikeable. There is little enough of substance established for Roger here so he can’t be our character to stick with either. I imagine there were high hopes for Chalk and Cheese after Crawford’s previous success and this week’s TVTimes features an article promoting the show, as well as putting Dave Finn on its cover.

Nine O’Clock News

Tonight I was supposed to be watching the first episode of a new sketch show on BBC-2 called Not the Nine O’Clock News. However, after last week’s no confidence vote triggered the general election, the new show’s topical focus means it’s been pulled. It will be re-recorded and its first episode will now go out in October. Instead, I sat down to watch the actual Nine O’Clock News.

The stories include a 24-hour strike by civil servants, the security impact of the recent murder of an MP, the ongoing effects of the nuclear incident in Pennsylvania, and the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Egypt.

Half a million civil servants are on strike and the report made me realise just how many areas that covers. From social security to immigration, the effects are widespread and I was particularly taken back by customs officials having to resort to “an honesty box”. I imagine it remained empty at the end of the day. Following footage of offices, courts and even the Tower of London (who were only letting in the Ravenmaster), in the studio Martin Adeney broke things down for us with a stencil backdrop and the words ‘LABOUR RELATIONS’ – one that must have had plenty of use during the decade. I mentioned above that governments had been attempting to control wages but this hasn’t gone too well in the private sector because, well, it seems lots of people just went on strike until they got more money. Civil servants feel they have fallen behind.

After an initial offer of 7%, the government has now offered civil servants a 25% increase, to be spread out over a year – 9% immediately, 8% in a few months and another 8% in a year’s time. From the present day, these seem like utterly extraordinary amounts but it’s a reflection of the high inflation at this time. Inflation has never reached double figures in my lifetime but during the 1970s it peaked in 1975 at over 26%. By 1979, inflation had actually been dropping fairly steadily for the last few years but was still only just in single figures.

We see part of a speech by one of the union leaders, who promises to answer to their members, saying they will press on with more action if they need to. 25% seems a good enough deal to me and they are going to need it because inflation will sky rocket again, doubling over the next year.

My awareness about the extent of the violence during the Troubles has increased in the last couple of years and I continue to be shocked about the scale and brutality of the killings that took place. They had become such a regular occurrence that they were no longer irregular enough to grab large headlines. In 1979 the UK is still a long way off gaining any sort of peace in Northern Ireland and following years of violence there, it spread to mainland Britain. A few days ago, Airey Neave, the Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, was murdered by Irish republican terrorists after they placed a bomb under his car.

This evening’s report was focusing on the alterations to security that had taken place, but I was surprised by how lax they were and it was an eye opener about how much has changed. At an airport there were extra security personnel and passengers were subject to announcements reminding them “not to leave their luggage unattended at any time”. For me this is such a standard procedure at airports and railway stations that such announcements have become mere background noise. But if you’ve been living in a world where an unattended package has never posed a potential threat until recently, I suppose these new statements could begin to feel a little unnerving.

Airey Neave’s car was blown up in the Palace of Westminster’s car park so we go to see the changes to security there, which amount to surprisingly little as far as I’m concerned. Although the underneath of some MPs’ cars are checked, “the majority of vehicles entered the Commons on the nod of recognition from a policeman”. This seems absurd as Neave himself and his car would surely have been recognised by the police. Are they relying on the randomness of the checks? Are they trusting MPs to be on alert to check their cars themselves? It seems far too risky. More than anything I found this report sad for it feels like the 1970s marks a time in the UK when people stopped feeling safe while they went about their daily business. That’s a horrible thing for terrorism to take away and something that once lost can never entirely be regained.

As with the previous report, in the studio we have a reporter – this time Christopher Jones – in front of an orange backdrop. Here the stencil is of St Stephen’s Tower and the text reads ‘PARLIAMENT’. Our reporter quotes the Margaret Thatcher, who had paid tribute to Mr Neave. Jones describes the scene in the Commons before we get a picture of Thatcher next to a stencil of Westminster and get to hear some audio. We get a similar setup for James Callaghan’s words. This need to describe in detail what’s going on in Parliament, right down to the tone of the speaker, feels like it takes up a lot of time and while I found it interesting in its novelty, the case for greater coverage with television cameras in the Commons is strong.

I mentioned that James Callaghan had lost his no confidence vote by a single vote and the single man who could have passed that vote was too ill to attend. Tonight we learn that Sir Alfred Broughton has passed away.

The visit of the Israeli prime minister to Egypt is significant because it’s the first time an Israeli prime minister has been on a state visit to Egypt. We have plenty of colour footage but the reporter, Keith Graves, doesn’t sound as clear as he could. It sounds like he’s speaking over the telephone and on consideration, I decide that this could well be the case.

One of the most depressing stories from this evening was that more than 100 Vietnamese refugees had drowned off the coast of Malaya when their boat capsized. They had earlier tried to land at Malaya but had been refused. It seemed far too similar to the more recent crisis with refugees drowning near European coasts. It saddens me that there are still people who feel so desperate that these risky trips are their only option.

In the US, a major nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania looks like it may have been averted, which is probably why it came further down the programme than I expected. Following some footage of President Carter taking a tour of the plant, we’re back to the orange backdrop, this time fronted by James Wilkinson with a stencil of a cooling tower and the word ‘SCIENCE’. He gives a brief explanation of how a nuclear reactor operates and then we cut to a basic animation of a reactor with fuel rods and the reactor core covered with water, which basically keep things cool and safe. The animation enables Wilkinson to explain one of the causes of the accidents: “a valve stayed open by mistake and drained off too much of this water. The water, contaminated with radioactivity, was pumped to an adjoining building and it was then that some radioactivity was released to the atmosphere. This loss of water exposed the top of the fuel rods which then overheated and became damaged. The hot metal in the fuel rods reacted with the water producing hydrogen gas, which prevented the water being pushed back into the reactor vessel.” Now they’ve managed to bleed off some of the gas and get water back in, things are looking a lot better. This has been in the news for several days and I can imagine that a lot of people were still pretty nervous.


3rd April
How’s Your Father? ‘Wedding Bells’

This sitcom stars Harry Worth, whose name seemed to crop up regularly in the schedules during the 1960s, yet I was never able to see any of his work as it always seemed to be either unavailable or missing. A few years on and he plays the father of the title, attempting to cope with the stresses brought on by his two teenage children. In this episode his sixteen-year-old daughter has decided to get married to a fellow young oik.

It’s difficult to know what to say about this show as while it is undoubtedly superior to this week’s earlier sitcom offering, that it hardly high praise. At best, I suppose I can say I might watch it if it was on but it’s not something I would plan to sit down with.

The episode is a mixture of Harry’s daughter stropping and the visit of her husband-to-be. I did not find the vague plot nor any of the characters particularly interesting but did enjoy some of the script. Harry asks his son to get an ice cube for an injured neighbour, who quickly adds, “wrap a drop of gin round it would you, dear.” It’s an easy joke but I liked it nonetheless. Unfortunately other parts of the episode are frustrating as you can see the beginnings of something that could be improved if only the lines or the performances were altered slightly.

In some ways Harry’s relationship with his stress-inducing teenage children reminds me of early 2000s’ sitcom My Family except his is a very different performance to that of Robert Lindsay. Harry’s character seems more hopeless than angry about situations and for me this is less entertaining as there is not enough reaction from him. I also find it slightly jarring that Harry appears too old for the role – the actor may have been in his early 60s but he looks several years older and though he may not be an impossible father to two teenagers, it seems unlikely.

Reflecting on it, I think this is a hard one to judge as the episode is the final one of the first series. All the character setup should be done and dusted so I’m perhaps losing out there. How’s Your Father? did get a second series so there could well be some more redeeming features.

4th April
John Craven’s Newsround

I have to confess that as a child I avoided Newsround. John Craven had gone by then and anyway, news was something boring that grown-ups watched meaning that unfortunately the title alone had put me off. Yet the concept of Newsround (John Craven’s name would be dropped when he left in 1989) is an excellent one and the fact that it is still going over thirty years later is a great testament to that. Trying to sell the idea of ‘the news but for kids’ can’t have been easy.

Today we hear about sheep in the Shetlands that have been covered in oil, hunted rhinos and the name of the new Blue Peter presenter.

What I liked about Newsround was that, without being patronising, it assumes its audience doesn’t know anything about offshore oil, or who any country’s leader is, or which countries are near to each other. It also doesn’t shy away from more sensitive matters that some may have chosen not to present to children, such as today when Pakistan’s former prime minister was executed. It doesn’t assume they know what happened a few months ago because today could be the very first time they have decided to watch Newsround.

At only a few minutes long, Newsround offers a fast paced version of current affairs with a mixture of items. While some would also be found in a longer format on the main evening news programmes, others seem specifically chosen for being relevant to its audience and I was pleased by this specially tailored aspect.


5th April
Robin’s Nest ‘Albert’s Ball’

In 1974 I watched Thames Television’s Man About the House, a sitcom I’m quite a fan of. It spawned two sequels: George and Mildred followed the kids’ landlords, the Ropers, after they had moved house, while Robin’s Nest saw former cookery student Robin opening up his own restaurant.

In Robin’s Nest, Robin is running a bistro with his partner, Victoria, having procured some financial backing from her father, played by Tony Britton. In need of a hand in the evenings, they have hired a waiter, who turns out to be a formerly-convicted thief, with only one arm.

The comedy centres around the bistro and its very nature ensures we have a turnover of characters, although Robert Gillespie does crop up in more than one, providing a marvellous performance as a very dry police detective.

I was content to acknowledge that MATH is not one of the best sitcoms ever made, yet I still enjoy it. Robin’s Nest is arguably of similar quality and I was hoping I would really like it due to the continued presence of Richard O’Sullivan as Robin. However, having seen several episodes prior to this one, I’m beginning to reach the conclusion that it’s missing whatever it was that made me enjoy MATH so much. I was unable to identify this at the time but now I have begun to see that it essentially comes down to the interaction between Robin, Chrissy and Jo. Their friendly ribbing and double entendres may not be the most sophisticated humour ever written into a sitcom, but I really like the chemistry it provides.

Top of the Pops

The legendary music programme was a staple part of many people’s youths and its lasting impact is clear as the current BBC4 repeats have been virtually continuous for several years now. By the time I began to take a proper interest in music, TOTP was nearing the end of its life and never held much appeal anyway – I had numerous devoted music channels to choose from and YouTube was around the corner. Yet for a long time sitting down at a set time every week was most people’s only way to get a glimpse of their favourite artists in action. This explanation of the show’s appeal still astounds me because I’ve grown up with music, in both audio and visual terms, being so affordable and accessible.

There may well be readers who are completely unfamiliar with TOTP, but its format is perfectly simple: a presenter gives us a rundown of the Singles Chart and various artists perform their songs in the studio to an audience. ‘Perform’ is a subjective phrase though as it is now well-known that acts had to mime to a recorded version of their song. I’m not sure if this was common knowledge among all of the audience at home however, as I’ve read numerous accounts of bands turning up to record their appearance and only discovering on the day that it would not actually be live.

During my time in the 1960s I was listening to the chart each week, something that really challenged my preconceptions about the era’s music, but regrettably I haven’t kept that up for the 1970s. I didn’t know what to expect from 1979’s charts as there was nothing that immediately sprang to mind, yet I did end up watching several records that I knew.

We see little of host Tony Blackburn, something that surprised me, but it did maximise the time available for music. First up was M with Pop Musik. Its electronic beat is something I would have associated with the 1980s so it makes sense that we are right on the cusp. I wasn’t too enamoured with the style of the lead singer, who I referred to in my notes as ‘Dad in a suit’, even if I’m sure it’s intentional.

The era of the music video is just beginning and tonight Village People are singing about being In the Navy, while on top of a frigate, with some of them even dressed for the role. It’s a great disco song that belongs on a dance floor and I found them enormous fun to watch.

Squeeze are the first act tonight that are a traditional-looking band with guitars and they look cool and stylish. They are all dressed in black and white, though a few have red trousers on. They are performing Cool for Cats, a title that referenced the (now almost entirely missing) Associated-Rediffusion music programme of the same name and which aired from 1956 to 1961. The song also references several other television series, with some clearly more intentional than others. We are told that “The Sweeney‘s doing 90/Cause they’ve got the word to go [… ] And meanwhile at the station/There’s a couple of likely lads/who swear like how’s your father/And they’re very cool for cats”.

Dire Straights are in the charts with Sultans of Swing except… they’re not here! Not even in a video! Instead, we just get to watch Legs and Co, a group of female dancers who are wearing dresses entirely split up the sides, revealing their legs, encased in leggings. They dance to some flashing lights around a whole in the floor with a large bullseye. It’s disappointing to say the least.

Generation X have arrived in the Top 40 with Valley of the Dolls. This was the first record that I was unfamiliar with and I didn’t know the band either. This rock number follows on well from Sultans of Swing. Like Squeeze, they’ve mostly gone for a black and white look. The long hair of the rest of the band is a contrast to Generation X’s lead singer, who is spiky and peroxide blonde. From the wide opening shot at a distance, his slim build also seemed quite androgynous. I loved the record and the band seemed to enjoy themselves more towards the end as they got more comfortable, especially the bass player. I liked the visual effect used throughout the song, which was almost like the image was stuttering down the screen, like if you had fanned a pack of cards down. In the studio itself, it was interesting to see the band’s drummer placed at the front with the bass and guitar players having to stand behind, rather than the usual other way round.

We don’t blend into Chic quite so well, whose I Want Your Love is a gentler disco number. I switch off a little as it isn’t my sort of thing.

Numbers bring us Offshore Banking Business, a reggae/ska type song, and the lyrics do exactly what they say on the tin. The lead singer has some enthusiastic actions to go with the lyrics and plays up to the camera considerably. The lyrics aren’t quite sophisticated enough to be either interesting or amusing, so I wasn’t overly impressed but it’s a catchy tune nonetheless.

We cut to The Jacksons with Shake Your Body. They aren’t in the studio and have provided what I would consider to be a promotional video, rather than a music video in the style of the Village People. They are clearly in a studio somewhere, but it isn’t the TOTP one. It may be from another show but there is no visible audience there. After a few hits, they probably weren’t tempted by the glamour of Legs and Co. The Jacksons strut across a stage in some quite stunning flared turquoise jumpsuits, with short sleeves and gold cuffs, their gemstones sparkling as they shake their bodies all over. While I’ve seen plenty of clips of the Jackson 5 from earlier in their career, I haven’t seen the slightly-altered version this late on. I’m used to seeing a tiny Michael Jackson but he’s all grown up now. He is essentially carrying the group as lead singer, with the other members acting as backing dancers most of the time.

Milk and Honey give us Hallelujah. From Israel, they won the Eurovision Song Contest. I’m not impressed by it at all. It sounds like something from 15-20 years earlier, when I was not particularly enjoying the charts. As it goes on, I find myself finding anything about them to pick at – it’s a vile group name but, being sweet and sickly, it adequately sums them up.

Things improve for me with the arrival of The Jam and Strange Town. They provide some subpar miming but I’m more keen on their funky striped blazers, and the choice of colours avoid them looking like school ones. Behind them, we see a triangle and ‘v’ motif that has been present around the studio during the show and here it is vaguely reminiscent of Wonder Woman.

Holding on to the top spot is Gloria Gaynor with I Will Survive, a record that I would now consider a dance floor classic. It’s a promo video and is mostly in darkness with few lights. We can’t even see her whole body, just her face and a small amount of her sparkling upper body, yet I’m drawn to that voice.

One more artist is provided over the lengthy credits, with Siouxsie and The Banshees singing The Staircase over what looks like a mixture of outer space and the studio put through a kaleidoscope. It keeps me entranced until the very end.

You Say

11 responses to this article

AndrewP 22 August 2019 at 9:14 am


This is *so* evocative of a time which I remember very vividly – it makes me laugh out loud with some of observations, makes me smile with happy memories, and makes me sigh with regret at some of the less nice things which were happening. Peregrine Worsthorne – there’s a name I hadn’t thought about in decades!

I love the way that seeing people in their true contexts rather than the exceptional one can be a rarity. In the same way that you’ve just seen Angela Rippon in her principal role of the time rather than performing “’A’ You’re Adorable”, your text also reminds me that – of course – Andrew Faulds did an awful lot of other things beyond helming the Luna and Discovery missions to the moon and Mars in “Journey into Space”.

Your guesses are very accurate, demonstrating that your approach really has allowed you a brilliant perspective on this material. Comments on technical elements of a show’s production add to the evocative descriptions. Similarly, the translation into modern day terms is extremely effective.

The disappointing “Chalk and Cheese” was *so* heavily pushed because of Michael Crawford. I *think* I bailed after the second episode. I think you judged “How’s Your Father?” very well, and – sadly – you’re not seeing a prime example of “Robin’s Nest” here. The original thrust of the show – quaint though it may seem now – is the *outrageous* notion of a man and a woman living together without being married. Oh – the hilarity and misunderstandings! Nevertheless the early scripts from Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke *are* rather lovely… but then when our leads tie the knot the show loses much of its raison d’être.

And – oddly – I think I value “Newsround” more now than when I was part of the target audience. It was and is a magnificent programme. And I wish I’d understood that more at the time.

All the best


Simon Coward 22 August 2019 at 9:54 am

1979. I’m not sure I can remember it well, but I can remember it. Good stuff!

I’m sure someone – Benny Hill, perhaps – plundered the basic idea behind “Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” for a sketch. The story was adapted for television on at least two other occasions: in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in the BBC’s Thirty Minute Theatre. I’m not sure whether the former was shown here prior to Channel Four’s broadcast in the mid-1980s.

I think Tony Blackburn was mumbling, it was The Members who recorded the fine ‘Offshore Banking Business’. I’m not 100% certain, but I reckon that was the first 12″ single I ever bought.

Jerry Ralph 22 August 2019 at 11:03 am

The “earnest young man” in the Assignment photo is former senior BBC correspondent John Simpson.

Brian Wintet 22 August 2019 at 2:16 pm

An interesting article. I liked you take on TOTP. Back then it was more or less essential Thursday night viewing. If memory is correct,The Jacksin clip would gave come either from Soul Train or Midnight Soecisl. Both highly popular U.S. music TV shows.

H E Cooper 22 August 2019 at 6:08 pm

Cheers all. I had the feeling that TOTP would go down well so it’s nice that people seem as interested in everything else from this week. It was such a different selection of programmes compared to the other years but felt like a chance to look at a significant moment in British history… sandwiched with Chalk and Cheese. And thanks for the correction, Simon – I’m sure TOTP didn’t have any captions so they would definitely have been useful.

With a bit of time having passed, I can look back and reflect that I really did enjoy the 1970s – probably more than I expected. There turned out to be far more shows I knew than I had predicted and I managed to discover such a variety of ones I hadn’t. While I had some idea what to expect in the early 1970s, I don’t feel I have done for the 1980s, which means that although I could see television starting to transition into the 1970s already by the end of the 1960s, I haven’t known what to look out for in the run-up to the 1980s. It’s already looking interesting!

Ystaf Gynghori 22 August 2019 at 7:27 pm

I enjoyed ‘Chalk And Cheese’ and ‘How’s Your Father’ whereas ‘Robin’s Nest’ left me cold. Tastes differ, I guess.

Simon Coward 23 August 2019 at 10:47 am

I was wondering why I didn’t remember 1979 so well from a TV point of view (see above), and with a bit of thought I suppose it’s obvious.

By then I was working, but it pre-dates my owning a video recorder, so I wouldn’t get to see any children’s or other daytime programming, except perhaps at weekends. And I suppose the fact that I was working meant I had more disposable income at least some of which would be spent on going out rather than feeding my vinyl addiction.

Arthur Nibble 23 August 2019 at 4:25 pm

You’d have had a bit of trouble with The Members as they never got a ‘mugshot’ for that single. It peaked one place outside the top 30!

H E Cooper 23 August 2019 at 6:01 pm

Speaking to people throughout this series, Simon, your experience has definitely been an emerging theme. People have lots of memories about programmes from their childhood and these are often the ones they are most passionate about, but by late teens they’re usually working and home later, then go to the pub a few nights a week, so it’s more limited. It reverses slightly once they get married and have kids of their own.

I should be addressing the prevalence of video recorders in the 1980s! I think it’s an important point when looking at how people watched television – although videos existed, not many people had one.

Joey 23 August 2019 at 10:45 pm

Interesting that you didn’t pick the week the infamous ITV strike started, you wouldn’t have had much choice then. From late August to late October, the entire network went on strike (except for Channel TV) and we were left to the mercy of the two BBC channels. What a great summer that was.

H E Cooper 28 August 2019 at 12:37 pm

I’m certainly glad I didn’t pick a week during the strike! I wasn’t sure of the strike’s dates when I started planning my time in the 1970s but was relieved I didn’t end up there for it. I’m currently following it with interest on Twitter via @itvonstrike.

I’ve generally planned Back in Time for TV in a week on/week off format. e.g. If I spent the week commencing the 1st in 1970, I’d have a week off for the week commencing the 8th, then head off to 1971 for the week commencing the 15th.

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