Back in time for TV: 1981 

4 December 2019


The majority of the programmes I’ve watched this week are repeats, although none are more than a couple of years old. My time travelling has never ignored repeats because they are what was there and one purpose of Back in Time For TV it to explore programmes in context – repeats are part of that context.

The general public always appears to be antagonistic towards repeats. When I visited the early 1970s, black and white programmes seemed to quickly disappear from the schedules, with viewers of colour sets resenting the fact they were now paying more for their television licence and wanting to get the benefit. I find it most understandable in the present day where catch-up and streaming services make it fairly difficult to miss a programme you really want to see.

However, home video is in its infancy in 1981 – fewer than 10% of households own a video recorder. Like colour licences and television sets in the previous decade, video recorders were just too expensive for most people at the start of the 1980s. A third of homes with a television do now also own a second set, although it may be a smaller black and white portable one. The chances were that if you weren’t at home or disagreed over control of the remote, your best hope of seeing your show was going to be a repeat.

5th August
Shoestring ‘Listen to Me’

Shoestring had been on my radar for a short while, so I was pleased to come across this repeat from the first series. Eddie Shoestring appears to be some sort of detective connected to Radio West in Bristol. Even after this episode, I didn’t feel like I had learned too much about the leading character but was sufficiently intrigued.

A man is in prison for shooting a woman during an armed robbery but has claimed he is innocent. His wife has been trying to get him some attention but has gotten nowhere. She heads to the rooftop of Radio West, threatening to jump off unless she is allowed to speak on the radio and get Shoestring to investigate. As she refuses to come down, the investigation becomes a race against time.

I am not sure how official a detective Shoestring is. A former police officer dismisses him as a ‘radio detective’ and I can only hypothesise that he carries out investigations as part of a radio show. But he does have some connections with the police. They initially try to stop him looking into the case and he ignores them with no consequences, so it seems more of an informal relationship.

Although there have always been plenty of policemen on TV by now (and even the occasional glimpse of women police officers), it only seems to have been in the last few years that there have been actual detective series. I’m familiar with Public Eye and Van der Valk but tend to think of the likes of Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place, The Sweeney, and perhaps even shows like The Professionals as being more about police than detective work. The crimes themselves tend to be more interesting in detective series with lots of layers added. There is more mystery and a greater opportunity to delve into people and their motivations. ‘How’ and ‘who’ are important, but ‘why’ is often presented as much more complex. It’s hard to do that with simple or basically-motivated crimes, while taking on 90° bends in a Ford Escort or smashing a villain’s face against a bare brick wall.

In the present day, detective series are prolific across our screens. I am looking forward to seeing how this develops during the rest of the 1980s as towards the end of the decade, we will begin to reach shows from the genre that I know better, like Inspector Morse.

Shoestring surprised me as he seemed such a quiet fellow to begin with, but he ended up meeting with proper villains in dark places to get what information he needed. He had more guts than I would initially have put him down for so I’d be keen to find out how else he might surprise me. One villain is played by Roger Sloman, who I first saw in a comedy role, but this is the second time I’ve seen him playing a villain and I think he’s rather good at them.

6th August
It Ain’t Half Hot Mum ‘Aquastars’

After exploring Love Thy Neighbour (1974)and Mind Your Language (1978) in the 1970s, I found that I was less struck by their reputation for racism than I had expected. Instead, my biggest gripe was that I didn’t think they were particularly good sitcoms. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is another sitcom with a similar reputation, but there was little to pick up on in this episode so I don’t feel able to compare it.

I’m still not sure what to make of this programme. I knew it was set in a British colony and featured the British army, with this episode set some time after VE Day. We know this because the troops watch a newsreel showing footage of people celebrating in the UK. It isn’t particularly appropriate for this audience, whose war is certainly not over, and while it’s done for laughs here, I found it thought-provoking that many men hadn’t been able to come home for a long while after the war in Europe had finished.

We follow some type of army entertainment unit. The only one I know from this era is ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) but this doesn’t seem quite the same. They are putting on a show and the episode’s title, ‘Aquastars’, comes from their plan to involve a waterfall.

This episode is from the programme’s eighth and final series. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but it definitely seems like a product of the 1970s and slightly old-fashioned compared to most of the other programmes I’ve watched this week. Perhaps it’s the sets; it is very obvious that the jungle is in a studio, we spend a lot of time on just the one set and we don’t go on location until the last third of the episode. In comparison, tomorrow’s Sink or Swim makes use of location filming and it feels ‘real’. I suppose that is the major difference. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is slightly absurd and you need to chuck any cares about ‘real’ out as you walk in. I was actually impressed that we had any location filming because, well, it’s a jungle and there is good reason they had to build one in a studio.

I think another issue for me was that the programme has a big cast and I like to get to know characters. The regular audience of 1981 wouldn’t have done by this point – you don’t have much need to establish characters eight series in. I am familiar with Windsor Davies and enjoyed the little of his character in this episode. I was also happy to spot Kenneth MacDonald, best known for playing Mike the landlord of The Nag’s Head, in Only Fools and Horses.

7th August
Sink or Swim ‘Croydon’

Conveniently, I had already seen the couple of episodes that precede this one, which is a repeat of the third episode of Sink or Swim‘s first series. I was intrigued by this sitcom because it stars Peter Davison and Robert Glenister. They are two northern brothers who have moved to London. Davison’s Brian is the elder brother and originally came down alone, but now finds himself stuck with Glenister’s Steve who followed shortly afterwards. Brian works in a petrol station and is keen to study and get on, while Steve is more laid back.

Having only seen them in London, we are gradually learning more about their backgrounds. In this episode we learn that Brian had to leave school and work, while their dad let Steve stay on. Brian remains frustrated about this because semi-qualified plumber Steve has never had any interest in education, while he is now trying to get more qualifications. As well as revealing more to us about the characters, I found it interesting that their dad needed Brian’s income for the family.

I’m not certain about the young men’s ages, but I think we can put them around their early twenties, and this means they were among the first generation to have had to stay in education until they were 16 after the school leaving age was raised in 1972. For lower income families, this meant another year of supporting their children financially and I’m curious how much impact that would have had. Certainly, parents expect to support their children at home far longer in the 21st century. In 1980/81, only 42% of 16-year-olds were staying in full time education. By 2011, shortly before the leaving age began to be gradually raised to 18, this had increased to 86%. While there are numerous other factors involved, I wonder how much the stability of families’ finances had an impact on this?

Another aspect of the lads’ background that comes into this is that we discover their mother left them when they were very young. Steve doesn’t remember her at all but has found a former address for her in Croydon. Absent fathers are a much more common theme to explore so this makes a nice change. We never end up getting to meet her in this episode and I wonder if she will pop up in the future.

I’m intrigued to see more of Sink or Swim because while its three series did well, it may have ended due to the increasing success of another BBC sitcom set in London about two brothers; the first episode of Only Fools and Horses will be broadcast next month.

Return of the Saint ‘The Obono Affair’

This is a repeat of an episode first broadcast in 1979 and you might never guess if it wasn’t for a giant sign saying, ‘Welcome to Britain in Jubilee Year!’ As the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year was 1977, the episode was already dated by the original broadcast anyway.

I watched the original Saint when I visited 1965 and it has been off air for a while now. I’m very fond of Roger Moore’s incarnation of this most gentlemanly of action heroes, which is partly why I have long put off spending any time with his successor. I had sat down with the first episode some time ago and wasn’t particularly keen; the story was weak and new star Ian Ogilvy didn’t seem to get the chance to shine.

I have been lucky enough to enjoy a fantastic range of other ITC series for Back in Time For TV including Danger Man, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Persuaders! I’m much less familiar with the 1970s’ ITC shows and they don’t have a fantastic reputation. Following on from my last episode of Return of the Saint, I had low expectations, yet I’m delighted to say I really enjoyed ‘The Obono Affair’.

The biggest thing the new Saint has over the original is its location filming. Our 1970s’ Simon Templar breezes through locations and in fact nothing looks like it has been filmed in a studio. Most 1960s’ ITC series considered themselves lucky enough to enter Elstree Studios’ grounds and any other ‘location’ filming was confined to stock footage at the opening of an episode.

I’ve previously written about what a difference this location filming made to the realism of programmes like Special Branch and The Sweeney. Simon Templar is not of the brash, dirty world that those series seek to inhabit, so it’s not seeking that. In this episode Return of the Saint provides a mixture of more glamorous houses and hotels, as well as a step into the murkier places that our villains have to flirt with. The show could have so easily chosen to cross the line into ‘gritty’ in an attempt to bring Simon Templar up to date. It would have been wrong because while each episode will usually have a villain, the television Saint does not always feature villains in The Sweeney‘s sense; unlike Regan and co., Simon does not have to battle hardened and violent career criminals every week.

Although I’d initially been reticent about the show overall, I did not dislike Ian Ogilvy’s Saint just because he wasn’t Roger Moore and following ‘The Obono Affair’, I actually like him. He seems young and modern and his flares tell us he is a man of his era. He also does a decent enough job of delivering the more humorous lines. Visiting someone, his companion asks, “Shall I break his arm?” to which Simon quickly replies, “Oh no, don’t do that! He’s a masochist – he’ll enjoy it.”

While the series does seem up to date, the episode is based around the President of a made-up African country with political issues. Variations on this theme appeared across the 1960s’ adventure series so this plot feels like an excellent way of maintaining that connection.

The cast for ‘The Obono Affair’ was a cracking game of actor spotting. Another 1960s’ connection is Derek Newark, who appeared in The Saint, Man in a Suitcase and The Champions. There’s Jerome Willis, who I saw in 1980 in The Sandbaggers, and Robert Gillespie, who also appeared in an original Saint and I’ve enjoyed as an excellent deadpan police officer in Robin’s Nest. One uncredited role is played by Paul Barber, who would become most familiar to viewers in a couple of years’ time for his role as Denzil in Only Fools and Horses.

Had I been viewing this as a child, the character who would have most stayed in my memory (apart from the Saint of course) would be Rose, played by Marjie Lawrence. Tasked with looking after the President’s kidnapped son, she’s creepy in a child-catcher type of way. It was rather terrifying.

10th August
Doctor Who ‘The Keeper of Traken’, Part 1

Some lucky people can watch Doctor Who most days at the moment as it is getting repeated on weekdays. I haven’t watched it as part of Back in Time For TV since the 1960s (1964, 1965, 1966, 1968), partly because there was just so much other stuff to see once I hit the 1970s. I began watching Doctor Who with the programme’s 2005 reboot but when I started seeking out more, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ became the first episode of 20th century Doctor Who that I saw. I haven’t watched it since and my memories are extremely vague.

Tom Baker is approaching the end of his epic seven-year reign as the show’s lead. He remains the Doctor for many. I’m curious to see this story because my young self never particularly took to him.

The episode opens in the TARDIS with the Doctor and Adric, a young lad who has recently joined the Doctor. We spend an awful long time in the TARDIS setting up the story with some exposition about Adric and the planet Traken. The Keeper of Traken is a shrivelled old man who comes to visit them in the TARDIS, basically asking the Doctor to help the planet get rid of some evil.

From my memories, the first episode of Doctor Who stories from this period are all about the setup, but I still felt this one needed to get on with it quicker. The TARDIS’s bare interior makes it a dull place to spend so many minutes talking. I was much more interested once we started to follow events on Traken.

Part of the reason for them remaining in the TARDIS is probably because there are so few sets for the studio-based story. Although I’ve always considered 21st century Doctor Who to be a family show, 20th century Who does seem much more of a children’s drama. The majority of drama seems to have been increasing its amount of location filming, but the children’s programmes I’ve seen always appear to have lower budgets. Unlike other shows, Doctor Who needed to recreate a new world for each of its stories (by this time, consisting of up to four 25-minute episodes), which means the TARDIS set is the only regular one. Best to make use of it when you can.

Once the Doctor and Adric reach Traken, they are soon accused of being evil. This is exactly what I was hoping for because when things start going wrong, people in the Doctor Who universe should always immediately accuse the new strangers.

Coronation Street

As with 1980’s Coronation Street, I again enjoyed seeing characters I knew from later on. This time it was Rita Fairclough, who I knew had been fostering children later while living alone. Here, she and her husband Len are looking after a young lad, John. He’s a very upbeat chap considering his mother is in hospital, and they both worry about spoiling him. Later, Mavis seems unsure about his friend, a lad with a red fringe. Having also carried on to the next episode, I was amused that everyone seems to take one look at him and his punk-ish style and think he’s a wrong’un. To me, he’s just a slightly rebellious teenager, still baby-faced and wet behind the ears.

Ken and Deirdre Barlow have just come back from their honeymoon in Corfu. It’s a sure sign that times have changed if folks from here are taking foreign holidays.

Brian and Gail have got a house sorted now and while Gail is at home with the baby, Brian is being swept off his feet by a wealthy young client of the garage. In between calling Brian a swine, I was delighted with the casting of his fellow mechanic. He is played by Christopher Fairbank, who will become more well-known in a couple of years for his role as Moxey in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

1th August
Doctor Who ‘The Keeper of Traken’, Part 2

With the cliffhanger quickly resolved, the people of Traken decided that maybe the Doctor and Adric aren’t evil. We get to see some more of Traken, which is mostly beige and other brown shades – it’s like I’ve never left the 1970s! Yet actually this fits more in the medieval style of the population’s clothes. We are seeing Traken’s political class and they are dressed like wealthy medieval people. The 1980s feel like they are here though as there are a number of perms on display.

Part of the plot involves a large stone statue, known as Melkur. One of the women on Traken has been entranced by it after it started talking to her and it’s glowing red eyes are a sure sign that it isn’t a benevolent thing. To ensure she will definitely be under its control, the Melkur hands her a neck bracelet. It looked like it was made of cardboard so I was impressed when it glowed red and couldn’t work out how it had been done.

Although the plot feels like it is ambling along at a steady pace, we the audience are the only ones who know that the Melkur isn’t all it seems as we have seen someone operating the Melkur from inside it. This tiny bit of intrigue is enough to keep things going for me as even though I remember who it is, I want to see how the Doctor finds out.

You Say

10 responses to this article

Simon Coward 5 December 2019 at 12:55 am

In a way I’m quite surprised only a third of households had a second television set by 1981 – though I’m not suggesting the statistic is incorrect.

The combination of cheaper and smaller televisions brought about by the move from valves to transistors must have made a difference. And the upgrading going on from the middle-60s as people first bought 625-line monochrome sets and then later colour sets must have contributed to the second-set count. When my parents upgraded to 625-lines in the 1970s before their old 405-line television had worn out, I was allowed to have the older set in my bedroom.

While television rental was, if not a thing of the past then certainly much less common than it had been, many people with video recorders in the early 1980s were renting them rather than buying. Although the high cost of the early models would obviously have been factored into the rental cost, it still meant you didn’t have to buy outright. I rented one for six months before purchasing it, though at that point I still only had a black-and-white television. It would be a few more months before I was able to watch my recordings in colour for the first time.

Sydney Wright 8 December 2019 at 5:21 am

“when things start going wrong, people in the Doctor Who universe should always immediately accuse the new strangers.”

Well that very much parallels the attitude towards foreigners and immigrants in Brexitland. Shortage of places in schools, shortage of housing, shortage of services from the health service, all blamed on foreigners (eg NHS tourists) and immigrants, all part of the litany of Alf Garnett in “Til Death Us Do Part”.

AndrewP 8 December 2019 at 7:29 am

Great to see you takes on these shows – particularly “Shoestring”, a show which I see as a natural successor to “Public Eye” with its string of varied cases that affect everyday people.

“Sink or Swim” was something I didn’t see much of at the time, but having watched a very good Alex Shearer script in “Slinger’s Day” (of all things) the other week, I might take a look if I get chance.

And “The Bill” is a show that I misjudged very badly when it debuted and did a disservice to. At the time, I think I wanted “The Sweeney” made on video (which I suspect I eventually got with “Rockliffe’s Babies”, and that wasn’t what I wanted at the time either). In retrospect, I see that “The Bill” is more like the rebirth of “Z Cars”… and really one day I need to find time for its delights in full.

So much wonderful stuff to watch. I’m glad that you’re finding it fascinating too!

Thanks for these blogs. Much appreciated!


H E Cooper 10 December 2019 at 7:16 pm

Thanks for everyone’s comments!

Simon – it’s interesting that you are surprised it was so few as I was surprised it was so much! As the majority of people had only had colour licences for 3-4 years, I didn’t expect so many to want a second set that was probably black and white, although I suppose several would have done as you and your parents did.

I think there would have been a few factors that started to prompt people to buy a second set. The move to buying rather than renting would have helped move it along as old sets like yours got passed to another room. Colour licences and sets would have been more desirable so as more people could begin to afford these, they could then consider a second set. I suspect the growth of video recorders and computer games may have then helped because one person could watch a video or play games, while another watched television.

Kif Bowden-Smith 15 December 2019 at 2:23 am

Worth remembering that those video recorders that existed in 1981 were overwhelmingly rented. There were some good rental deals from Rediffusion, Granada, Radio Rentals, Rumbelows DER and Telefusion. Buying video recorders outright was initially quite expensive and rare.

SarahJ 4 January 2020 at 3:52 am

If people had a second set, it often a B&W portable in a bed room.
We were quite well off, so in 1981 we had.
Philips colour TV main room (picked up Tyne Tees)
Philips V2000 2020 VCR
Other room downstairs: ITT Colour TV with remote from about 1977
My Room. B&W Philips TV cube with clock and radio (no cassette, that was the later model)
Brother: Philips Portable B&W
Parents: Philips Portable Colour.
All TV’s except the main one picked up Border TV.

Arthur Vasey 15 January 2020 at 12:55 pm

I was about ten by the time Chez Vasey got colour telly!

Colour televisions – and colour television itself – came into existence when I was about four – but we were behind everyone else – I was about seven or so when we got a telly that could get BBC 2!

In our house, the adults didn’t seem to grasp how the concept of “majority rule” worked – mam, dad, nanna and an auntie (the last two didn’t even live there – they were just left in charge – could write a whole drama about them) treated the household telly like it was their own personal feudal fiefdom and treated it like (for us) as if it was a reward for good behaviour – but – unless they liked the programme we wanted to watch, it was their choice – even for children’s programmes!

Later, we acquired an old telly from nanna and auntie that was black and white – kept drifting off – my parents – especially mam – had a rather bizarre sense of logic – mam wanted to watch a black and white film on the colour telly and we had to watch our full colour gore-fest of whatever in black and white – ridiculous!

F/FWD to Christmas of 1981 – mam was going to get us some portable colour tellies for our bedrooms – one for me and my brother and one for my two youngest sisters (the other two having moved out) – of course, auntie talked mam out of it by saying that we would need additional licences (not the case – at that time, you could have a telly in every room in the house and only need one licence) – ended up getting black and white portables instead!

It wasn’t until 1983 – three years after nanna died and two years after dad died – that we all chipped in and rented a telly from Currys and bought a video from Dixon’s – as we were all paying, both shops agreed we could do it – we made it clear to mam from that day forth that the choice of programmes will be decided democratically – we are all paying, so we are all saying – mam didn’t like being suddenly stripped of her power – but she had no choice!

The reason for us not having a video was because dad thought it would break the telly – it was rented, so he could get a new one) – he didn’t like the idea of some of the stuff he wanted to watch being on when he was working – but refused to allow a video in the house as he thought it would break the telly!

In those days, we only had the three channels – not the 27,000,000 we have today!

Robert A Levin 25 January 2020 at 9:40 pm

I was told in my youth that ENSA meant “Every night something awful”.

Glenn Aylett 14 April 2020 at 7:34 pm

My paternal grandparents had black and white until 1987, when this was becoming rare, but in 1981 was still quite common for pensioners and the poorest in society to have black and white as the licence was considerably cheaper than colour. Remember £ 46 for a colour licence in 1981 was a substantial amount, equivalent to £ 170 now, and rental was cheaper for black and white as well.

James Paul 6 November 2021 at 1:21 pm

In 1981 Blake,s seven was sadly ended

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