Back in time for TV: 1987 

31 August 2020


This week in 1987 I went back to school for Look and Read and elsewhere got a good mixture of soap, sport, sitcom and drama. There is so much filmed on location, something that felt a great novelty 15 years earlier, with not a single programme I watched this week confined solely to a studio. It now feels less a case of ‘could we?’ and more one of ‘why wouldn’t we?’

25 November
Coronation Street



Hilda Ogden is in hospital following a car accident. As she’s become one of my favourite characters from this era of the show, I would be more concerned if it weren’t for the fact I’ve previously seen her wave goodbye to Coronation Street in a month’s time in what appeared to be perfectly good health. It was slightly odd having watched that in isolation to then watch this and start to see everything fall into place.

Hilda will leave the street to become a housekeeper for Dr Lowther, for whom she has cleaned for many years and has always had great respect for. In this episode, we learn that Mrs Lowther was also in the car accident and has passed away, so it appears that Hilda will also be company for the doctor.

This episode spends plenty of time at the hospital, including in the corridor and on Hilda’s ward. Coronation Street seems perfectly comfortable leaving the street for filming by now. Having seen a few 1960s episodes and then nothing until 1980, I’m left with a knowledge gap of what happened in the 1970s and when this shift really became noticeable. But I’ve seen other 1980s episodes filmed in pubs, cafés and other streets, which I presume are all local. Coronation Street is a real outdoor street that has been purposefully constructed by this point I believe, but I’m not sure whether its permanency enabled it to be treated like a studio set or if it required the usual resources for location filming. If the latter, I would imagine that, compared to normal studio-bound productions, it was relatively easy to travel and film at other nearby locations.



26 November
Alas Smith and Jones



This series seems to have a good reputation and I’m slightly familiar with both Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, mainly from clips of Not the Nine o’Clock News. Their own show’s title had previously baffled me but my visit to 1971 means I now know that it references the comedy western series Alias Smith and Jones.

We open on stage with men in suits and I’m temporarily tricked into thinking we may be in traditional double act territory – Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies – but this soon changes. Griff has decided he can have a stand in for these “boring” bits and Mel is incensed – “What the bloody hell d’you think you’re doing?” I could easily imagine such a situation between Morecambe and Wise, but Mel’s extreme reaction is quite different, and the brief violence moves us away completely. It feels familiar and cosy and what I know to expect from double acts until we are quickly guided off course.

There is a sketch that takes off police series, with a fictional programme of Porno and Bribeasy. It opens in the style of Dixon of Dock Green and even though I have never seen it, it is still recognisable to me, which speaks volumes about the lasting impact of a show that had already been off the air for over a decade by 1987. Appearing in this sketch is Garfield Morgan, well known for playing DCI Haskins in The Sweeney, though I don’t feel his appearance really works here. It’s a brief part and while the sketch is in black and white – clearly looking to Dixon‘s earlier period – The Sweeney was firmly in the colour era and has considerably different associations for audiences. Overall the sketch seemed to be trying to mash too many ideas together from and didn’t work too well for me.

Porno and Bribeasy isn’t a short sketch but it doesn’t feel as long as a couple of the others. One on overly ambitious attempts at home movies began to drag and another on Biro’s invention of the Biro also went on far too long. The Biro sketch lasts seven minutes and soon lost my attention.

Some sketches seem more representative of the late 1980s than others – the home movies one and those mocking adverts all fall into this category. Yet some still have a lot of relevance and one I enjoyed most was the Question Time sketch, in which each person described their general stereotypical actions instead of providing any realistic type of answer. Following a leading question from the audience on child abuse, one panellist says, “I welcome a subject where all I have to do to elicit a sympathetic round of applause is to shake my head in horror.” The one aspect of this sketch that does place it in period is that there is a union man on the panel, who adds, “Well I would go as far as to say that every issue put before us on this programme here is in some way a union issue… but this isn’t.”

I found the inclusion of the union man interesting as this type of vehement union participation in politics had disappeared by the time I was politically aware, and also because I had the impression that their power and influence had already begun to falter by 1987. With its multitude of industrial disputes, my time in the 1970s made me aware of just how far-reaching unions had been in British society, so as we approach the 1990s I’m curious when this will finally peter away to a landscape more recognisable compared to the present.



27 November
Look and Read: Dark Towers 9: Who Can Help?’



Children’s educational programmes have been a feature of the BBC’s schedules for 30 years by this time, so I’m well overdue looking at some. For a long time they were the only programmes broadcast on weekday mornings. They moved from BBC-1 to BBC-2 in 1983 so the channel has been their home for a while now and with BBC-1 launching its full daytime schedule last year this arrangement looks set to remain in place. In the schedules, these educational programmes are currently credited under ‘Daytime on Two’.

Daytime on 2Following years of classes needing to be scheduled around live programmes, video recorders mean schools can now tape programmes to use whenever they want, again and again. After first being broadcast in 1981, this edition of Look and Read had several repeats but this is the last one until 2004. Having only learned all this afterwards, while viewing it the clothes worn by the presenter and characters made me think it seemed out of kilter for 1987, so goodness knows what anyone watching in 2004 thought. Although in fairness its target audience of seven to nine-year-olds is not known for being particularly fashion conscious.

The Look and Read programme is built around the story of ‘Dark Towers’ so we cut between studio pieces with presenters and the location filming of the drama. The programme opens with a look at what was happening in the last part of the story, asking a few questions of the audience, often asking them to read things out. We then move to the studio, which is set up like a library, to learn new words and sounds. These segments are presented by Denise Coffey, a middle-aged lady who I thought looked very schoolteacher-ish, with well-set hair and glasses. Finally, we finish on a few more minutes of the ‘Dark Towers’ drama.

Denise Coffey isn’t the only one in the studio; she’s joined by another presenter, Wordy. I was rather impressed with Wordy. He has an orange head, shoulders and two arms. The head has eyes, nose and mouth, but it is also covered with keyboard-like letter and punctuation keys. Clearly someone is in a costume with the bottom part cut off, as Wordy just bobs in the air, and has been added in later. This special effect looks better than the earlier CSO I have seen and I’m not certain whether it is a completely different technique, or just an improved one. So I was impressed that we have lost the distinct coloured tinge around an object that CSO gave us before, but also that such an effect was being used for children’s educational programming. I had always expected these programmes to have very low budgets but Wordy’s effects still seem like something that wouldn’t have been cheap.

Wordy doesn’t stay in the studio as we see him go elsewhere with a simple black background to summon a ghost – a ping pong ball covered in a handkerchief – and he also introduces animations. These include Bill the Brickie building a wall while singing about building words – some + thing and every + one – as well as Dog Detective, who sniffs out clues. Today we see him sniffing around a sentence with a blanked-out word, while a song says that if we don’t know a word, we should have a go at guessing it. While some of the studio and animation segments do relate to ‘Dark Towers’, like focussing on ‘tr-‘ or ‘th-‘ words from the story, there are others that don’t seem specifically tailored for it; ‘building words’ uses such general words that it could probably be attached to any story.

The ‘Dark Towers’ drama sees two teenagers, Edward and Tracy, looking for a gold-covered book that is hidden somewhere in Dark Towers, a large stately-looking home. Edward’s father is Lord Dark, so it is presumably his home. At this point in the story, Tracy has been kidnapped and Edward is still at Dark Towers where there are some villains also after the valuable book. Edward has been getting some clues from the Friendly Ghost, an old man in a nightshirt who tries to summon the Tall Knight.

There have been two editions of Look and Read: ‘Dark Towers’ each week, so I also went on to watch the episode from 1st December, which is the final part of the story: ‘The Last Laugh’. Following the final episode there is an image of ‘Dark Towers’ booklets and a voiceover telling teachers they can telephone a number on-screen to order materials. I enjoyed both these parts of the story and while only a few minutes each, the 10 parts would join together to make a good 50-60 minute drama.

There are faces to spot among the cast with one of the villains played by Christopher Biggins and another by Juliet Hammond (here as Hammond-Hill), who played Natalie in Secret Army, though I recognised her from Only Fools and Horses ‘Yesterday Never Comes’. Playing Lord Dark was David Collings, who I saw as Silver in Sapphire and Steel when I visited 1981. I felt I recognised the voice but not the face of Edward, though there is a chance I was mistaken; he’s played by Gary Russell, whose best known acting credit was in The Famous Five a few years before, but I know of him for his later work as a writer and editor associated with Doctor Who.

We are two years away from the introduction of the National Curriculum in schools so I found it interesting that the BBC provided a teaching tool that could be used across the country, presumably in many different ways, and I wonder what impact the new National Curriculum might have on these BBC productions.



28 November
The Big Match



I last watched football when I visited BBC-2’s first year and tuned in for the first edition of Match of the Day. Things have moved on a bit. Tonight, we are watching highlights of Tottenham vs Liverpool, although the listings don’t tell us that it’s this game that will be on. Presumably The Big Match is still affected by the same rules as Match of the Day, which prevented them naming the match being shown in case it affected crowd numbers.

The crowds look less jammed in compared to 1964, when tiny faces of children were all pressed forward at the front, though it is still a fully-packed stadium. As in 1964 the photographers are still lying right on the very edge of the pitch. One of the biggest visual differences is the amount of advertising the stadium has gained. There was none at all during the 1964 game but now it’s all around the edge of the pitch and both teams wear sponsored kits. The strips look much more professional overall now as previously they were little more than basic uniforms, with only one team sporting a logo.

It was an enjoyable television game to watch, in part because the number of camera angles have increased, and we can also now cut to action replays. I felt like I got a lot more detail out of this game compared to before. Being able to see images of the players up close and actually see what individuals looked like must have been wonderful at first. Another addition is footage of the management, so we are now able to see their reactions to events on the pitch.

I mentioned in 1964 that I appreciated how players just got on with the game and that was again demonstrated here. Early on, a Tottenham player fouled a Liverpool player and was sent off. The Tottenham fans weren’t happy, but the players accepted the decision with no real protest. As before, I’m left wondering how long this lasts before the top-flight game moves into more dramatic displays.



29 November



I saw numerous early episodes of Bread while growing up and was looking forward to returning to the Liverpool-based sitcom. Yet although it is written as a comedy, I would be happier to call it a soap opera.

Bread follows the fortunes of the Boswell family, consisting of five adult children who live with their mother, Nellie. They live next door to their grandfather, and their estranged father, Freddie, makes infrequent appearances. None of the children have stable jobs so the series often shows their attempts at making money while doing their best to negotiate the DHSS system, as well as their personal lives.

All the characters have very identifiable characteristics: Nellie is motherly, matriarchal and god-fearing, binding everyone together; Freddie is laid-back and cheerful, the frequent source of Nellie’s wrath for having run off with “that tart”; eldest son Joey dresses head to toe in leathers and always has plenty of money, though never says where it came from; Adrian begins the series as an estate agent and fancies himself an intellectual; Jack makes many attempts at wheeler-dealing, with mixed results; sole daughter Aveline has aspirations to be a model and is usually terribly overdressed; youngest son Billy has had to suddenly start providing for a family. While I enjoy all the family’s characters, I did always find Billy rather annoying and immature. Watching the show now I am more forgiving because Billy is still only a teenager, although it also emphasises that he isn’t all that fit for the unplanned fatherhood that was thrust upon him. Billy married his child’s mother, Julie, but it never seems to go well.

When I originally watched Bread I was surprised that all these adult children still lived at home. The perspective of age comes into play here as I can now see that while they are all adults, they range from late teens to early twenties and are therefore still fairly young. I can’t compare the present day with the Boswells’ 1987 situation exactly, but I can see that in 1991 the percent of 20-24 year olds living with their parents was around 40%, increasing to almost 50% by 2018, so at that young age there were still a significant amount of young people staying at home almost 30 years ago as well.

The most common reasons for people of the Boswells age to move out would be leaving for university, entering a relationship, or for work. University does not appear to have been an option for any of the Boswell children and I think Billy is supposed to have moved out with his child’s mother, Julie, but it isn’t going well. Undoubtedly one reason the Boswell children remain is that they feel a duty to contribute towards the household, with Nellie having remained a housewife even after Freddie left them.

The lack of job options is regularly referenced in the series and youth unemployment is something I’ve seen represented on television throughout the 1980s. In Butterflies (also written Bread‘s writer, Carla Lane), it has little impact on the sons of the middle class Parkinsons, whose parents can easily support them, while in Sink or Swim the two brothers have sought work by moving south to London. Brookside has already shown me unemployment in Liverpool specifically, where it seemed bleak. In contrast, one of Bread‘s main features is that the family looks for loopholes and ways to beat the system.

With a reasonably-sized cast, the show always has several storylines on the go. Part of that soap opera characteristic comes from these stories progressing across numerous episodes. I haven’t seen earlier sitcoms doing this – there may be bits of continuity, but there are none I would consider with running plots across a series. It enables the audience to see so much more of the characters, bringing greater familiarity, and the programme can provide more pathos, so we get to have deeper connections to a comedy. Bread isn’t the only sitcom managing this closeness with its characters but it’s interesting that it uses that soap style.

I really enjoy Carla Lane’s dialogue as it comes across as being very natural. Having rewatched a few more episodes after this one, there are some where little happens yet I’m still happy to listen to the characters’ conversations. The BBC must have had confidence in Bread as there have been two series in 1987, with series 2 earlier this year containing six episodes but it is now in series 3 and tonight’s episode has been the last of 13.



30 November
Simon and the Witch ‘Part 6’



I was surprised that this children’s show was only about 15 minutes long as I think it could easily have filled 25-30 minutes. However, the opening and closing moments made it clear that each episode is part of one larger story so perhaps it would become clearer if I saw more episodes.

Young Simon and his friend Jimmy go to visit the Witch, for whom I didn’t catch any other name. The Witch is ill and another witch is summoned – a witchdoctor. I’m a little concerned by Simon’s sexist attitude when the Witch refers to the doctor as “her” and a surprised Simon repeats, “Her?” The witchdoctor is from Africa and is accompanied by a gorilla, which proceeds to cause chaos. Simon and Jimmy are literally dragged out of the house by it.

Away from all this we see another boy, Cuthbert, in a grand house with his aunt. It felt a major bonus to have this mean aunt played by Joan Simms. Cuthbert’s saviour is the butler, who helps him beat his aunt at chess and enables him to run off with his friends when the gorilla has made it into the garden.

By the end of the episode the police have been called. I’m not quite sure what they planned to do with the gorilla. But it frightens the Witch and the witchdoctor who disappear with a neat special effect of a star shape shrinking around them, causing them to disappear with a pop.

There seemed a balanced amount of location filming but actually it is probably only a tiny percentage of the episode and there is a lot of dialogue used to tell rather than show events. We see Simon and Jimmy at the entrance of the big house’s grounds as the gorilla heads through, but it is the dialogue of those looking out the windows that alerts us to the gorilla’s rampage and later on to the destruction of the flowerbeds. When the boys return to the witches later, they excitedly tell a story of the gorilla stealing a traffic warden’s hat – something completely unseen, which I found an interesting choice, unless perhaps something was cut. While there are undoubtedly budgetary and practical reasons not to show these scenes, I think it is much better leaving them to the imagination of the audience as they can probably make them far funnier.

I’m curious to know more about Simon and the Witch. During the end credits we see them walking off, holding hands, implying a close friendship. We don’t learn much about the Witch in this episode. She has a cat called George, the witchdoctor is referred to as her sister, and when trying different medicines she dislikes the typically pleasant flavours like strawberry and coconut milkshake, preferring the sound of worms and viper juice. Simon and Jimmy have come to visit because she wasn’t at school, so is she a teacher, a dinner lady, a cleaner? How did they meet? The story would seem to imply that only Simon and Jimmy know that she is really a witch.



The Bill ‘Overnight Stay’



The Bill follows the work of officers from Sun Hill police station. I’m unsure if its location is ever specified more exactly, but I’ve always thought it to be London-ish, or certainly south-east.

I was watching The Bill in the early to mid-2000s and at the time I enjoyed seeing something so exciting that seemed made for adults, but was still broadcast before the watershed. I also remember episodes being two-parters with the second part broadcast on consecutive nights, enabling the series to include multiple storylines each week. With its broadcast time and the ongoing storylines for the regular police officers, it’s arguable that it merged into soap territory. The Bill clearly had a lot of changes to come as in 1987 there is one single story for this episode, which is self-contained.

Coming to it after visiting earlier years, it still seems like a very different type of police series to those I’ve seen before. We aren’t introduced to the plot through the characters – it’s the other way around – and the way most of the episode is shot, especially the opening, screams documentary. This episode is a long way from The Sweeney as all but a few scenes take place within a hotel, with a handful at the station. However, the show’s opening titles do show glimpses of greater action, so it would be good to see whether this episode is an exception.

The plot sees a jury staying in the hotel overnight under police protection. I have no idea if this is standard practice when a jury deliberates overnight; it had never occurred to me before. Despite being confined to one building, there is plenty for the large cast to get involved in. Attempts are made to physically infiltrate the hotel and messages come through about threats, along with one report of a juror’s house being set on fire.

Compared to the far more flash outfits of the Flying Squad, Sun Hill’s 1980s’ officers look much more sombre with plenty of plain and/or grey suits. Of course some of this is down to changing fashions, but The Sweeney‘s detectives often dressed casually smart in jumpers instead of shirts. As they had more cause to be inconspicuous, perhaps this is an unfair comparison to make. Yet others are valid – drinking on duty is not a given here and we only see one character smoke.

The greatest difference since the 1970s is the presence of women. The Sweeney‘s female police officers were lucky to make it beyond typing, filing and stirring cups of tea. Yet The Bill‘s women are part of the team on this job, with one acting undercover, pretending to be a hotel guest, while another clearly has some authority and is seen to give orders to male officers.

None of the jurors are focussed on really, yet they aren’t silent extras either, with plenty of chat to be heard in scenes featuring them. Sometimes it’s pure background but we do get some proper scenes that briefly give them the limelight. With the jurors told that some of them will have to share hotel rooms, one juror replies, “I’ll be willing to share with Miss Hines providing no one tells my wife.” Although the man isn’t challenged directly, there’s an awkward silence in which one older lady mutters, “What an unsuitable remark.” When we return to a scene with the jurors later, the sleeping arrangements are still being debated and we hear a man shouting, “I’m not sharing a room with a poof and that’s final!” It’s again the older lady who speaks up, challenging him face to face this time and saying, “You’re prejudiced!”

I found it interesting that The Bill chose to include these snippets. If society has recently moved on I would have expected that sexism and homophobia simply wouldn’t be included; including them to call them out is a much more deliberate decision. I say ‘if’ society has moved on because I don’t feel I know enough to judge. The reduction in sexism in the 1980s seemed incredibly slow to me and therefore it does still need calling out in 1987. The challenge to the “poof” comment surprised me even more as I’d expected casual homophobia to go on far longer. It’s left me wondering whether this episode of The Bill was an exception or whether what was acceptable on television may have been ahead of what was acceptable in some people’s day-to-day lives.

It isn’t all serious as we get some side plots to relieve us at the station. One sees a young officer stuck exploring law books when a man comes in claiming to be a bigamist, desperate to admit his guilt and get it all off his chest. Another even briefer strand comes from the arrest of a man holding a sex doll, with which he has been committing lewd acts in public. The doll in question looks rather similar to those later used in Only Fools and Horses ‘Danger UXD’.

‘Overnight Stay’ provides a few names of note, the most prominent of which is Tony Slattery. He’s playing a Spanish barman here but will become more well known once the comedy improvisation series Whose Line Is It Anyway? launches next year. One of the jurors is dubbed by what sounds like Robert Rietti. His voice is pretty familiar to me as he frequently dubbed actors on television, as well as several James Bond films – among others. He was often uncredited and none is given here. I’d heard him in an early Professionals episode but didn’t think he would have been working as late as this. Further investigation shows he had a very lengthy career.

Other unseen individuals are credited behind the scenes. Chris Boucher’s name is familiar from Blake’s 7, which I visited in 1978, and he’s again on script editor duties. On the one hand this feels literally a world away but it makes sense as The Bill is another series with a relatively large cast of regular characters, which can be hard to get right. It’s even larger here and they are never all in the same scene. However, I felt like there was a good balance between them all in this episode and I was left with some intrigue about their relationships as there were tiny moments sprinkled among the plot. Though I was less gripped by any in particular as individuals, it was this aspect that had also made me want to see more from Blake’s 7.

Another significant name on the credits is the executive producer, Lloyd Shirley. He has good credentials for The Bill, having worked on Special Branch and The Sweeney, as well as earlier series with more vague investigative connections like Callan and Public Eye.

There was one name mentioned in this episode that caught me off guard, when one of the officers tells another that, “That lot wouldn’t convict Ned Kelly.” I had never heard of this Australian armed robber and murderer, who gained notoriety in the late 1800s. I wondered if 1987’s viewers were more likely to be familiar with him. There is a chance that they may have seen the Australian series The Last Outlaw, though its UK broadcasts between 1982 and 1984 seem to have only covered Scottish, TVS, Anglia and Granada. Perhaps they had seen the 1970 film Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger, which had had a few BBC airings. Yet the last had been 1982 so both the series and film seem too distant from 1987 and maybe this is an area of popular culture that has simply passed me by but The Bill‘s production team were sure their viewers would know.

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