Back in time for TV: 1988 

26 October 2020


1988 brings more exciting modern technology in programmes, like video players and pagers. There are some old favourites in both programmes and stars, while a couple of shows look to push in a new direction. This week, my ITV programmes are coming via Central.


13 January
Girls On Top ‘Staying Alive’
Channel 4



I had picked out Girls On Top because its cast included Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. The ‘sit’ of this sitcom revolves around four young women sharing a flat together. After one of them meets a man in a bar, he asks her to be in his film and comes to the flat to shoot it, inviting another flatmate to take part. Although the ladies don’t twig at all – with one keen to recreate Gone With the Wind – it’s clear from early on that the man is planning to create a porn film.

This programme is a repeat but was originally broadcast in 1985 and camcorders had entered the domestic market shortly before. As they start to become more widespread alongside video players, anyone has the chance to call themselves a ‘director’ or ‘producer’. Only Fools and Horses also explores the use of camcorders for amateur pornography in 1986’s ‘Video Nasty’ and it’s done in a similarly sly way, with characters in both programmes being unaware of what’s really going on.

I think some of the humour of Girls On Top is supposed to come from the differences between the flatmates, but I found it hard to gather much about their personalities and therefore to understand exactly why they might clash. Shelley (Ruby Wax) is a loud American and an aspiring actress, and her volume compared to the others quickly became irritating. Candice (Tracey Ullman) appears a partier as she spends the whole night out, although the one we saw least from was Jennifer (Jennifer Saunders), who simply seems a bit dim with a tendency to mumble.

Amanda (Dawn French) was the only one of the four I felt I learned much about. She’s a slightly hippie, vegetarian feminist. She’s the only one trying to bring some order to the chaos they are living in. This episode doesn’t laugh at her ideas, rather, it’s the way she presents them in such an extreme way that dominates her character. She walks in at one point and, shocked at what she sees, exclaims, “Menstruation!”

Like the flat, much of this episode felt disorganised on screen. There is often too much going on in the frame and my attention was distracted; I’d probably have preferred more cuts to close ups. One aspect I did like was cutting to the footage of the porn director’s handheld video camera, which worked especially well for the credits, with the music occasionally pausing for Amanda to interrupt, having finally realised that they are shooting a porn film. I think overall the show is trying to go for a faster pace and there’s an ‘as live’ feel to the way much of it is shot, but its style just didn’t work for me.



Q.E.D. ‘Sheer Genius’



Tonight’s episode is educating us on the man who invented nylon: Wallace Caruthers. I was drawn in at the start of Q.E.D. as the narrator, Maggie Philbin, took us through a world before nylon, which seemed to be full of ordinary women desperate for it to be invented because they couldn’t afford silk stockings: “If you were a working girl in the 1920s, there wasn’t much glamour in your life – especially on your legs.” Watching this opening, I was expecting to be told about all the other uses for nylon, but that didn’t happen.

Q.E.D.‘s documentary style wasn’t what I expected as while there were some scenes of historical footage narrated, the majority seemed to be animated elements and staged dramatic scenes of Caruthers at different points in his career. His experimental process wasn’t easy and it took many years. I began to get bored of these dramatic scenes and lost interest: suddenly Maggie Philbin’s pleasantly soporific voice was becoming a problem. I perked up once Caruthers had finally cracked it and we were shown the spread of nylon into the likes of parachutes, opening up a black market trade during the Second World War. Yet as the programme is partly the story of nylon and partly a biography of Caruthers, we get a jolt back from nylon’s bright post-war future to a scene of Caruthers taking his life. Lingering on this felt an odd way to end the programme.

There is definitely an ‘educational’ feel to Q.E.D., especially as I watched animated molecules linking together, it seemed like something we would have been shown at school and the teacher would definitely have tried to stop the tape before we saw Caruthers’ final moments.



14 January
The Sooty Show ‘School Trip’



I last watched Thames Television’s The Sooty Show in 1975, when Harry Corbett was still hosting. His son Matthew was also around by then but he’s now the main human in the series. These longer episodes have a sitcom set-up, with Matthew, Sooty, Sweep and Sue all living in the same house. ‘School Trip’ shows scenes in the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. I always loved the puppets’ bedroom, which has two narrow levels. Everything there looks perfectly proportioned for them.

Today, the gang are going on a school trip to the Natural History Museum. There is lots of frantic running around the bathroom when they realise they are going to be late, which I really enjoyed. Sue is the only one actually getting ready, while Sweep simply stands around and Sooty keeps adding more toys to the bathtub. Eventually Sooty and Sue lift Sweep into the bath. This is done well, with Sweep briefly dipping out of sight below the tub, then reappearing as they lift him up, except the puppet Sweep has now been swapped for a stuffed Sweep with legs, which is the one put into the bath.

After the coach driver calls in sick, Matthew agrees to drive the school trip and take Sooty, Sweep and Sue around the museum with the rest of the kids. While everyone disappears off, Matthew tells us lots about the various things on display. The Sooty Show definitely fulfils an educational element in this episode and though it stood out a little for me, I imagine it went unnoticed for the target audience, simply coming across as lots of interesting facts.

As Sue and Matthew are the only characters who speak, I’m often impressed by scenes that only feature one of them. Sooty whispers and Sweep, er, speaks in Sweep language, which the others can understand but generally then repeat in English. It means they are essentially having a conversation with themselves, yet it’s performed so well that I rarely stop to think about it.

Matthew frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience, an aspect I like as it’s rare we get invited into a sitcom. I’ve returned to this era of The Sooty Show a few times as an adult and I still find plenty to enjoy. Even more so as an adult, and because the puppets are often childish, it feels like Matthew is asking us in to be on his side. Yet we aren’t and I delight in the puppets ensuring there is always ridiculous mischief around.

Bye bye.



The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin ‘Staff Training’



The BBC appear to have begun repeating the first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on BBC-2 between November and December 1985, then taking a few months break before showing series 2 from May to June 1986. Yet it’s taken until another 18 months for series 3 to get a repeat, although this time it’s been moved over to BBC-1. This surprised me personally because I regard this series as slightly weaker than the others. While the first two series had both been available on video for several years by this point, I can find no evidence of series 3 getting a release until 2000 and this is its first repeat since 1980.

I’m extremely fond of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and have watched it a few times, always viewing the whole show in order. Having watched it at different times in my life with different things going on, I’ve had the delight of seeing it with an alternative perspective each time. Viewing this one episode in isolation gave me another one.

Reggie has already been through a couple of failed attempts at escaping his monotonous middle-class, middle-aged life in middle-management. Now, he has decided to open up his home as a wellness retreat, allowing guests to pay whatever they want. As employees, he’s recruited his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and several former colleagues. In this episode, he also brings in his brother-in-law. Following some training together, they welcome their first guest, which doesn’t go well.

A lot of the enjoyment from this third series comes from knowing the characters and seeing them in an unusual situation. Reggie’s old boss CJ is assigned babysitting duties and has gone from powerful yoghurt director to nappy changer. Another colleague, Harris-Jones, is known for being quite reserved, so watching him trying to train as a free-talking sex therapist is fun.

The programme has a number of catchphrases and at times the characters can speak solely in these terms, which I’ve always found an efficient way of managing the scenes when so many of them are present – there are far more of those in this third series once they are all under the same roof.

Aside from Reggie himself, my favourite character is Jimmy, Reggie’s brother-in-law. Jimmy seems to try hard and always has grand plans, but the ex-army man has never adjusted to life as a civilian. At one time, he was organising a private right-wing army with an old pal, “Lofty”. However, Lofty ran off with their funds and as Jimmy’s impeccable organisational skills do not extend to anything practical, like food shopping (hence his catchphrase: “Bit of a cock-up on the catering front”), Reggie’s idea to bring him into their commune to organise good community deeds seems perfect. He has soon mounted litter patrols around the neighbourhood.

After Reggie gets a visit from a couple of unhappy neighbours, he decides to encourage them to move by getting his staff to pose as people from India, Jamaica and the southern US while making enquiries at houses for sale. I had not recalled that this episode features several characters blacking-up and it took me by surprise. Both the accents and stereotypes are heavy. I did like the fact that Reggie knew enough about his neighbourhood to guess the one thing guaranteed to encourage them to move (thus enabling him to cheaply acquire additional houses for the retreat).

Obviously the execution is uncomfortable – and I have wondered whether I don’t recall it because it was edited out of more recent repeats – but it is thankfully brief. More troubling for me was being left to ponder whether this means Reggie himself is racist – did he know the one thing that would force his neighbours to leave because he is similar enough that it would also convince him to move? As much as Reggie longs to leave the world he’s ended up in, by the end of series 3 we will see that he is doomed to return to it, perhaps because it is where he fits best.

So much of my joy from Reginald Perrin comes from Leonard Rossiter’s performance as Reggie. The series is based on several books by David Nobbs, who also adapted them. He brings across Reggie’s internal thoughts as voiceovers and monologues, providing many scenes that only feature Reggie. It’s often an animated performance that helps convey the strength of the character’s many frustrations as well as bursts of enthusiasm.

I was pleased at how well this episode worked alone for me, though only because I soon remembered what was going on. There aren’t many sitcoms that really need to be watched in order, but I do think this one works best that way.



16 January
Bob’s Full House



I watched Bob Monkhouse presenting Family Fortunes a few years ago and was keen on his presenting style, so it was his name that attracted me to another gameshow.

Once again, I had a ball with Bob. Like Family Fortunes, the show spends a long time introducing the four contestants with Bob prompting a few personal details from them. It has clearly all been researched and prepared, with Bob reminded of a story about his aunt several times. This might have grown wearisome but it’s apparent that the audience are all in on the joke as by the time Bob reaches the final contestant, the mere mention of an aunt gets a laugh before he’s even finished the gag.

It took me a round of the game to work out how it actually worked. Every time someone got a question right, they picked a number from a bingo-like board displayed in front of each contestant. They started with the corners but these numbers seemed to change each time I saw them. Eventually I had a facepalm moment when I realised that each person’s board was different because that’s how bingo works. After a round of corners, they went for a line, picking topics from a display board. Then they moved on to a fast-paced round to complete their whole board. At the end of each round, the winner gets to pick from a choice of three prizes and the winner of the whole board round goes on to try to win a holiday.

Although I was initially impatient to get on with the game, I liked getting to know the contestants as I picked a favourite to start rooting for. I liked Alan, who appeared in his forties or fifties and wore a polyester polo shirt that reminded me of an early Del Boy. He was cool and calm under pressure, though I’m still questioning his decision to choose a set of tables and lamps over a video player with several cassettes included. It would have gone perfectly with the colour television he had picked up in an earlier round.

Alan got to compete for the holiday, answering question and then picking numbers from a massive board that would either be concealing an asterisk or a letter – get enough letters to spell out the holiday destination before the timer runs out. It seemed a generous timer that only ran when Bob had finished asking the question and paused again as soon as Alan had answered it.

This black display board with orange text reminded me of older displays from train stations, particularly when it was used in the earlier round to show the different topics because these would change from time to time and we saw this change of words in action. Frankly, the board is big, dark and ugly and doesn’t suit the rest of the programme’s design at all, which is full of bright, light colours. Yet I’m not sure what else they could have used and the only alternative would probably have been to create a border for the board, which is already bloody enormous.

Throughout the show, the questions were a mixture of the genre questions and general knowledge like, “What is Mrs Thatcher’s second Christian name?” or “What does PDSA stand for?” as well as slightly odder ‘yes or no’ factual questions, such as, “Does a healthy dog always have a wet nose?” I enjoyed this mixture as it seemed to provide the contestants with a fairly close competition for much of the game, plus a reasonable number of questions that the audience can guess.



The Paul Daniels Magic Show



I had expected The Paul Daniels Magic Show to feature more magic, possibly performed by Paul Daniels. There are a couple of tricks performed with members of the audience. One invites a lady on to walk through a rope, while another had a lady and gentleman join him to move a crumpled £10 note under plastic cups. This second one went on a while for what seems a fairly standard trick, yet I did enjoy Paul’s presenting style so was happy to stick with it.

Other elements of the show included a dance routine by a Chinese opera group. It was interesting that Paul explained the story of what was going on beforehand. Nonetheless, I am easily bored by dance and even though I did my best to follow it, the routine seemed to go on for an incredibly long time.

The most enjoyable section of the programme for me was an American juggler. At first, he did not appear to be very good, but as time went on the realisation dawned on me that he was in fact an excellent performer who knew exactly what he was doing. His failures were all perfectly coordinated as he raised the stakes from juggling clubs, to pickaxes, to flaming torches while on a unicycle. What could have been a regular juggling act was added to by his persona and comedy. Almost the entire show is performed in front of an audience, giving a live feel to it, and we get all the startled gasps when the torches appear dangerously close to Paul’s face.

I felt I should have enjoyed this programme more than I did. I realised that several years of watching Britain’s Got Talent had effectively spoilt it. Even though it’s been some time since I’ve watched that programme, I came to expect short and spectacular dances and I got used to visually impressive performances from magicians, so this all felt rather pedestrian. Even Paul’s final big finish of making an elephant in a box vanish from the middle of a field failed to truly excite me because I grew up watching huge things vanish on several occasions. I suppose my statement that I expected ‘more’ from this show is better explained as ‘bigger and better’.

The Paul Daniels Magic Show does feel like perfect family entertainment for a Saturday night, though I wonder whether young families today would still enjoy it or if I’m simply a more sceptical adult.



17 January



Highway was another programme that grabbed my attention due to the presenter’s name. I know Harry Secombe from The Goon Show and seeing him out of character was obviously very different.

Grampian made this edition, and Harry is visiting Banff and Macduff this week. He seemed to take in a mixture of the area’s industry and culture. It’s hard to equate the show’s tone – regional news? Countryfile? There is certainly a ‘Sunday evening’ feel to it.

We watched a brass band play, visited the Macduff Boatbuilding and Engineering Company, who still construct traditional wooden ships, and also saw fishing nets being made by hand. My favourite segment was when Harry joined a local choir to sing with them and I got such a shock to discover what a magnificent voice he had. Harry also met with a psychologist to discuss a nearby hospital for people with mental illnesses. The doctor remembered being taken to “watch the dafties” who were led through the town in chains and paraded in front of the locals. He conjured up such a horrible image of something that had happened relatively recently, yet the one compensation was that he felt it had left him with an interest in how other people’s minds work.

I must admit, having no interest in things like brass bands or fishing nets, I found much of Highway rather dull. I’m sure there is an audience for these types of niche, local examinations, but it definitely doesn’t include me.



18 January
The Kenny Everett Television Show


Kenny Everett forbids you to throw that pie


I last saw Kenny Everett in 1968’s Nice Time, then hoped to see The Kenny Everett Explosion in 1970 but it was missing, so it feels like I’ve had a long wait for more. This is the final episode of the final series of The Kenney Everett Television Show and he references plans to return to radio.

The sketch show starts with Kenny descending the steps of a smashing silver set, introducing the show with a piece to camera about it being the end of an era. As he does so, he casually takes out a pair of scissors and begins trimming his nails, down, down, and it takes a while for the studio audience to all notice that he’s lopping off his fingers. He holds them up, taking off a bit more to make them all even.

Among tonight’s targets for satire are Australian soaps. I know that they had became hugely popular in the UK during this decade and have spotted plenty in the schedules. Having never watched any, this sketch filled me in on their clichés, which must have been well-established by now. Tanned and muscular characters, all wearing the smallest swimwear possible, showed hearty enthusiasm for beer and beaches. It’s one of the only sketches Kenny is largely absent from, though his paler, skinnier self walks through in trunks at the end.

One of this episode’s other sketches aims for Highway and it feels like fantastically good timing that I was watching it yesterday as I likely wouldn’t have gathered this – similar to Harry, the character sits outside on a wooden bench, surrounded by greenery. It’s an alright sketch that raises a few smiles with absurd references and a dig at British Rail, who always seem to be fair game for an easy poke. And then we cut to Vera Lynn singing White Cliffs of Dover, on an actual cliff. After a few bars, Vera is shat on by a bird and falls over the cliff. I roared and loved it, hardly believing what I had just witnessed.

Within the plain weird is Kenny’s visit to the vets with his invisible dog. I was delighted that the vet was played by Christopher Timothy, forever associated with the role of James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. But he’s clearly not playing exactly the same role here and it even goes a bit meta when he references his co-star, crying out, “I’m not Robert Hardy, you know!” I enjoyed his contribution to this sketch. He seems to be having a good time and manages to do a decent job at keeping a straight face.

Part of what I liked about The Kenny Everett Television Show was the effort invested in the production. There is a toothpaste advert with several scantily dressed women inside a giant set of teeth – I’m sure you can’t just find giant teeth in the BBC props’ cupboard.

Mostly though, I found myself keen on the special effects used for the show – often simple, but effective. The opening titles feature Kenny outside BBC Television Centre, where its ‘TELEVISION’ sign is repurposed as Kenny sprays ‘paint’ to create the show’s title. Other aspects remind me of the animation sequences of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with modern techniques transforming them to live action; we see a nun leap a ridiculous distance to put a basketball through a hoop, and random chunks of photographs disappear. There are a variety of shot transitions used, with us sometimes tearing through the last image into the next sketch.

This show was weird and wonderful. I found myself increasingly drawn in as it progressed. I was impressed by the way it parodied popular culture and enjoyed this combination with absurdity. I would definitely like to see more from Kenny Everett.



Moonlighting ‘Take a Left at the Altar’



Moonlighting has been recommended to me as a really good series, but though I’ve been intrigued by the briefest of clips that have popped up, I went in knowing next to nothing about it. I had had the impression that it was a sitcom, so realising I was in a 50-minute detective drama series instead was a surprise. I was looking forward to seeing Bruce Willis pre-Die Hard.

The Blue Moon detective agency are approached by a man whose sister was stood up on her wedding day and the groom now appears to have vanished. No one had ever met this fiancé but it’s soon discovered that he already has a family of his own. When the man is murdered, the brother is at the scene of the crime and it seems his protective instincts went too far.

I felt extremely pleased that I had figured out the real situation right at the beginning, even though I hadn’t quite got everything correct. I was right that the young woman was never really in a relationship with this man, but she hadn’t made it up because she was ill, she had done it to get her brother arrested for murder and ensure she received their entire trust fund.

I was expecting a relationship between the two leads that was similar to the will they/won’t they one in Remington Steele, but as we were missing one of them for most of this episode, that was hard to judge. Maddie has gone to stay with her parents and it isn’t entirely clear why, but she isn’t keeping in touch with the agency, despite us hearing that it is her own business. I remained unsure if it was shared with David Addison because, left behind, he seems to be the most senior person. She’s specifically told him not to call her, so I’m still wondering why she suddenly decided she needed breathing space away from work, or Addison. He misses her immensely and repeatedly desperately checks with the agency’s secretary, Agnes, hoping Maddie has called.

As Maddie is missing, Addison spends this episode with Viola, a less experienced but nonetheless enthusiastic employee. I found him irritating at first, yet when I noticed that Addison did too I had someone I could side with. I felt his disinterest when Viola has brought along a pile of “beepers” so they could pick one, however, I was surprised that there could be much difference between different types of pagers, when as far as I was aware they had one very simple function. The differences between Addison and Viola helped provide plenty of humour and this light tone was one of the aspects I enjoyed about the programme.

We briefly see one other Blue Moon employee, MacGillicudy, who arrives one morning looking grim and asks Viola for a light. He proceeds to light up three cigarettes and light them simultaneously. Agnes reckons he’s trying to kill himself quicker after his wife walked out on him. MacGillicudy is the only character seen to smoke, though I kept expecting Addison to light up – as he and Viola traipse around, staking out an airport lounge, he fits the image of a hard-working, persevering detective. The simple grey suit he wears in this episode could have blended into the dramas I was watching in the 1960s, so it appeared he was missing their habits.

For 40 minutes, Moonlighting was a fairly standard detective drama, then 10 minutes from the end it all went bizarre. Addison and Viola commandeered a bi-plane to chase after the murderer, driving it along the road then taking off to jump over traffic and finally smashing it through a building. In among this, Addison also broke the fourth wall. If this sudden strange tone had been present throughout the episode, I would have simply taken it on board, but to appear right at the conclusion took me completely by surprise. I like it just for being so different and unexpected.

I want to see more of Moonlighting so I can compare this episode to one with Maddie more prominent, but also because all of the agency’s staff interest me. Maddie and Addison obviously have a lot going on between them, but Viola and Agnes are a couple and we only see them together briefly in this episode, while I’m completely in the dark about the potential causes of MacGillicudy’s broken marriage. The plot was unusual and I liked the programme’s style – it’s rare to be thrown completely sideways like that. It’s great to have a detective drama with a good plot, yet, thinking back to programmes in earlier years, Moonlighting gives more room to the characters; the show doesn’t end when their case does – we get another five minutes to spend on the ongoing plot between them.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Westy 26 October 2020 at 12:51 pm

The ‘missing ‘ Maddie in Moonlighting, was down to Cybil Shepherd ‘s real life pregnancy!

(For anyone who was not aware!)

Martin Lowrie 26 October 2020 at 7:25 pm

I read an article somewhere at the time the series was airing over here Cybil Shephard was allowed to bring her new babies on the set. I think the article had a picture of Shepherd and her children taken on the set.

AndrewP 27 October 2020 at 6:48 am

Your cold readings of these shows are just wonderful. Sometimes they reaffirm my own memories of watching them at the time, sometimes they makes me want to re-visit and re-evaluate myself, and sometimes they give me a totally new take on something that I felt I was overly familiar with.

How lovely to see somebody dropping in on shows like “QED” and “Highway”. That’s the really lovely thing about these pieces – it’s *never* just a line-up of the usual suspects.

And I do hope that you get to tackle a few more cases with the Blue Moon team. They really are gorgeously all over the place, trying to have fun and do something new; even when it doesn’t quite work, you always admire them for trying.

Thanks as always.


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