A Miscellany of Comedy and Light Entertainment Programming since the 1970s
Picture the scene: we have landed in the middle of 1980. Dickie Davies has just rounded off World of Sport with the pools panel verdicts. Emerging from the oven would be a massive dish of potato pie, with the table set for dinner. A jar of red cabbage dominates the covered table as does a jug of still water. Two children are waiting for Metal Mickey to start, though their mother’s potato pie could be ready before one says ‘Boogie Boogie’.
This could be any house anywhere in the United Kingdom. Back then, there was only three channels, and Saturday night was pretty much BBC’s stable. ITV, some may say, probably didn’t take Saturday night as seriously as its fellows at Television Centre did, though 3-2-1 would often draw 16 million viewers each Saturday.
If we transported ourselves back to the 1970s and 1980s, and looked at today’s schedules, today’s schedules seem to be somewhat lacking in one department: comedy. As with the aforementioned decades, today’s viewers – even with 330 plus channels, Video on Demand and YouTube are having as tough a time as their fellows 30 to 45 years ago. Inflation may be in single figures, and wage rises barely reach single figures nowadays. Today, there’s nothing comedic with mass appeal, and you’d think with our economic shizzlestorm there would be something to lighten the mood. Where are today’s answers to Russ Abbot or Bobby Davro?
The answer’s obvious: more channels; smaller viewing figures per channel; competition from alternative media; changes in work patterns; and – most obviously – the internet. The result of course making television a less communal experience. A sad thing, anathema to thought provoking conversation and shared experiences. Now we’re just as likely to watch our favourite programmes with a smartphone or digital tablet to hand. If viewing with Facebook or Twitter, a different kind of communal experience again.
It is only on odd occasions when we see 10 – 15 million viewers for a given programme. Often on special occasions such as the final stages of talent shows or international football fixtures. How long ago was it since a comedy programme hit those heady heights on these shores?
Other than Christmas, Saturday night showed British television at its lighter side. Today, its ‘lighter side’ has a competitive instead of comedic whiff exemplified by talent shows. Of late, an intergenerational divide and conquer fest co-hosted by a Bolton comedian; greater use of films where child and family friendly comedies were hitherto scheduled; and of course, the ubiquitous talent shows. And, what is today’s comedic concession? The often excellent You’ve Been Framed.
On behalf of Granada Television, this is Stuart Vallantine signing off from 2014… and please remember to switch off your set. Good night.
Schedule Restore, X-Factor ’79…
Shortly after Grandstand and World of Sport finished for the week, programming would take on a family orientated feel. Some of which presented by people whom back them we thought were unimpeachable (though less said the better about some of them). With a great number of children in the audience galleries.
Between 5pm and 6pm, this would either be a short variety show or a situation comedy. Staying in 1980, this would have been on ITV, London Weekend Television’s Metal Mickey. Once more, we return to our stereotypical early 1980s nuclear family. Our robotic hero is seen with a fairly well to do middle class family and a nana, played by Irene Handl. The five feet tall robot would try to upstage its fellows, devour Atomic Thunderbusters at a rapid rate and sound like a Daft Punk tribute act. Or Brian of Confused.com fame’s robotic great grandfather.
Though the middle class family had little in common with my existence, the silver robot made for some good laughs. It ran for three years and spawned spin-off merchandise including annuals, though sadly no Atomic Thunderbusters in the penny trays.
Sometimes, BBC or ITV would show an imported series such as The Dukes of Hazzard or The Man From Atlantis. This would sometimes follow a sketch show of some description. In the early 1980s this would include Three of a Kind, co-starring Tracey Ullman, Lenny Henry and David Copperfield. Another one was The Laughter Show, Les Dennis’ and Dustin Gee’s vehicle. Impressions and mild satirical humour would be legion in both programmes, though within reasonable constraints owing to children watching.
Over on ITV, LWT’s Copycats (1985 – 87) focused solely on impressions, with a team including Aiden J. Harvey, Allan Stewart, Bobby Davro and Jessica Martin. As well as the famous personalities of the day, they also sent up the K-Tel and Tellydisc adverts. Each episode ended with the team singing It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish. The formula was far from original, having been done by Who Do You Do? from 1972 to 1976. We have Who Do You Do? to thank for the rise of Freddie Starr, and it spawned a hit single: Billy Howard’s King of the Cops (1975).
Between 6pm and 7pm, we would expect to see a slightly irreverent family comedy in the vein of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Running for almost a decade, it sent up the 1978 drama Secret Army with devastating effect. So much so that one-quarter of Chez Vall couldn’t take the drama it spoofed seriously. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be the only comedy featuring at least one half of Perry and Croft on the writing credits on Saturday. Hi-de-Hi! was another – and Dad’s Army continues the tradition today – still pulling in five million viewers on BBC Two, no matter how many times they have been repeated!
On ITV, this would have been epitomised by the now politically incorrect On The Buses (1968 – 1973) and Mind Your Language (1977 – 1980). The amount of sexism in the former would be deemed unacceptable by today’s audiences. Unsettling to some viewers would be how Stan Butler (played by the excellent Reg Varney) would be copping off with females a good twenty years younger than his character.
As for Mind Your Language, the sitcom was set in an ESOL class with caricatured foreign students. Though much of the humour came from their attempts at understanding the English language and its mispronunciations, the characters and accents caused some grief. Suffice to say, it was ribbed on the very first episode of End of Part One on Easter Sunday 1979 as Mind Your Foreigners.
By 7pm, anything comedic would be slightly less childish. This was a good time for quiz shows hence The Generation Game and Blind Date being scheduled around then. Comedic elements would also be seen in family shows like The Late Late Breakfast Show, Noel’s House Party, and Ant ‘n’ Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.
From the early 1980s onwards, viewers would play a greater part in supplying the comedy. Pratfalls would be a feature of Game For A Laugh where one presenter, Jeremy Beadle would go solo with People Do The Funniest Things and Beadle’s About. The latter would be more enduring with its most famous prank involving an alien in Dorset.
His next programme would become a staple of Saturday night viewing, almost 24 years since its first launch. You’ve Been Framed was launched to cash in on the rise of camcorders and, in typical Beadle fashion, involved public pratfalls. The original episodes included an audience gallery, and voting panels. Today, it is often reran on all four ITV channels, this time with Harry Hill’s commentary. In 1991, it was joined by BBC One’s Caught In The Act, a short lived series hosted by Shane Richie on Friday nights.
Viewer pratfalls would form part of Noel’s House Party, probably Mr Edmonds’ high water mark of Saturday night television. There was NTV, where cameras would go to a particular viewer’s house, and they would do daft things. Other features included Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, which was akin to a confessional slot for adolescents. What’s more, celebrities weren’t above the madness that occurred each Saturday in Crinkly Bottom – enter The Gotchas – a bit like Candid Camera/Beadle’s About, though sometimes with a pink and yellow spotted alien called Mr Blobby!
Noel’s House Party had child appeal in Mr Blobby, but it became the programme’s albatross. Another programme which had a similar child appeal – and some comedic elements – was 3-2-1. Utilising the slot monopolised by one of Mr Cowell’s programmes these days, the programme’s icon was Dusty Bin.
I was never a fan of 3-2-1‘s comedic element (some of the comedians were as funny as piles in my view), but its mix of quiz, unfathomable clues and traditional variety struck a chord with its 15 million or so regular viewers. From 1978 to 1988 before (in the words of its late great presenter Ted Rogers) ‘the Oxbridge lot took over’. The third part – the McGuffins as they referred to the clues in early episodes – had similar tension as Deal or No Deal does with today’s viewers.
Time for bed?
For many 1970s and 1980s children, the end of 3-2-1 was a cue for bedtime. ‘Playtime’ would cease with the obligatory short ITN News bulletin. Unless of course they switched over to Paul Daniels’ Magic Show, or an Alan Bennett play on BBC Two. Sometimes, a feature film may follow – possibly a cue for viewers to go to the pub. Or, as was the case in Greater Manchester, time to tune in to Magic Music with Steve Penk on Piccadilly Radio.
Sometimes, the laughter would continue till many a child’s bedtime. The 8.30pm slot would be the preserve of The Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club, or The Two Ronnies. (For the benefit of any readers under the age of 35) the former show was set in a stereotypical Working Mens’ Club, though some special editions actually went to real WMCs. Headed by Colin Crompton and Bernard Manning, its aim was to replicate a typical-ish night at Lime Street Social Club complete with turns (singer/group/comedian – you know the drill – though on a greater budget from the long defunct Dukinfield institution).
Just to give you a flavour of what many of you may have missed:
As for The Two Ronnies, one of our most fondly remembered sketch shows, and one which brought a few comedy writers to the fore. It was a friendship with Ronnie Barker which enabled the late John Sullivan to submit a sketch to the show, whilst working as a gofer at the BBC. Then came Citizen Smith and Only Fools and Horses, and the rest is Social Studies.
Andrew Marshall and David Renwick would also cut their teeth on the said programme – and spoofed it in both End of Part One and Not The Nine O’Clock News (as The Two Quasimodos and The Two Ninnies respectively).
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Have We Stopped Laughing?
I don’t dig the Saturday night television of the 21st century as you can tell from this doggerel. The will to entertain seems to have disappeared in pursuit of profit, competition and fake adulation. For klaxon’s sake, it is a Saturday; people who have seen their footballing side lose again need to entertained; no child is able to have some elementary grasp of their surroundings without gentle satire. Where are the impressionists?
Time to get the scriptwriter’s typewriter out, then. If you think our television programming has suffered a sense of humour bypass, feel free to comment. There’s a whole generation unable to understand a typical British Rail/Northern Rail weak tea or operational inadequacies gag!
S.V., 31 May 2014.