Thursday, 9 June 2011

Whatever Happened to the Future?

Television of the 1970s is ascribed all manner of stereotypical traits, most of which, on close inspection, turn out to be false, or at least no more prevalent than they have been at any other time. One that does stand up to scrutiny is the decade's obsession with the future. From current affairs through drama to sitcom, everyone seemed to be constantly looking ahead.

It's perhaps no coincidence that The Future had its heyday on TV about the same time as nostalgia really took off. Looks Familiar, that titan of mid-afternoon pre-war showbiz reminiscence, launched as part of ITV's daytime schedule in October 1972 (along with Emmerdale Farm, Crown Court and, best of all, a chat show hosted by John Junkin called, simply, Junkin). It proved to be a massive hit. Less than a year later, novelist Kingsley Amis was invited by the TV Times to muse on how the Denis Nordens of the year 2000 would look back fondly on 1973. Inevitably, Kingsley's future is almost perfectly wrong, hung up as it is on Soviet preoccupations, giving a year 2000 where the USSR has reached Dunkirk and people are wistful about the long lost days of international air travel and estate agents. There's a smidgen of truth in the idolisation of the Bond films as representatives of an era where “you could get away with that sort of thing”, even if their trashing as “politically undesirable” is only in the minds of their nuttier fans.

Elsewhere, “David Frost survives” - check; and “Germaine Greer is thought of more as a historical character, remembered for her part in the events of April 1, 1984, when the Prime Minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, finally conceded all the demands of women's lib.” That sentence must have been written over a line of empty tumblers in a particularly well-appointed snug bar. His sign off, dolefully acknowledging that “the last few churches are all museums” is nearer the mark, but just reminds you how much religion there was on the telly in the 1970s: Sunday mornings, over an hour on Sunday evenings (including Stars on Sunday, natch) and many and varied bishop debates in the week after the late news, including the Pythonically-titled Argument.

It's a shame, then, they didn't let Amis pen a play based on his musings (although the existence of The Two Ronnies' The Worm That Turned must be some consolation). It's an old, but true, line that drama set in the future gives the sort of insight into the times it was written that its council estate contemporaries often don't. Contemporary drama is playing on home turf, and can give over the tough, gloom-ridden aspects of the times with the kind of grit that would cost millions to reproduce these days, though they were giving it away for free at the time. Old visions of the future have the same problems in mind, but can't help transmit other qualities of their era, naivete among them. This way, even the bleakest predictive dramas gain a certain amount of endearing innocence, like an especially morbid adolescent diary thumbed through at thirty years' remove.

In the early 1980s British TV was, just about, still hanging on to its adolescence, willing to go for the weird and wonderful where today's channels would prefer to play safe. One symptom of this was its undimmed appetite for staging big, daft science fiction plays masquerading as “a harrowing vision of things to come”. The audience for these was often adolescent too: the mix of hectoring sociology and Bacofoil fantasy was too rich for the grown-up graduates of Days of Hope and associated doses of unadorned reality, but give a play's billing the tell-tale phrases “nuclear”, “in the year” or “in a society where...” and you could watch the youth clubs empty as surely as the pubs on Dallas night.

The sensible adult viewer would have written off Stars of The Roller State Disco (1984) before even reaching those words. The self-important pun alone would have them flipping over. Things get scarcely more enticing with the synopsis: the grisly cycle of youth unemployment is brought to the screen as – literally – a concrete metaphor, in which aimless youth endlessly circulate a borstal-cum-roller-disco while being fed from vending machines and receiving bricklaying instruction via patronising government videos. It's strident, heart-on-sleeve stuff from Michael Hastings, maker of the sort of nakedly earnest political play that wouldn't get within a mile of Television Centre these days, regardless of its quality. Sadly, the quality of ...Disco is not great. Alan Clarke's Steadicam perambulations around a cavernous hangar of a set provide the main source of interest, along with Perry Benson as the defiantly un-chiselled romantic lead who refuses to compromise his woodworking ideals for the sake of an early release and a life shifting pallets.

The ending (which I won't spoil, but what you're thinking is probably right) is as glib as it is grim, but that's more a problem of the set-up. Once you've established that your protagonist's life is doomed to go nowhere, where does your story go? The Boys from The Blackstuff could contrast its heroes' various reactions to despair, and set it against the mainstream working world. In a sealed-off building in an unspecified future, there's nothing to judge against. We're trapped in one big piss-stained, claustrophobic metaphor. The play undoubtedly makes its point, but does the point by itself make a play? I'll stop you going to those youth clubs.

Nuzzling up to ...Disco in any self-respecting apocalyptic telly fan's alphabetised collection is Stargazy on Zummerdown (1978), a slice of town and country ritual rivalry set in the 23rd century, in a society where urban and rural communities live uneasily side by side under the benign auspices of a retro-pagan church, and trade relations between the two are agreed at an annual festival wherein village fete meets wrestling smackdown. Oh, and an onion eating contest. If ...Disco was a prime example of hands-on-hips grimness, here's a future full of side-clutching whimsy.

This is an odd little thing, even in the weirdo annals of 1970s BBC drama. Part of BBC2's prestigious Play of the Week slot usually reserved for the finely wrought likes of Langrishe, Go Down or Stoppard's Professional Foul, it's the work of John Fletcher, a historian with no previous dramatic convictions but a healthy interest in pre-industrial revolution England. As with Hastings's work, characters are schematic. Roy Dotrice plays a loopy, valve-soldering eccentric, while Peggy Mount gets to shout great rustic insults as one Opinionated Alice. But the majority of talk, as is the way with these things, gets put to use explaining and itemising the meticulously detailed future world and its workings. Delivered in sing-song west country burrs, this functional chat starts to sound like a lacklustre episode of The Archers, with the occasional reference to starships being built in Sheffield.

It's also a fine example of the studio countryside. Everything takes place indoors, with shrubbery wheeled in from the sides and lit with 5,000 watts in front of a sky blue backcloth. Only modern eyes, raised on years of hand-held, desaturated Cardiff street footage, have trouble taking stuff that looks like this seriously, but even at the time the effect must have smacked a bit of Play School. Not helping matters is the presence in the cast of Toni Arthur, though to be fair she does as spirited a saucy “I do declare” turn as the modest headroom of the script will allow. Perhaps as if to acknowledge this threadbare failing, director Michael Ferguson (a name to drop amongst psychedelic Whovians, should you find yourself in their company with no easy escape route) ends the final shouting scene with a pull-back to reveal the studio cameras and lighting gantry – a budgetary apology dressed up as entry-level Brecht. Still, Ferguson was a veteran of Churchill's People, so he knew a thing or two about the “cardboard spear” end of recession drama.

It's not clear quite why dramatic representations of the future, and indeed futurology programmes in general, whether starry-eyed or doom-laden, from Tomorrow's World to London is Drowning, are so rare these days compared with three or four decades ago. The end of the big time space exploration that ate up all those telly hours is probably a factor, as is the transformation of technology from something mighty and mysterious that government boffins do in the name of human progress into a fun new way for your friends to share their favourite pictures of the same cat. Maybe it was all just a phase for telly to grow out of. Although I wouldn't bet against Martin Amis rewriting his dad's article word for word in the Radio Times in the next twelve months.


  1. Re. religious programming - at some early age I'd misread a TV page listing of Morning Worship as Morning Warship, which stuck with me for some time. I never saw the programme, and I remained bemused by what the content might be until I finally took another, closer look at the listing years later, or more likely a couple of months later, I suppose. And even when I knew the awful truth, I couldn't shake my non-existent memories of the much better programme I'd assumed into being.

    I imagine the contemporary drama Warship being in the listings didn't help, because I probably did see that round at my grandparents'.

    Of course nowadays every punning smartarse on the web has independently concocted this amusing play on words and it means nothing. But back in the 70s I was briefly convinced that every Sunday morning ITV would broadcast something - no idea what - live from the deck of HMS Troubridge or equivalent.

  2. Dead right about Martin Amis. He really is his father's son - a once radical writer turning into a right wing old buzzard...