British soap operas broke new ground in the 1980s, one in particular leading the way in technological and artistic innovation. It eschewed the much-derided “wobbly sets” to use genuine, newly built houses as locations. It replaced bulky studio cameras with lightweight over-the-shoulder gear, freeing up directors and actors alike to give a more dynamic, documentary feel to the drama. Most controversially of all, it confronted issues of the day head on, including the casting of openly gay characters. And it did all this at half past one on a weekday afternoon.
Daytime television, in the pre-Kilroy years, was a more inventive beast than critics, dogged by vague memories of watching endless episodes of The Cedar Tree through a Calpol haze, will allow. ITV's various regions contributed some original drama for the afternoon slot, in between the bouts of cut-price period frippery and rural tweeness of popular memory. Thames Television's Rooms appeared in 1974, occupying a strange territory of its own between soap and anthology. Self-contained tales unfolded thrice weekly of the variously unfortunate inhabitants of the bedsitting rooms of 35 Mafeking Terrace, West Kensington. Downbeat stuff indeed amongst the Chalmers-endorsed soufflé recipes and Mateus lampshade conversions, but it was good for two long series.
Arguably braver still was Southern's Together, kicking off on January 24th 1980 with no small amount of hoopla for a daytime show from one of the smaller franchises. Along with Anglia, Southern always felt its lowly status outside the “Big Five” ITV regions was undeserved. This derived, in part, from the nature of its most popular networked efforts: homely rural fodder with a heavy Jack Hargreaves involvement which delighted countless viewers but enabled the urban franchises to patronise Southern as a yokel outfit. (The Express's William Hickey column was fond of covering any ambitious project emanating from Southampton with a blithe reference to “that bustling stationette”.) Some upscaling was clearly needed.
So began a miniature wave of increasingly metropolitan programming, which was to culminate in The Diana Dors Show, a late-night, open-ended chat-in hosted by La Fluck in a different custom-made frock each week, plus a million pounds' worth of jewellery. Together was rather less nakedly aspirational than that, instead offering some genuine televisual ambition. The brainchild of Adele Rose, Corrie scriptwriting mainstay and future creator of Byker Grove, it took as its manse Rutherford Court, a spanking new low-rise block of housing association flats in an overspill suburb. The cast bulged with the regulation famous names (Victor Maddern, Hilda Fenemore) and future stars (Sarah Greene, as a “flighty” 18-year-old hairdresser).
Initially, Together was shot three days before transmission, enabling topical references to Geoffrey Howe's budget and Chris Bonnington's Everest expedition to be subtly inserted into the dialogue, Drop the Dead Donkey style. For the second series in 1981, they made slightly cheaper but much more daunting alteration: the show went out live. Scenes had to be carefully co-ordinated, occasional pre-recorded elements played in, and fingers crossed in OB units. A solidly professional team under the aegis of Bryan Izzard managed to pull it off with only peripheral fluffing, even though the acting style, perfunctory to begin with due to the tight deadline, became even woodier as fear of live meltdown gripped the cast.
Technological ability proved, storyline controversy was introduced in March with the introduction of openly gay tenant Peter Hunt (Stephen Churchett, later the Mitchell brothers' solicitor in EastEnders). Peter shared a flat with Trevor, who was torn his affections and those of fellow resident Charlotte, leading to a pioneering daytime depiction of homophobic abuse. Choice phrases like “nancy boy”, “bent as a three-quid note” and “shirley” were hurled around Rutherford Court's communal areas. Southern readied the afternoon audience with some mollifying words. “Gays are now part of everyday life,” said a spokesman in the vernacular of the period, “but we are ready for a few furious phone calls.” The Daily Mirror forewarned us that “slimming housewives may find themselves choking over their Ryvita and cheese”.
As it turned out, no storm arose. Either the daytime audience was a lot less conservative than was (and indeed still is) assumed, or off-peak obscurity let the plot roll safely under the radar of mass moral offence. Rose would face sterner opposition thirteen years later with Byker Grove's CBBC gay kiss, but Together quietly chugged on for the rest of the series, doomed to die off along with its parent company as franchise upheavals replaced Southern with the even more starry-eyed TVS. It would be going too far to suggest that Together made the likes of Brookside and EastEnders possible, but it's worth remembering that the acknowledged milestones in TV's history, for all their virtues, are rarely the pioneering one-offs they're made out to be.
The recent news of a Camberwick Green missing episode discovery is something to celebrate, particularly as it hints at the existence of a nascentTrumptonRestoration Team. For those of us who love archive television as much as we don't love Dr Who, this sort of thing can't help but cheer. We don't have anything against the mighty Whovian industry, you understand, but it leaves us puzzled as to why one programme gets all the fanboy attention to the detriment of countless other, surely just as worthy, programmes. To redress this cult imbalance, here are a few suggestions for non-SF programmes which could, with a bit of capital outlay and a lot of spare time, have become serious rivals to the man in the box:
Troy Kennedy Martin's groundbreaking cop-in has to be the front runner for extended fan worship. Not only is it a bonafide milestone in British TV, it ticks all the right fannish boxes. Missing episodes and convoluted character histories are there to be traced in abundance. Weeks can be spent speculating on the precise location of Newtown. ("But surely it's Kirkby?" "Ha! A schoolboy error! Allow me to explain...") Best of all, the traffic of big and little stars that passed through the programme could keep a convention circuit in guests for decades. ("Bad news, Colin. Bellingham's dropped out. But Nicholas says he might be interested if we'll let him do 'Grandma's Party' at some point... no, don't worry, Blessed's rock solid.")
And the spin-offs! My word, the spin-offs. Think of the cod-academic fun to be had debating the relative merits of Softy, Softly and Softly, Softly: Task Force. As monolithic a character as DCI Barlow was, did he merit an entire series of his own? Then there are the wonderfully bonkers "true crime" programmes where Barlow and Watt re-open real historic cases as a sort of after-dinner entertainment, complete with period reconstructions. Is that canon? And if it is, what about Norman Bowler's advert for Mac Markets? So many imponderables.
IF WET: Bergerac. If only for tax purposes.
Bit of a cheat to put a hardcore soap up for consideration, as they already have fan followings of their own to varying degrees (although when you get down to Albion Market, the following can be easily accommodated on a single Thorpe Park log flume). If we're thinking practically, though, it's not that much of a struggle to take one to the Championship soaps and give them a hefty push into fandom's Premier League. What could fit the bill more snugly than Crossroads? Long and chequered history, guest cast to die for, and - here's the clincher - lashings of set-wobbling camp to help ease the non-adept into the game. The threadbare bulk of Kings Oak (apostrophe or no apostrophe? Thereby hangs a thesis) imposes but does not daunt. There's something here for everyone, especially fans of big chunky telephones looming ominously in the foreground. And move over Whovians, Crossroaders got the remake dilemma out of their system a decade ago!
IF WET: Crown Court: episodic adventures in which an oversized public service wooden box looms large. And the Fulchester connection can inspire sub-Viz speculative fan comics without end.
Sitcoms, with their spoilsport insistence on tightly-crafted, self-contained worlds with single figure populations, generally lack the plethora of woolly loose ends and slipshod lacunae that can feed a fandom for years without a drop of new product in sight. With Croft and Perry's finest hour, though, there's plenty to get your hyper-interpretative teeth into. It's not just about the usual unseen character speculation: Joe Maplin and Miss Cathcart are A-list offstagers, but can't hold a candle to, say, Margot Leadbetter's positively Waugh-esque unseen social circle. No, the devil here is in the combination of backstories lightly hinted at (Ted's quiet desperation to better himself before it's too late, which he often suspects it already is) and extra-curricular touches that lift the characters out of their stereotypical boxes (Simon Cadell allowing himself the occasional naughty half-smile in the presence of smut, before remembering his upbringing and sadly suppressing it). And for heaven's sake, look at the costumes! Hire a Pontin's for the weekend and the convention will organise itself. Not to mention the potential that sexually fraught chalet neighbourhood has for the randier fanfictioneer. We'll have to have a few words about the main character's regeneration, mind.
IF WET: The Likely Lads. Five whole years of off-screen action to colour in for yourself! And just who was Lugless Douglas?
Seriously. Well all right, a bit of rule bending might be required here, but what was the 'Wide team if not an extended, occasionally fractious, family, with Michael Barratt/Frank Bough at the head, a host of regional tykes at the foot, and Bob Wellings manfully holding the centre? The emotional dynamic is there to be grasped, don't argue. We're moving into the realms of speculating on behind-the-scenes events, so the usual legal caveats apply, but the Lime Grove posse's addiction to self-mythologising, from Barratt's ceremonial national rail tour to Stilgoe's songs about Bernard Falk's interview technique are ideal starting points for a faithful fanbase to take over and turn into a cottage industry or three. Costume potential might fall a tad on the beige side, although you could always go as a swingometer.
IF SNOWED IN: That's Life! Why not replace the George Formby impersonator with the Doc Cox impersonator?
What we mean exactly by the phrase “reality shows” is no longer clear. Coined as Big Brother took off, the new genre (or, if you're being fastidious, sub-genre – they're all game shows, after all) referred to the handful of large-scale TV contests which placed the daily life of contestants centre stage, and brought questions of personality into the foreground far beyond the usual hurried courtesies exchanged over the buzzer. (“Now Adrian, a little bird tells me you're something of a whiz on the old Rubik's Cube?”) In recent years, however, that definition has expanded to mean just about any game show a channel considers too big to fail. Most people would consider Britain's Got Talent a reality show, despite there being only cosmetic differences between it and Derek Hobson's staunchly pre-reality jamboree New Faces.
Classification wrangles aside, “reality” remains one of the first words brought out in any modern debate on TV's declining standards. It's a convenient, universal shorthand for all that's considered moribund about modern programming: vulgar, derivative, producer-led, manipulative, money-grubbing. And while recent turns in the fortunes of various reality flagships have suggested that this genre is a fossil fuel increasingly close to being mined out, it's worth remembering that this debate has happened before.
In the early 1980s, the main issue was the scale of prizes. For decades the value of contestants' remuneration on both BBC and ITV quizzes was heavily restricted, to avoid the unedifying scenes of naked greed witnessed on US game shows. The rise of the “professional” contestant, as brash and slick as the compère, alternating between theatrical concentration when asked the question and gleefully applauding themselves when they got the answer right, was something we just weren't going to see over here. The Yanks even had a soppy-ugly word for the phenomenon: these weren't quiz shows, they were “desire” shows. Foreign language, foreign concept. We're made of sterner stuff.
If American techniques were off the menu, what chance had British channels of buying Ultra Quiz, a gargantuan Japanese trivia trail which began with 5,000 contestants and slowly whittled them down in a variety of increasingly cruel ways while touring the beauty spots of the Pacific over many weeks, before packing off the eventual winner with a “life-changing” lump sum? Such obstacles didn't stop both BBC and ITV representatives sizing up the format when Nippon Television put it up for grabs at the Monte Carlo Festival in early 1982. Calculators and napkins were employed to determine the likelihood of bringing an affordable version to our shores. “Maybe we could run an in-flight quiz to Jersey or the Isle of Man,” mused a BBC buyer. “I wonder if we could interest Cross-Channel Ferries?”
In the end, the show was sold to brand new ITV franchise TVS. Keen to distance itself from its regional predecessor, the rural-traditional Southern, TVS was quick to align itself with the sort of south of England viewer who was more likely to own a yacht than a potting shed, and Ultra Quiz was just the sort of big, loud, network-frightening entity which could help propel them into the nation's consciousness. A few judicious tweaks of the maximum prize fund ruling allowed for a top bounty of £10,000. (Soon afterwards, The Price is Right would similarly broach the agreed limit, but they used a different tactic: they just didn't tell the IBA.) Glamorous locations were sussed out, planes and boats chartered, Michael Aspel, Sally James and Jonathan King hired. The game was afoot.
On the morning of Saturday 16th April, 2,000 contestants assembled on Brighton beach for the first round, a mass “yes or no” marathon designed to sort the wheat from the chaff. The wheat would then board a ferry to France, answering more questions en route, with only the winners allowed to disembark at the other end. To provide a bit of variety, Eddie Kidd and assorted military men performed impressive stunts, Russell Grant competed with a “computer boffin” to predict who would make it to the next stage, Sally James wore a jumpsuit accessorised with a Panama hat, and Jonathan King shouted encouraging things like “He's got brain power packed in his head!”
Even the capable hands of Aspel failed to make that lot gel. As the quiz ambled from exotic location to exotic location (and, for the final, back home to Southampton), viewers dropped out faster than the contestants, and derision multiplied by the week. Even TVS controller Michael Blakstad had to admit the programme had been “quite awful”. Stuck with a costly dodo, TVS had a choice: silently bin it in favour of something nice and cheap with Fred Dinenage, or fiddle with the details and launch a second series. Stubbornly determined to prove themselves the equals of Granada and Thames, they went for the latter option.
The 1984 series of Ultra Quiz is the one most people tend to remember. Fronted by David Frost (“Hello, good evening, and a thousand welcomes!”), assisted by his TW3 compadre, the great Willie Rushton, it held together slightly more convincingly than the first incarnation, helped in no small measure by Frost's legendary connections. (When the owners of Leeds Castle refused to host the final there, fearing the large-scale silliness might dent its image, Frost secured the use of Arundel Castle instead, mainly by dint of being the son-in-law of its owner, the Duke of Norfolk.)
Despite Frost's mollifying assurance that the UK Ultra Quiz was “as different from the Japanese as karate is from cricket,” similarities with the cruel daftness of the original remained. On the beach at Deauville, twenty-eight contestants were buried up to their necks in sand, with balloons attached to strings held between their teeth, the release of which would constitute their answers to questions. Rushton, perhaps not the best choice of signing for a programme that relied on taking stupidity seriously, observed that the losing contestants, when they were dug out of their pit, looked positively relieved to be out of the running.
On went the circus, with a characteristic mix of jet-set glamour and Game for a Laugh buffoonery. In Paris, the remaining hopefuls were ushered into a high class perfumery, blindfolded, and asked to identify a series of increasingly rancid smells, under the watchful eye of TV production legend (and, appropriately, It's a Knockout instigator) Major Barney Colehan. Then came Bruges, a tour of California, and back to Arundel. Ratings this time held up pretty well – touching ten million in late August, despite stiff competition from the LA Olympics on the BBC – but then they had to. With a budget of over £600,000, TVS had a lot more than their fledgling reputation riding on Ultra Quiz. So when questions of decency arose, they were ready to tackle them.
Matters came to a head in a debate at the 1984 Edinburgh Television Festival, chaired by one D Frost. Putting the case that ITV's mania for game shows lowered standards was Jim Moir, BBC Head of Light Entertainment (the genre considered most directly threatened by the new wave). Price is Right producer William G Stewart put the case for the defence, cannily pointing out that ITV's ratio of quizzes to LE shows was the same in '84 as it had been in the “golden age” of '68. More vocal still was LWT director of programmes John Birt, who unsettled the audience by insisting the anti-game show agenda was a case of middle class snobbery. “Is the BBC interested in entertaining the working class?” he demanded. The names may have changed, but today's arguments over “reality” shows run on exactly the same lines as the “desire” show debate.
Ultra Quiz, meanwhile, plugged away for another year. Ultra Quiz '85 heralded yet another clearout of personnel. This time the master of ceremonies was Stu Francis, who, despite having “nice legs for shorts” as one reviewer sweetly put it, was indicative of the downward turn the show's fortunes had taken. Locations this time were very much restricted to the UK, a tour of windswept beaches and crumbling pier heads more reminiscent of the Radio 1 Roadshow than a slick globetrotting mental tournament. Gyles Brandreth, roped in to devise puzzles, wondered what he was doing with his life.
The modern reality juggernaut is run on much tighter lines than Ultra Quiz ever was, but there's a similar weakness at their heart. The sheer scale of the programmes is forever in danger of being undercut by their inherent absurdity. It takes a great force of will to keep the ship afloat, hence the overbearing seriousness that often pervades the likes of X-Factor. By treating a random MOR singing contest as if it were a war crimes tribunal, buoyancy is achieved, but only as long as the audience are willing to provide the necessary hot air. Lose them, as Ultra Quiz quickly did, and the enterprise comes crashing down under the weight of its own triviality. Today's craft may be capable of longer flights than the TVS model, but there's no guarantee they won't end in the same undignified way.
Another Danish drama is to air on BBC4. But take your eyes off the knitwear for a second, and clock the wording here. “Enormous success”, fair enough. But speculating on the show becoming “an essential part of Saturday nights”, that's a different tack, and a clue as to how Borgen is expected to perform. It can't just be a reasonably popular programme on a minority digital channel. It's been decreed: this will become a cult.
The first readily-identifiable pre-packaged cult to arrive on British TV from abroad must be Twin Peaks. When the BBC bought it up in 1990, the broadsheets were filled with ballyhoo about the show. Earnest discussions on whether the show was Isabel Allende-style magic realism or po-mo soap opera predictably abounded. But the colour supplements also carried a new kind of puff piece – the do-it-yourself cult kit. Stateside stringers were packed off to Twin Peaks parties in Boston and Frisco, noting the communal aspect of the Twin Peaks party circuit, the Rocky Horror-esque penchant for in-character fancy dress, and the regulation chow provided: doughnuts, cherry pie and, of course, “damn fine coffee”.
What had (presumably) grown spontaneously in America was now being imposed over here: this is how you should watch. From the start, it was suggested, you would either be a demented Twin Peaks fan or a curmudgeonly dissenter. Any middle ground option – quite liking it, watching a few and then tailing off, watching the first half hour just to kill time before Paradise Club with Leslie Grantham – was vetoed. You couldn't “take it or leave it”. You must Take It or Leave It.
Fortunately, Twin Peaks was easy to take for a lot of people. Lynch's slow, brooding sense of unease combined with a revolving cast of grotesques to create a properly new style of TV drama, suspended midway between an early Werner Herzog film and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In – a neat, if painful, trick. Unlike an increasing amount of television even back then, it had the commendable arrogance to stride off into a wilderness of its own devising without once looking back to check if anyone was following.
To push them gently along in the right direction, there was a slightly more conventional detective story element to the programme, which, MacGuffinlike as it clearly was from the outset, kept a lot of non-Lynchian viewers watching past the first episode. And in those days it could remain largely mysterious to the end. The pre-Internet television world was “region safe” in the true sense, with only the odd rogue blabbermouth with relatives in Florida to spoil the party. (I vividly remember the howls of derision when an over-excited sixth former at a school end-of-term show smugly gave away the identity of Laura Palmer's killer a few weeks early. Shortly afterwards, a member of the rugby team who got his arse out on stage was cheered to the rafters, before being suspended for six weeks.)
Twin Peaks was, everyone agreed, a one-off. The problem was that it was a massively popular one-off, and that sort of thing makes executives wake up sweating in the night, after hideous nightmares about a mass cull of golden geese. The BBC, and soon Channel Four, tried desperately to keep the meter running. For a short while, they tried to force the issue, plugging every new US drama import with a “weird” sheen as a cult waiting to happen, before coming horribly unstuck with Oliver Stone's risible virtual reality series Wild Palms. (Look, TP-heads, even the name's rather similar! Wait, where are you going?) The Beeb were left looking like a flailing clown struggling with a blocked water pistol in front of a party of hostile, jelly-deprived children – a loss of dignity for everyone involved.
The millennial return of science fantasy to cinemas, and later TV, brought cults back out of the closet. The insane amounts of money generated by George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Russell T Davies sent commissioning editors scurrying back to their business models with Gold Rush glee. These weren't merely franchises, they were magic money trees. Let's plant some more! The singular history of their biggest asset, Doctor Who, should have told them something about the ungovernable nature of this sort of enterprise, but the top brass stopped their ears. The organic farm was drenched in fertiliser in the hope of raising a forest. Cults were, once again, being willed into existence.
Seeking a slice of the spoils, the rest of the media willingly leapt in. Broadsheet websites now thrive on a lucrative stream of clicks from easily-assembled “live blogs”, and talk up evenings of “communal viewing” for upmarket shows via Twitter, neglecting to mention that 30% of Twitter conversation in the UK is based on whatever's showing on the main terrestrial channels at any time, be it Homes Under the Hammer or an emergency showing of Futtock's End when Kempton Park's flooded out. Such pomp can arouse suspicion. The more Downton Abbey is talked up as a cult, the more the sceptical viewer with a working memory is inclined to compare it with Upstairs, Downstairs, the show from which Fellowes'sfolderol is a chip off the old block in all senses, especially relative scale.
The message is – or should be – that cult status, of the tangible, dress-up, readily monetised variety, is generally only available to a handful of select programmes within a few dramatic genres. The second message, even less likely to be heard, is that with a programme's worthiness of cult status, as with pretty much everything else, the audience will be the judge. If they wear the jumpers and parrot the lines, fine. If they don't, but still watch and quietly approve, that's just as good. With most television programmes, the only marketable asset you're buying is the programme itself. Not terribly long ago, if the programme was good, that used to be more than enough. It still should be.