The thrill has gone
2 Dec 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2127
Broadcasting has changed a great deal since the 1970s – and largely for the worse.
“Hands up who watched Doctor No last night?” asked the teacher at my primary school in October 1975 after she had heard us excitedly discussing the first James Bond film to be screened on television the previous day. Almost the entire class put their hands up, a few boys whistled the James Bond theme, before the teacher asked us to write a short story on the film. Such was the power of television those days – the movie was one of the biggest-rated programmes on ITV in 1975 – that a school lesson could be based around a film that almost everyone in the class had watched the night before.
These days, if Miss Knight was to ask the same question, probably only five out of a class of thirty would put their hands up and, if she was to ask what else the pupils had watched at the same time (I think only one member of the class didn’t see the film in 1975), she would receive a diverse range of answers as the choice of viewing for most people is now far wider than the three channel world that existed in Britain when this question was first asked.
Not that I am suggesting that we should go back to three channels and everyone should sit through Doctor No, which does look rather dated now, because we did in the seventies, but the whole thrill of television has gone and the collective viewing habits of the past, except when England plays football, have largely died out. Doctor No, when first shown in ITV in October 1975, attracted an audience of 9 million households, as audience figures were measured then, which was nearly half the viewing population, a stunning achievement for a 13 year old film. However, such was the power of James Bond then, that the showing of the film was classed as a major event and even the rival BBC1 ran a feature on Nationwide profiling the character. In contrast the premiere of the most recent Bond, Die Another Day, only attracted 7 million viewers as most fans would probably have seen it on DVD or video, which was not available in 1975.
For all having three television channels, and only four radio channels in many parts of the country, does look very restricting by today’s standards, and indeed many of the programmes were terrible and very cheaply made, television and radio was a collective experience in the seventies. People eagerly looked forward to Saturday nights on BBC1 when the cream of the country’s entertainers like The Two Ronnies were waiting to provide 50 minutes of top class entertainment and these programmes were always the talking point in the classroom on Monday mornings. At a later stage in my school career a teacher was such a huge fan of Fawlty Towers that he asked two of us in an English and drama lesson to act out a scene where Basil Fawlty berates the hapless Manuel for some minor mistake.
Sad to say, there is nothing even approaching these types of programmes nowadays. I very much doubt, unless the teacher wanted to lose their job, that a class would be asked to play the contestants in Big Brother. This sick-making, foul-mouthed and downright boring show is part of the trend in modern television for something called “reality”, basically shows where “ordinary” people, or minor celebrities and faded celebrities, are put in a house or an island for weeks on end to see how they react or if a relationship can start. Sometimes these shows feature celebs taking up a sport like showjumping or wrestling or taking part in a talent contest.
Basically, unless you’re a voyeur or someone who has a fetish for watching celebrities falling off horses, these programmes make for some of the cheapest, most banal and boring viewing on earth. A week before I started writing this article, three reality shows were being broadcast simultaneously. I must speak for millions of bored viewers when I say I’m not interested in watching Sara Cox riding around a showjumping ring where the fences look too low, two people I’ve never heard of trying to pull each other at my expense in Fiji, and a bunch of loudmouthed morons in a house whingeing and swearing every ten seconds. With the world looking like it’s heading into some kind of conflict, I want entertainment and escapism. (Apparently ITV producer Nigel Lythgoe regards reality shows as the new situation comedy – err, Nigel, I’m yet to laugh at Love Island and the comedy in Celebrity Wrestling must have been of a surreal nature that only you can understand.)
Viewers are voting with their remotes at what must be the most terrible summer for television I can ever remember. In another display of braindead scheduling recently, ITV had the brilliant idea of showing Emmerdale against Eastenders, which saw both shows achieve their worst-ever viewing figures. Similarly the twin horrors of Big Brother and Love Island, which are often shown at the same time, attract only 7 million viewers between them, which is way down on previous series. The viewing public is now so hacked off with soaps and “celebreality” shows that audience figures for television are falling like a stone. Television executives seem to have basically given up on providing anything remotely entertaining or escapist and seem only to care that they get their huge salaries for producing rubbish that they would probably avoid themselves.
Back in the seventies, media moguls like Lew Grade, and Bill Cotton at BBC1, made sure that viewers were entertained even at the height of summer, which on the BBC was notorious for repeats. People might have grumbled at the stock BBC phrase before a repeat, “and now another chance to see…”, but when they realised it was a re-run of a good sitcom or a popular drama from the previous winter, would sit down and watch. Similarly ITV, while not as keen on repeats as the BBC in summer, would pull out a film like Von Ryan’s Express or an imported miniseries, which became very popular in the late seventies, to keep you entertained. I would think if Big Brother was to ever be commissioned by ATV, which would be extremely doubtful, Lew Grade and the IBA would have pulled it off the air and the producer and controller sacked and blacklisted from television for life.
Even the way television presents itself has become uniform and uninteresting. The death of regional ITV has seen a totally dull corporate logo that looks like it was made by a seven-year-old and a group of idents that, since ITV plc was created in 2002, have consisted of Geri Halliwell gooning around on a sickly blue and yellow background, a drab blue ident with ITV1 in big letters and, worst of all, the new ITV1 idents that feature people hugging trees, an old woman looking at a clock and other non-television activities accompanied at times by some ghostly music. Meanwhile a nameless announcer with an Estuary English accent introduces another terrible show.
Going back to the seventies, the main attraction of ITV – to Transdiffusion readers at least – was its regionalism, which was part of its strength. Apart from The Six Million Dollar Man cartoon series, one of the main reasons I used to buy Look In in the late seventies was to look at the ITV idents. Fair enough, I saw more than enough of the Border DY ident and the idents for the Big Five on the television, but I also got to know such rarely seen idents in the Border region as those used by Westward and Ulster. (The Westward galleon was always such a natty ident compared with the none-too-thrilling DY ident on Border.) Also it was always interesting to look at the regional variations in the paper and find that Crossroads could be scheduled at three different times depending on where you lived. A trip from the Border region to Tyne Tees could also see some sharp differences in the scheduling of programmes and also the showing of episodes of programmes: I can recall seeing an episode of Thunderbirds on Tyne Tees about a racing driver being involved in a crash and seeing the same episode three weeks later on Border. It was all part of the thrill of the old style ITV that has now been swept away in favour of a dull, homogenised schedule that means someone in Carlisle now sees the same programme at the same time as someone in Canterbury.
One of the reasons ITV was the greatest commercial broadcaster in the world in the seventies was regionalism. What the people who run the unified ITV don’t realise is that viewers in different parts of the country have different tastes. Fair enough, programmes like Coronation Street have a big following throughout the country, though more so in the North and in working class areas, but a viewer in the Meridian( ex-Southern/TVS) region is likely to have a far different range of tastes and political and cultural outlook than a viewer in the Tyne Tees region. The old-style ITV took full account of the fact that Britain is not a homogenous nation and, in common with other countries, has considerable differences between the regions.
Tyne Tees – where I was born and frequently visited in the seventies and eighties – until it acquired North Yorkshire in a transmitter change in January 1974, served the most working class and Labour-voting area in England, the North East from Stockton to Alnwick. Unlike a region like Southern, which was middle class and Conservative, and had a tougher fight with the BBC ratings wise, Tyne Tees decided to pitch its programmes firmly at the working class audience.
My late paternal grandfather was typical of the Tyne Tees viewer in the sixties and seventies: Labour voting, working class, a council tenant and suspicious of the “Tory” BBC. Tyne Tees schedules, until they acquired the more middle class North Yorkshire audience, were heavy with light entertainment, imports, westerns and war films, although oddly enough they took the highbrow LWT schedule in 1968 when Southern threatened to withdraw it. (Part of this may have to do with criticism from the ITA that Tyne Tees was too lightweight and there was always the fear in those days of losing a franchise.) This isn’t to say Tyne Tees was rubbish and aimed at the lowest common denominator, as their local programming was good, but the station knew exactly what its audience wanted and ratings were always high. In another development, and strange for a region that contained 30,000 miners, Tyne Tees opted out of programmes about the miners’ strike when the strike ended, in favour of an entertainment-based schedule. Perhaps the company felt that miners had seen enough of this bitter dispute and wanted to be cheered up instead of watching Arthur Scargill going head to head with the government.
On the other side of the country my local station, Border, which was unique in that it served two countries, was well regarded. Fair enough, it was always cash-strapped, it was parochial and rather stuffy; it did serve a very socially conservative and in many cases politically Conservative region, but this was part of its charm, still seeing a local news bulletin in black and white long after other regions had gone colour, as was its very basic but effective start up sequence. While other regions showed films of their region as part of the start up sequence, or in the case of Granada in the early seventies which used a countdown clock, Border’s was the cheapest you could find.
On many Saturday mornings, I would always switch on at 9.25 to watch the Border start up sequence. First off would be the Authority announcement, with the DY ident sharing a caption with the IBA ident, followed by a piece of Horst Jankowski-style music, whose name I cannot find anywhere, then switching to a bold blue Border television ident and the extremely rousing Keltic Kavalcade, a Scottish-style march that survived on the station for over 25 years. Cynics from more affluent regions might have sneered at this basic approach, or at the cheapness of Border programmes, but the local station was always well regarded and announcers such as Clive Champney, who worked for the station for 27 years, were well liked.
Champney in particular had a distinct Carlisle accent that was both authoritive in a BBC way, but at the same time friendly. He became famous locally for his wisecracks about the evening’s programmes. When previewing a film which involved a destructive car chase, he commented, “reminds me of the M6 around Carlisle the other day”, and also used to promote the evening’s programmes with phrases like “you’ll love this show” and “this one will appeal to both children and adults” when introducing the LWT show Childs Play. It is a shame the current crop of faceless London-based ITV announcers, whose attempts at jokes seem to be scripted and forced, aren’t the same as people like Clive Champney who always sounded natural.
While the destruction of regional ITV is the worst and most hated, in my opinion, change in modern broadcasting, ITVs greatest rival has changed for the worst over the last 20 years too. I used to watch ITV for the regional programmes, the idents and the start up sequences, with which the BBC never seemed to be able to compete (the 1974 blue and green globe and the bold Futura font was no match for anything on ITV), but the BBC in other respects had an appeal. Flitting between the North East and West Cumbria, where the local accents are strong, if not stronger in the seventies, hearing BBC English, which often only the vicar and the headmaster spoke locally, was a revelation. This meant the bright lights of London and a world away from the backwater of Whitehaven, Cumbria. BBC announcers almost always spoke with this upper-middle-class Southern accent and, in particular, announcers like Jimmy Kingsbury on Radio 2 always came across very well. If ever the shipping forecast was being broadcast on Radio 2, I always listened out for the clear and commanding tones of Kingsbury announcing, “attention all shipping.”
These days the BBC has drastically cut down on BBC English to try and be more “diverse”, although in an ultimate act of irony the closest the BBC has on television to a BBC English speaker is the Jamaican born newsreader Darren Jordan, who speaks it perfectly, when you would expect the modern BBC to ask him to sound more West Indian. Except for Jordan and some radio newsreaders, such as the excellently-named Fenella Fudge, the BBC now employs a variety of accents, including a rather harshly spoken Scottish woman announcer on BBC One, which makes it sound less authoritive and has diminished the Corporation’s respect.
While the decline of BBC English is one symptom of the Corporation’s fall in standards, its programming is no longer of the high standard it was in the seventies, although it is consistently better than its commercial rivals. Mainstream sitcoms, which were a BBC strength for decades, have largely disappeared and comedy sketch shows are few and far between. In an era of tension and uncertainty, the Corporation appears how to have forgotten how to make us laugh – a shame, as in previous periods of tension like the Second World War and the troubled seventies, the light entertainment department went into overtime to keep people cheered up. It is also regrettable that the BBC seems to mimic ITV formats like reality shows when it should be trying for something different.
Even owning a certain type of television when I was a boy was a source of conversation and excitement. Most people under thirty, who have grown up in a colour environment, will not realise that colour televisions, which have been almost universal for 20 years now, were once luxury goods. In Whitehaven, well into the seventies, the majority of viewers could only afford black and white. Whenever we visited my grandparents, who went colour in 1973, the highlight was watching their colour television. If anyone at school upgraded to colour as well, the black and white majority always clamoured to watch their set. I can recall a lad who lived across the courtyard from me whose father was a dustman, and on poor wages, whose parents saved up for two years for a colour television. “Here, Glenn, my dad’s bought that remote control Philips colour telly from Brooks, want to have a look?” he announced while I was cycling round the yard. At which point I raced across to his house to see it.
These days, of course, owning only two colour televisions would class you as poor. Even someone like me, who earns less than the national average, has three colour sets. In the seventies only someone like Elton John would have these many colour televisions. In real terms colour sets are vastly cheaper than they were in the seventies and colour has been the norm in almost all homes for 20 years.
Another source of excitement was seeing an imported action series. These days American television seems to have gone down the route of medical and pyschological dramas like Lost, and genres that involve car chases, police helicopters and guns blazing seem to have falled out of favour. In the seventies and eighties American action and police series were massively popular.
For a start, American cars were a lot bigger and faster than ours. A car chase that involved two Austin Allegros could never be as exciting as that with two V8-powered Fords screeching around the streets of Los Angeles. Unlike the pale blue Mini panda cars that trundled around Cumbria with their silly little blue light and weedy sounding “nee-naw” sirens, American police cars, with their snarling Detroit V8s, black and white paintwork, aggressive sounding sirens and flashing red lights looked far more glamorous and exciting when pursuing some villain in a massive car at 100 mph. At primary school, impersonating car chases out of Starsky and Hutch were always popular, and even the Chief Constable of Merseyside had to complain to his officers in 1977 when they started wearing shades and driving with their sleeves rolled up like the two fictional detectives.
In America the sun always shone, everyone seemed to have a car (when many families in Britain still had to use public transport), the houses were bigger, wages were far higher and everything seemed more glamorous and bigger than in dull grey Britain of the late seventies. This was the image that the Americans liked to present to their poorer cousins in Europe.
However, the reality was rather different: yes, the standard of living for most Americans was higher than Britain, but the sun only shone regularly in California, where most of these programmes were made, and the rest of the country had to suffer terrible winters and oppressively humid summers – and in common with Britain, the country was in a period of self-doubt and cynicism following Vietnam and Watergate and problems like crime and inner city deprivation, not to mention petrol shortages exacerbated by the huge gas guzzling cars seen in American shows, were far worse than Britain. Yet the likes of Aaron Spelling certainly were not in the business of portraying a cynical, downcast America to the rest of the world and portraying the country as a land of milk and honey where the bad guys were always caught, sometimes by three glamorous female private eyes, always went down well in Britain. After all, who would you rather have catching the crooks, scruffy eccentric Shoestring, or the ladies from Charlie’s Angels?
I think growing up in the seventies and eighties made every new broadcasting development seem like fun. These days so many new digital television and radio stations are being launched that these would barely make the media pages of The Guardian. After all, with many homes now being able to watch hundreds of television stations that cater for every taste, who is really bothered if Sky decides to start a channel devoted to Thai boxing, or the BBC launches a digital radio station devoted to opera, as so many of these options exist already? Going back to the seventies and eighties, and indeed back to the creation of ITV in the fifties and Radio 1 in the sixties, any new station or major change to ITV franchises attracted huge interest.
Unfortunately I was not born when ITV started in September 1955, but I know the huge interest this new broadcaster encouraged. It was totally unlike anything seen in Britain before – it had the distinctly un British feature of advertising – and as the franchises spread across the country, word got out to areas still groaning under the dull and worthy BBC Television Service monopoly that ITV was something worth waiting for, as the programmes and the novelty of advertising were so much better than the BBC. Also, unlike the London-based BBC whose regional programming you could barely see under a microscope, ITV was arranged around regions that viewers could relate to: a viewer in Manchester had continuity, local news and programming aplenty coming straight out of Quay St in Salford, whereas the BBC would give regional viewers a short news bulletin on weekdays and were made to feel thankful for it by the station’s London management who cared little about regional tastes.
My dad recalled when Tyne Tees opened in 1959. He told me that the station was a huge relief after having to suffer the worst of the fifties BBC, with its heavygoing Sunday plays and quaint quizzes like Animal Vegetable Mineral, and Tyne Tees made such an impact on his father that he didn’t switch back to the BBC for years, believing even after the reforms of the Carleton-Greene years that the Corporation was still showing the same programmes as it had in 1959. Certainly who would really, barring an intellectual snob, want to sit through a pretentious and very cheaply-made Sunday play when you had the country’s top entertainers at the Palladium “on the other side”, an expression I still sometimes hear older people use now who recall the old two channel world.
Similarly in the Border region, which was the last part of England to receive ITV, viewers in West Cumberland could sometimes receive Granada and would try to rig their aerials to pick up the faint Granada signal. Again, as in the Tyne Tees region, when Border, “your gay television station” (don’t laugh, this was 1961 and this was how they promoted themselves), started broadcasting, it soon achieved huge audience figures and viewers identified heavily with the station broadcasting from the county city.
Being based on the remote west coast of Cumbria, where broadcasting changes came late – the Caldbeck relay at Bigrigg didn’t go colour until 1971 and we were the last region in the country to receive an ILR station – any new station or change to broadcasting technology was a huge event.
Not many people outside of Cumbria will have heard of CFM Radio or would care. However, immediately prior to September 20th 1995, West Cumbria was the only place in England not to have its own ILR station. CFM had started in Carlisle two years earlier but the West Cumbrian frequencies had to wait. Prior to CFM, radio listening in this part of the world had become dire by 1995 for music fans: the local BBC station, Radio Cumbria, was aimed at older listeners, Radio 1 was going through its indie obsession that was making it hard work to listen to, Radio 2 was aimed at people born before the war, so the only other choice was the crackly long wave of Atlantic 252, with its tape loop style presentation and heavy rotation of pop and dance hits that was often the least-worst option.
CFM, backed up by a huge ad campaign on television – it was part-owned by Border Television – and billboard that announced “Cumbria’s best mix of music”, was eagerly awaited. CFM saw the huge gap in the radio market that the BBC was ignoring, such as people who were born between 1940 and 1970, and also younger listeners who were fed up with hearing the same records every hour on Atlantic 252, or the contrived new-look Radio 1, not to mention a few older people who were sick of the gardening tips and parish council meetings on Radio Cumbria, and went on the offensive to take this huge market of bored radio listeners. Using a seventies style ILR approach of creating a fun alternative to BBC local radio and appealing to a broad range of music fans, CFM couldn’t help but succeed.
I was a huge fan of the early CFM as it was a refreshing break from the other stations that were on offer. The DJs such as Hughie Mullins and Mike Charlton, whose Sunday night phone in became a local institution, rapidly became huge local stars and the station, which had an audience reach of 50 per cent, was the most successful local station in the country. As well as the daytime mix of chart hits and golden oldies, there were also specialist shows devoted to sport, dance music, heavy metal, country and occasionally classical music, so the station catered for all tastes and was a runaway success in its early years. Visits to local resorts and visits by the DJs to supermarkets were always well-attended and I must have been to several CFM “roadshow” events where the DJs tallked to listeners and handed out car stickers and mugs like confetti.
However, CFM soon fell into the trap of becoming bland and mainstream like most other ILR stations. Changes at Radio Cumbria, which has since become far better than its rival, plus a move into CFM musical territory by Radio 2 since 1997, have eaten into its once-huge audience figures. The specialist shows have been axed in favour of daytime music all the time and the new breed of presenters it used to replace the originals tend to be of the witless sub-Radio 1 variety, which makes the station annoying to listen to. Something which I and many others were huge fans of ten years ago (as it was new and exciting), and a music policy that seems to be “chart hit-nineties-eighties-chart hit-eighties-nineties” in the same tedious order, tends to be avoided now by listeners who want good presentation.
I was lucky that I grew up in an era when broadcasting was exciting, and recall how changes to our limited broadcasting world attracted huge attention and anticipation. I’m sad that I wasn’t around when ITV and BBC2 opened, and was too young to remember colour television starting, but I do recall the excitement and acres of newspaper coverage devoted to the changes to the ITV franchises, the start of Channel 4 and, despite the sniggering comments about its six viewers by Clive James, the start of Sky television, now a huge success, in 1989. Also seeing your family’s first colour television and seeing the first VCR, which the school owned, were sources of excitement, as this was cutting-edge technology.
Nowadays there are so many television and radio stations to choose from, and younger people can’t remember a world without colour, digital television and radio and VCRs, or more likely DVD players, that even if Sky opened another 100 channels tomorrow, they have so many to choose from already, that they wouldn’t notice and certainly even more choice would most likely mean no increase in quality. With so many channels to choose from, most of which are unwatchable drivel or repetitive – I can guarantee the same film will be on Sky Movies at exactly the same time for weeks on end, viewers tend to switch between channels for half an hour and then ironically moan, “there’s nothing on anywhere”, which in 1989 Rupert Murdoch claimed was the problem with the four analogue channels that the satellite revolution would do away with.
Actually when there were only four channels to choose from, the programmes were often of a far higher standard, relatively speaking (there were some awful shows as well), because there were fewer hours of broadcasting to fill, higher standards were expected, and broadcasters cared more about their audiences than simply chasing ratings or cutting costs. Since the accountants have moved in, and television has become a free-for-all, like the old joke in America in the seventies about there being “sixteen channels to choose from and nothing on”, we have hundreds of channels now with very little worth watching as there is so much airtime to fill and budgets are thinly spread.
I think because viewers have so many choices now, we have all become cynical and, since standards have fallen so much at the main broadcasters over the last 20 years, the thrill of watching and listening has gone. Plus, in addition to the television, if viewers nowadays are bored with the huge non-choice they have, they can always watch a DVD or video, go on the internet, listen to an MP3 – all options that were not available 30 years ago. People might call me old-fashioned, but I do think that when we had limited broadcasting choice, the choices were often excellent, like the regional ITV. Television was something you looked forward to and sometimes bonded with: regional announcers acted as if they were close friends. As I pointed out at the start of this article, those of us who recall the seventies recall the way a Bond film was a collective experience enjoyed by nearly half the population and talked about for days afterwards.
One final thought. While I generally dislike most changes in broadcasting over the last 20 years, digital television could have had great potential if it had been invented when we had three channels. I was thinking on the lines of the 14 ITV regions with their start up sequences, idents and regional variations being available all over the country. Just think of when you wanted to see how Westward started up when you were living in the Border region, or vice-versa, and you could see how it was done; or seeing the Sex Pistols having a go at Bill Grundy when you were 300 miles outside the Thames region… Now that’s my idea of digital television, not a television station devoted to the weather forecast 24 hours a day.