Back in time for TV: 1983 

20 April 2020 tbs.pm/70139

INDEX

This is the first year that Back in Time For TV has had Channel 4. Although I know that the channel had some fantastic programmes early on, little in the schedules this week was of much interest to me personally so it hasn’t had a great impact yet. But 1983 has provided an interesting mixture of programmes with fun action adventure, detective drama, sitcoms, and gameshows. I have an incredible amount of choice across the week’s schedules now and I think this has been my strongest week of the 1980s so far.

 

9th September
The A-Team ‘Black Day at Bad Rock’
LWT

 

The first season of The A-Team debuted in the US earlier this year and now the UK have also met the soldiers of fortune. I love The A-Team. It was repeated when I was growing up and having watched several again as an adult, I am still fond of it. The theme tune is marvellous, the heroes are enormous fun, the villains are over-the-top, there are car chases, shoot-outs, explosions and witty lines thrown in. In some ways, its rejection of a more serious, realistic style of drama is reminiscent of the sort of ITC series I saw in the 1960s.

The opening titles for the first season are slightly different – something I don’t remember noticing as a kid, so perhaps the repeats were edited with the later one. Future seasons open with, “In 1972…” but this first season begins, “10 years ago…” I’ve previously stated that I like opening titles that explain a show’s concept and The A-Team does it very nicely: “In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.”

The A-Team travel predominantly around the US, taking on jobs to help vulnerable people who for whatever reason can’t go to the police. The A-Team taught me that the US is huge – the guys are able to evade capture because there are just so many places they can go without needing to leave the country. It also taught me that the police in the US often cannot be trusted, especially if they are in a rural town with rich businessmen bribing them.

The team comprise of their leader, John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, charming conman Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck, all-round tough guy BA Baracas, and their pilot ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch. A typical episode of The A-Team will see some people with a problem, who then get in touch with the team to ask for help. They come to town and size up the bad guys, usually have a first fight with them, then work towards a big takedown later, probably cobbling together something magnificent from limited supplies, all in a montage set to the theme music. Watching as an adult, I’m much more aware of how formulaic the programme is. ‘Black Day at Bad Rock’ is a little different as we see the team between jobs, with BA having been shot. They have to call into a small town for a doctor, then end up defending it against a motorcycle gang.

There are a few things in the earlier seasons that are different to later on. While a member of the A-Team, Murdoch isn’t usually on the run with them. He resides in a mental hospital so the team often have to break him out in the first act, only to kindly return him later. This seems to occur less and less as the show goes on, probably because they realised having to do this most episodes was eating into the script. The team are also accompanied by a reporter, Amy. She is a prime example of the ‘something for the dads’ phenomenon, in which young, attractive women were cast in parts that sometimes had limited substance. Like several shows before it, The A-Team is full of men and the only women tend to be damsels in distress or someone for Faceman to smooch at the end of the episode.

The A-Team is enormous fun and is able to maintain this by having such a light tone. From my memory, they don’t tend to deviate from this. The villains can be nasty but are also often caricatures. There are tons of punch-ups and shoot-outs but it’s rare that anyone ever comes to serious harm; the show follows the pattern that the more bullets fired, the fewer people get hit. We have also continued the development of ‘banter’ between the main characters that I previously saw in The Professionals and Starsky and Hutch. As well as this, there are plenty of quick quips and Hannibal especially takes pleasure in winding up the villains, with “slimeball” being one of his favourite descriptions.

 

10th September
Remington Steele ‘Tempered Steele’
BBC-1

 

I had seen a couple of episodes of Remington Steele before but my memories were rather hazy. Really, my only attraction to it had been the chance to see a young Pierce Brosnan. I was struck by how slim he looked and I can’t actually think of any leading men I’ve seen during this time travelling that I would consider muscular. There have been a variety of different body types but it’s a contrast to 21st century programming where a far greater number of young men seem to have crafted obviously-toned and defined bodies. It’s partly what makes The A-Team‘s extremely-muscular Mr T so distinctive (the mohawk, giant earrings and 30-odd gold chains do help a tad too), as there just aren’t many other actors around who are anywhere close to that sort of build. It’s clearly not something that most actors on television are particularly concerned with at this point.

This is an early episode of Remington Steele and it’s another show that sets up the premise in the titles. After setting up a private detective agency, Laura Holt struggled to get any business so invented a male boss and renamed the agency after him. Soon business was rolling in, as are my eyes as I’ve completely given up on 1980s’ sexism. Then suddenly Pierce Brosnan appeared from nowhere, started calling himself Remington Steele, and is now taking all the credit for her hard work. At this point, I keep thinking – why haven’t you told him to piss off? Oi, you’ve just stolen the identity of my imaginary boss!

I’m really not sure why she hasn’t. It becomes clear that Steele is more of a hindrance than a help at times, although the rest of the world think he’s marvellous. There is the smattering of a sexual tension between them and Laura tells Steele that she wouldn’t want to have a relationship with someone she worked with. Well, this seems an open invitation to television fate, yet I just don’t think there is enough there to keep an audience gripped on a ‘will they/won’t they?’ scenario.

We know nothing about ‘Steele’ – not even his real name. In this episode he meets with an old friend who is running an organisation for homeless alcoholics, selling himself as a reformed drinker. Their conversation gives hints that they had both run dodgy enterprises in the past, something most people would probably never consider when first meeting the well-groomed and immaculately-dressed Steele. A history as a conman would certainly add up and I was left intrigued about the rest of his past.

 

The Dukes of Hazzard ‘Dukes Strike it Rich’
BBC-1

 

I lasted through 20 minutes of The Dukes before I gave in, feeling quite bored. I’d expected (and that’s often a mistake) something like Starksy and Hutch, which it clearly isn’t. The two leads irritated me and no plot seemed to form so I felt I was simply watching them have numerous car chases with the local police around rural/small-town America, for no obvious reason. I was clearly supposed to be on the side of these boy racers but could muster no sympathy. The country-style music was driving me around the bend as well so I had to decide that this just wasn’t to my taste.

 

The Twilight Zone ‘Where Is Everybody?’
BBC-2

 

This evening BBC-2 is beginning showings of The Twilight Zone, starting with the programme’s first episode from 1959. It had originally been broadcast across the ITV regions. Its broadcast during the 1980s seems part of a wider trend of revisiting the 1950s and 1960s that I had also noted in 1982. Then, I had observed it more through contemporary programmes about the era, but the screening of such classic shows like this is something slightly different.

Black and white programmes disappeared from the schedules surprisingly quickly once I hit the 1970s – the last one I saw was an episode of Nearest and Dearest in 1970. Their reappearance, albeit cautiously confined to late night slots, is a sign that some older shows are being appreciated for what they are – bloody fantastic television.

I’d like to say that this was a chance for me to see how far I’ve come with my TV time travelling journey, but actually I thought The Twilight Zone was superior to many of the programmes I saw when I was in the early 1960s. It is a highlight of its period and it’s lovely that I’ve now had that context to appreciate it all the more. I also think it stands among 1983’s contemporary shows remarkably well.

The episode opens with a man coming to a roadside cafe and finding it empty, despite a jukebox playing and a kettle boiling on the stove. As he calls out to no one and talks to himself, we discover that he has no memory of who he is. Dressed in plain overalls, it seems he could be anyone from a mechanic to a janitor. He heads to the nearby town, only to find that empty too. All of it. We repeatedly get the impression that people have only just vacated somewhere as soon as he steps inside, with little touches like a cigar burning in an ashtray.

The programme works incredibly well in black and white, helping to evoke a wonderful tense and eerie nature as the man explores the empty town, unable to contact anyone. I gather that all episodes of The Twilight Zone have some sort of twist and I’m not sure I could have guessed this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

11th September
A Fine Romance ‘The Dinner Party’
Channel 4

 

This episode of LWT’s A Fine Romance is a repeat from ITV from a few years earlier, something I only discovered after watching it. I hadn’t been aware that Channel 4 broadcast programmes that had been on ITV previously. I got somewhat muddled up and as a result ended up watching a different episode to the one broadcast tonight.

One of the biggest selling points for the show is that it stars Judi Dench. Laura and her boyfriend, Mike, are going to her sister’s for lunch to meet her parents for the first time. There are comments made about the fact the Laura and Mike are living together and I had forgotten that unmarried couples living together still wasn’t all that common, or accepted. The 1980s is starting to feel like such a halfway house for society where I keep thinking that things should have moved on. Actually, they are only just starting to, but they are at least moving.

I was taken aback by how formally everyone has dressed for this lunch around someone’s house. Is it supposed to be a big Sunday lunch? I’m not sure. It isn’t any particular special occasion, yet two of the ladies are in smart dresses and Mike and Laura’s father are in suits. Laura’s sister’s partner rather stands out in his chunky jumper. I get the impression that Laura and Mike are both trying hard to make a good impression. It’s superbly ruined when Mike arrives with a nosebleed following an accidental altercation on the bus.

A Fine Romance seemed like a perfectly average sitcom. I enjoyed it, possibly wouldn’t go out of my way to see it, but I’ll happily watch more.

 

12th September
Blockbusters
Thames

 

This is the first series of Central’s Blockbusters and it is now airing most days, though a few regions, including Thames, started later than others. It’s hosted by Bob Holness, with whom I wasn’t familiar, but liked enough today.

As this is the first series, Bob spends a lot of time repeatedly explaining the gameshow’s rules. One challenger takes on another two to try to create a line of blocks across a board of letters that is displayed on a screen. A screen! Look at all the fancy screens we can have now the 1980s is progressing! Each letter represents the answer to a question. Buzz in with the correct answer and you get the block and get to pick the next letter. The winner of this then gets to play a solo game for 60 seconds on a board that has multiple letters in each block. It’s not too dissimilar to Connect 4, so it gets a bit frustrating that Bob is taking up so much of the half hour repeating the rules.

Blockbusters‘ concept is much simpler than its questions. The contestants all appear to be 6th form pupils, so, being an educated adult with a few more years experience of life than them, I initially thought I would be in with a chance while playing along at home. Throughout the entire show I got two questions correct. This is an absurdly hard gameshow and by the end I was convinced it was rigged. I’m certain the contestants must have been given topics to revise. Perhaps my ego has just taken a bruising though as not all of the questions are actually that hard – “What N is a person more than 90 years old?” (nonagenarian) – but the time given to answer them is minimal and the contestants have to be incredibly fast. The breadth of knowledge needed still seems huge: “What R is a style of music associated with Scott Joplin?” (ragtime) “Where the colour is trooped?” (Horse Guards Parade) “Author of National Velvet and The Chalk Garden?” (Enid Bagnold).

The pace of the game meant the programme flew by. I enjoyed it but half the fun of a gameshow for me is being able to join in so it’s unlikely I’ll be watching more.

 

The Krypton Factor
Thames

 

I will pick Granada’s The Krypton Factor over Blockbusters every time. We are introduced to various incredible athletes who will be the contestants, taking on various tasks. They have climbed mountains and sailed across oceans, then get asked to come to a TV studio to play memory games and a giant sudoku. The mixture of games means there are some things the audience can join in with, while others require us to remain spectators.

I liked the first game, though quickly gave up at keeping up with it. Contestants were shown a series of pictures with a voiceover saying variations on “Don’t pick this picture unless Margaret Thatcher didn’t win the 1979 General Election”. There were eight photos altogether and my head was swimming by the time we had reached number five.

In another game, the contestants were shown a clip from a TV programme, All For Love, that seemed to be set on a health farm. I rather enjoyed the lengthy clip. They then had to answer observational questions based on it like, “What was so and so holding when he sat down for breakfast?” As the clip seemed long, I thought this was pretty tough.

Having introduced these fantastic athletes, the sole physical challenge they undertook was an assault course, with each of them decked out in tracksuits that had large Ks on. I liked that they had different start times – the ladies set off first, then the gents, with the youngest man starting last. I liked watching this, though couldn’t remember everyone’s areas of expertise and did wonder whether it might be better suited to some more than others.

I haven’t watched many gameshows during my time travelling, which has largely been due to a lack of availability (I’d love to see the 1960s’ Golden Shot – it sounds marvellous). It’s only now I’m in the 1980s that I’m getting to see much more. I was struck by how formally-dressed all the contestants are. The gents wear shirts, ties and suits, while the ladies also favour feminine versions of a suit. I think this is something that has only started to fade away in more recent years. I’ve seen repeats of other gameshows on Challenge from this era that feature guests in similar attire, though perhaps not always a full suit. People appearing on television would want to look their best (“I’m going to be on the telly!”) and it seems for most this included some of their most formal, smart clothes.

 

13th September
Bergerac ‘Nice People Die in Bed’
BBC-1

 

I was curious about Bergerac, only knowing that it was a detective drama set in Jersey starring John Nettles. After viewing it, the programme seemed a lot closer to the style of detective dramas I am more familiar with.

A man is found dead in his hotel room after having a heart attack, but there is evidence that the body was moved. Bergerac begins investigating with an idea that the man may have been with a lover, who didn’t want his wife to know. I was intrigued that the ultimate conclusion includes gay men, yet the episode manages to never mention the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’.

Among the reasons I liked Bergerac is that I found the man himself a wonderful central character. We have gradually seen more and more from police officer’s personal lives over the years and I think Bergerac’s is probably the one I’ve seen reveal the most so quickly. We see he is divorced with a daughter and now has a new partner. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, something his father-in-law swipes a remark about. He’s involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and goes to the aid of a friend who rings after he has had a couple of drinks. When he turns up, Bergerac knows every hiding place to check and is sympathetic. Seeing him with a suspect was interesting as he made small threats and he seemed so mild-mannered at first that I wouldn’t have expected anything even as minor as that.

Most of the music I have heard on drama shows has been incidental and often taken from library music. Bergerac‘s theme tune is fantastically funky and I was impressed with the music throughout, finding it used very effectively, especially during a flashback sequence when Bergerac’s thoughts are distorted. But there are several popular songs used as well and they really stand out. Among them are The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ narrating a bicycle jaunt, then in a nightclub there is a snippet of something that sounds like Spandau Ballet.

 

Top Gear
BBC-2

 

I’m watching last week’s episode of Top Gear. I’ve seen plenty of 21st century Top Gear so I was keen to see what it’s earlier incarnation looked like. I was certainly aware that the version I was familiar with was more of an entertainment show.

This Top Gear was much more informative and seems like a natural development of some early automotive shows I’d seen in the schedules, which had often been instructional and designed to help motorists take care of their vehicles. That technical side is still there a little and it’s a world away from racing the latest supercar. A new family car is put through its paces and all the information is very practical. We also take a look at the future, learning how computers are helping to model the impacts of accidents on a car and its occupants, so that cars can be designed to be safer.

It’s interesting that this style of the programme was ultimately abandoned. Perhaps because there is little DIY that most people can do to more modern cars and while I liked this show, watching presenters tootle around in the latest sensible car every week to compare the miles per gallon probably ultimately became a bit dull.

 

14th September
Butterflies ‘Amanda’
BBC-2

 

Of all the comedy I’ve watched for Back in Time For TV, Butterflies is the one that has looked the most middle class. The only other one that has come close has been The Good Life but Tom and Barbara always felt very down to earth. The Parkinson’s house looks large, Ria’s husband went to university and she doesn’t appear to work. Neither do their two adult sons, although that doesn’t seem to be much of a cause for concern. It’s a very comfortable existence.

I really enjoyed Butterflies, even though by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what it was supposed to be about. At first I thought it was about a woman who was thinking of having an affair, yet as the episode progressed it included the rest of the Parkinson family too, then came back round to focus on Ria. I think it’s about a woman having a midlife crisis of sorts.

Seeing Nicholas Lyndhurst playing one of Ria’s sons was interesting, as his character is rather different to Rodney in Only Fools and Horses and unless this is a repeat, he was playing both at the same time. At one point he and the other Parkinson son are playing frisbee in the park and as the game pauses, he stands with his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. It was a tiny thing really, but it’s so very him that I was instantly reminded of his character Gary Sparrow, the time travelling character he would play 10 years later in Goodnight Sweetheart.

After rushing home to hurriedly prepare lunch for everyone, Ria gets a call from her husband, Ben, to say he is eating out for lunch. The boys aren’t home for lunch either, so when they do all arrive for their evening meal, they find that Ria has simply chucked another tablecloth over the top of the remains from lunch. Ben senses Ria has had a bad day and instructs the boys to say nothing so we see them sat eating off a rather lumpy table.

Watching this marvellously bizarre setting, I was very struck by the family having meals together. While it seemed more common in the previous decades for husbands and children to come home for lunch, I didn’t think this would still be the case during the 1980s. In fairness, Ria’s ‘friend’, Leonard, does comment on it. Seeing an adult family all sat around for their evening meal is slightly strange for me. I think they would ask me, “Why wouldn’t you?” Yet I am used to lives being much more busy, people working different hours, and meals all happening at various times, often not around a table. I do like the idea of it and am reminded of the sitcom Bread, which I will encounter in a few years’ time. I remember strong matriarch Mrs Boswell always being very insistent that all her adult children sat together around the table for meals, helping to emphasise their family bonds. They don’t need to all eat at the same time but they should want to.

I loved the scene when Ria let out to the three men about all her frustrations: “I feel as though I have been a wife and mother for thousands of years, being concerned with your needs and your future, and not seeming to have one of my own.” I love that Ria doesn’t actually know what she wants – she’s just fed up of feeling like this and nothing changing. As much as the 1980s has moments that frustrate me, having a sitcom from a woman’s point of view feels like a great step. I haven’t seen that many programmes like that before this point, with The Liver Birds being the main exception that comes to mind. I’m curious to know what happens to Ria and whether her family help make changes, if something else happens in her life or if she does decide to run off with Leonard. We didn’t see any other women in her life so I’d like to know if there are any. Interestingly, all three sitcoms I’ve mentioned here – Butterflies, Bread and The Liver Birds – were written by the same person, Carla Lane.

 

15th September
Fame ‘Not in Kansas Anymore’
BBC-1

 

The entirety of this episode was a homage to The Wizard of Oz. I was left uncertain whether this sort of thing is the usual course of an episode of Fame or if I just came across an exception. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter as I imagine they would struggle to conduct much storytelling about this theatre school.

I liked the theme tune, but little else. Effectively, I felt like I was watching a cheap version of The Wizard of Oz. I lost interest early and tried, though I still didn’t make it to the end. It just made me want to watch the actual film and left me pondering whether I might have enjoyed it more if I had already got to know the characters. Were they spoofing themselves? Is there an inside joke I’ve missed in it all? I’ll never know.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Russ J Graham 20 April 2020 at 7:28 pm

You’ve been unlucky with both The Dukes of Hazzard and Fame.

The Hazzard boys we’d been used to for the past 4 or 5 seasons had got into a dispute with the production company and been fired, with these two – cousins of theirs, apparently – drafted in to replace them. Ratings tanked, the writing (never the strong point of the series anyway) went to pot, and pretty soon the cousins were ejected and the originals came back with their pockets stuffed with money. The series never recovered.

Fame liked to do a one-per-season ‘weird’ episode, and you’ve caught that. It’s screamingly funny (or it was when I was 8, anyway) to see the kids and their teachers out of character, but if you don’t know their characters already… yeah, it might be a bit beyond weird and into ‘impossible to follow’.

AndrewP 26 April 2020 at 7:48 am

Very enjoyable – as always! Love the comparison of “The A-Team” to the ITC-distributed shows of the 1960s with it’s consequence-free-violence approach. And, yes, it’s often odd to go back to the early shows and see Amy in the mix when you’ve got used to the middle-period ones. They’re still good fun when you catch one at the right moment.

“Remington Steele” is one I need to go back to and see again – I have memories of them being good fun and feel rather ashamed that it always languishes in my mind rather in the shadow of “Moonlighting”.

Sorry that “The Dukes of Hazzard” wasn’t to your taste. While I can’t pretend that it was the 1980s equivalent of “Playhouse 90”, it did sort of do what it set out to do in a very amiable way, and what it set out to do was basically some endearingly nice characters, some pantomime villains and some great car stunts. But, yes, you *do* need to like country music as well.

Great points about the lack of b/w television in recent years – this point in the early 1980s is when all of a sudden people were starting to take notice of TV history and that reruns *did* have value. We’d had “The Outer Limits” through late night on BBC2, and getting “The Twilight Zone” was a massive treat. And how great to see you enjoying “Where is Everybody?” so much; it’s good, but for me it’s a sort of good-but-average when I think of items like “Nothing in the Dark” or “A Game of Pool” or “One for the Angels”. Hope you get to see more of them.

I remember “A Fine Romance” being very highly lauded at the time, but it wasn’t one I tuned to regularly. Your description of it as “perfectly average” is certainly one that chimes with me – but I suspect that it was quality stuff for a sector of the audience older than I was at the time.

*Very* interesting indeed to get your take on the “Blockbusters” questions. I think that things were far more complex and demanding in terms of quiz shows back then. I’m very aware of the shifts in – say – “Mastermind” across the years as it becomes more accessible and appeals to a wider audience, and watching some of the earliest episodes of “The Adventure Game” I wonder just how many days the contestants were trapped in the studio in to make 40 minutes of television as they tried to recall their secondary school lessons on Ampere’s law. Yes – a fascinating description of the show.

Again, the observations about how contestants dressed on television in the write-up of “The Krypton Factor” was brilliant. It *was* a special occasion and things were different in approach. It’s in the same way that when we watched “3-2-1” through some years back, it was lovely to see the contestants being very TV-naïve, and then suddenly one lady coming on who had performing aspirations, had prepped and was the first in a new breed of TV-savvy contestants.

Glad you liked “Bergerac”. A lot to enjoy in there. I think that the middle period of the show has some terrific instalments. Hope you get to see more.

“Top Gear” – yes, isn’t it strange to see this just comprising people driving comparatively normal cars in a comparatively normal fashion and discussing how, well, it sort of works and handles as the sort of car you’d use in a comparatively normal situation.

So very pleased that you enjoyed “Butterflies”. My wife and I watched them through a few years back and we were absolutely delighted with them. Some of Carla Lane’s very best scripts and beautifully played by a superb cast. Very much hope that you get to experience these in full one day – it *does* look very safe and middle-class… and it’s really rather tough and dark.

Sorry that the “Fame” episode didn’t do it for you. One I only ever caught bits of, but *massively* popular as I recall in its first year or two. I think it may be one of those shows where jumping in and sampling a random one is less effective – but, hey, it’s the electic mix that you get by your sampling for these postings that makes me enjoy them so much, and if there’s a casualty or two along the way, then so be it.

Thanks for some great reading at these difficult times. Appreciated more than ever.

All the best

Andrew

H E COOPER 2 May 2020 at 1:01 pm

I’ll never tire of The A-Team – sometimes you want something that isn’t mentally taxing but is just simply *fun*.

It’s interesting hearing feedback about Dukes of Hazzard – I wasn’t aware of the cousins replacing the original boys, although someone else did reckon it hardly mattered. I would consider giving another episode a go, but I really don’t think I would get past the music.

Good to have my suspicions about the Fame episode confirmed, Russ.

Re-reading this reminded me of how much I enjoyed that Twilight Zone episode and it’s definitely one I’m keen to get a box set of at some point. That, Bergerac and Butterflies were the highlights of this week and they all left me keen to see more.

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