Back in time for TV: 1984 

25 May 2020 tbs.pm/70246

INDEX

The majority of my week in 1984 consisted of children’s programmes, soaps and comedy. Frankly, I needed that sort of comforting television after the nightmarish world I descended into on my first day. I can honestly say that following my visit to 1984, my view of life will never be the same again.

 

23rd September
Threads
BBC-1

 

Threads depicts the build-up and aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain. I’ve known of Threads by its reputation for many years but nonetheless I have always remained slightly sceptical about its content. As many of the recollections I’d heard had come from people who had seen the programme as children, I knew their memories would be skewed. I also wasn’t sure the programme would look as good over 30 years later, so I didn’t want to overestimate the supposed trauma that lay in store for me.

I’ve read John Hersey’s Hiroshima and felt somewhat prepared for what a post-nuclear attack world would be like. But Threads was all so much shitter than I had imagined. Almost two hours later, I was just relieved for it to be over.

I wasn’t aware how long Threads was so initially felt the build up was going on a bit. Later on, I thought it had been crucial and an important part of why the programme has such an impact. Painting a picture of an ordinary world before something life-altering happens isn’t a new thing, but I think Threads does it incredibly well. We see two families and the developing relationship between a young couple, Jimmy and Ruth, then Ruth becomes pregnant.

But there is everything else among this; the workplaces, the streets, the pub, the town centre, the shops – the Sheffield locations give Threads a wonderfully authentic feel. When the attack starts, we see Woolworths and British Home Stores blown up. From the present day, I did feel saddened that these two chains, clearly used for being ubiquitous across the country, have now disappeared. In addition to these inclusions are the smaller touches, like the television news bulletins and recognisable newspaper titles – hearing Terry Wogan’s voice on the radio was quite a jolt. The programme also has a semi-documentary feel with computer-style captions being typed across the screen. Actually, the only times I ever felt pulled out of this reality was when we heard the voice of the US President – he was played by Ed Bishop, who I know best as Colonel Straker in UFO.

If I had known how long Threads was, I may well have switched it off because it began to feel relentless. While the middle class Beckett family are relatively protected from the blast and fallout in their cellar, Jimmy’s family instead have to make do with piling up doors and bin liners of dirt. Jimmy’s mother is seen to suffer the worst, with half her face burnt off, and she and her husband can do nothing but spend days lying underneath their shelter, vomiting from the radiation sickness. Am I supposed to be able to hear the trapped cries of Jimmy’s younger brother? I was sure he got caught underneath but it felt mixed in with other sounds and we never find out what happened to him. It’s the same for Jimmy and his sister. I thought this ‘never knowing’ was good and reflected the realities that with people’s homes destroyed and nowhere to go, many people would end up forever separated, even if they had survived.

The overall theme seems to become one of no one being safe. My tentative prediction that everyone we meet would die appears to come true. Even the Becketts aren’t safe in their cellar once looters begin hunting for food. The emergency committee who retreat to an underground bunker shortly before the blast manage to last for a long time. It was strange watching them being able to sit around working, eating and smoking while above ground the world had completely changed. They are fairly calm early on before soon realising that no one truly knows what they are doing and if they do, there is little outside support on the temperamental radios. I became sure some of this group would make it, being privileged civil servants effectively and in a location that had been prepared specifically for that situation. The sight of their bodies, dead of either starvation or thirst presumably, was depressing.

The country descends into chaos rapidly as food becomes scarce, something I believed very realistic. The shooting of looters on a (just about) recognisably British street, was nasty.

Threads explores so many ideas. One of its iconic images is the bandaged face of a traffic warden holding a gun over his shoulder. The character only features briefly, guarding looters penned in behind a wire fence. We hear one shout out, indignant at being under the control of a traffic warden. The attitude is: who put you in charge? Well, as we have seen in the bunker, it’s the remains of a government that is doing whatever it can cobble together. If most the army and the police are dead, grab anyone with a uniform and some experience of authority. But the significance of this is that people have quickly lost any perception of democracy. Literally overnight, any ideas of fairness and a legitimate control system have gone. So who cares about respecting that anymore? Why shouldn’t people take whatever food they can and why shouldn’t anyone with a gun kill them? The modern metal gates, brick buildings, guards with guns and gas masks, and the canned packaging are all misleading. Those people are little beyond cavemen, guarding the food in their caves with rocks and clubs.

That desperation, that breakdown of society as we know it, the lack of anything at all familiar, is most terrifying of all. Time starts to pass and when years have gone by, we see the semblance of a civilisation reforming. The country has reverted to an almost medieval way of life, attempting to farm the land with long-forgotten skills in the harsh post-nuclear environment. A group of children, varying in ages, sit around a flickering television screen, watching some sort of educational programme. I didn’t recognise it, though it may well have been something that 1984’s audience would. Apart from the television, the scene is silent. An old woman watches, mouthing along to every word.

I found this scene so eerie and have thought about it a lot since. This technology seems alien in the new world. It’s an educational programme but have these children ever learned to read and write? Why would they? It seems pointless. What use would it be? When we do see children speaking, it is in a language that has partly mutated. Why has that happened so quickly? Ruth has had a little girl, but we never see her say a single world to this 10 year old. Did adults stop speaking to children? Was there nothing to say or did they just not want to say any of it?

Threads depicts the depressing slowness of the post-attack recovery. The years roll by but all infrastructure has been decimated and the combination of radiation, nuclear winters and effects on the atmosphere make it difficult to grow anything. Ruth is blighted by cataracts from working outside in the burning sun for a decade and although she looks aged, it’s only been 10 years so she is actually only in her early thirties at most. The medieval nature of this new civilisation is further emphasised when Ruth drops down in the field and her daughter shows no reaction. There is little more when she dies, which implied that these children have grown up surrounded by death as an everyday occurrence. That, and possibly that there is little opportunity for love and a proper family life to grow close.

The main aspect I could not recreate while watching Threads was the atmosphere of the Cold War at that time and the fear of nuclear war. I have found it hard to get my head around the idea that people lived in such fear. The answer to this is that most of them didn’t. One moment I liked was when Jimmy was glued to the news in the pub, depicting the growing political tensions. His friend dismisses it, remarking that there is nothing they can do so they may as well enjoy a few pints and try to pull some girls. This is how most people live their lives. The fear is there in the background and it’s certainly real, but life still happens. Undoubtedly, Threads raised that fear by a considerable degree across Britain.

 

24th September
Dungeons and Dragons ‘The Hall of Bones’
BBC-1

 

This children’s cartoon series was repeated when I was young and I remember that I loved it. It features a group of children who end up in another world after riding a rollercoaster at an amusement park. I tuned in for each episode, always hoping it would be the one where we would see them get home. I cannot remember if they ever did.

Upon arrival, each of the children receives a magical object from a small wizard that give them skills. There’s a magician’s hat, a sword, a cape, a club and more. But as they travel through this new world, there is an evil guy who wants to steal their objects and use them for, well, evil… stuff.

The episode moved incredibly fast and I felt like it crammed in so much. It definitely seemed well-designed to serve a shorter attention span. There were threats, fights, action, capture, escape and a big showdown – all within about 20 minutes. It was a nice one to revisit for me and I was glad to find it help up well.

 

Coronation Street
Granada

 

Mavis, who works in the newsagents with Rita, is preparing to get married to Derek and tonight is her hen do. It’s the least raucous hen do I have ever seen, which is probably for the best because Mavis still manages to get tipsy. Still, it would have been nice to see one of that crowd running out The Rovers to be sick – maybe Hilda Ogden or Emily Bishop. Bet Lynch has now taken over as landlady and enjoys the chance for a night away from the pub, as Rita is hosting the do at her house.

Derek’s stag isn’t much better and he turns down Mike Baldwin’s suggestion of a place with “exotic dancers”. I’m impressed with the casting of Derek’s brother, who looks very much like him.

Elsewhere, Percy has had a run in with the police after someone reported a man prowling around the street. Percy isn’t happy as he was trying to keep an eye out for genuine prowlers. Eternal troublemaker Terry Duckworth is the culprit and admits it to Percy, who is chuffed that someone else was being so vigilant.

 

25th September
Brookside
Channel 4

 

I knew of Brookside as a soap set in Liverpool and I remain uncertain what sort of community it is supposed to be set in. The houses we see are posher than those in working class Coronation Street.

A chunk of this episode follows Damon Grant, a young man who is unemployed. In the episode of Butterflies I watched, the two young sons were unemployed but this raised little comment and they talked very matter-of-factly about going to the dole office, as one would the post office. The Parkinsons are evidently middle class but I don’t think the Grants are. Their house certainly doesn’t look as grand as the Parkinsons’. Mr Grant is played by Ricky Tomlinson, who I know best from The Royle Family, and has to nag at his son to go and sign on. Ultimately, Damon never manages it, as after ages of queuing he is distracted by the greater attraction of a girlfriend.

I know that unemployment had become a massive issue around this time, especially for young people and especially in Liverpool, so it has been interesting to have these two rather different depictions. Butterflies separates us from the dole office, which I think is officially part of the Department for Health and Social Security (DHSS) at this time. But in Brookside, we see the long queues of people waiting , Damon meets a friend at the back of the line, and we see Damon’s frustrations with the bureaucracy that seems designed to make life difficult for him. There are also comments that indicate that the elder Grant has only recently got a job himself.

I found myself intrigued in the various goings on of Brookside as alongside this, another man has to tell his father that he’s moving out to live with his girlfriend. I couldn’t tell whether he was nervous because this still might be frowned on, or, more likely in this case, that his father has no one else. Also on the unemployment pile, his father mentions that he hasn’t had a job for years after taking redundancy.

 

26th September
Coronation Street
Granada

As I’ve watched episodes from the few years after 1986, I knew that Derek and Mavis’s wedding would not go ahead. However, from the conversations between them in later episodes, I’d got the impression that Derek had left her at the altar. Well, I was half right – in the end both bride and groom get cold feet and send others to the church to break the news. I reckon some of the Coronation Street cast have been to more Wetherfield weddings than they have in real life.

 

The Black Adder ‘Born to Be King’
BBC-1

 

While later series of Blackadder, as it would come to be known, have a fantastic reputation, this first series tends to be quietly ignored. I’d seen some before but remembered little apart from Brian Blessed because, well, he’s Brian Blessed.

Each series is set in a different era of British history, though The Black Adder has an alternate timeline for the Middle Ages. Edmund is the youngest son of King Richard IV and while his older brother will inherit the throne, his future doesn’t look so illustrious. He is keen to gain power and prestige somehow but being slightly dim hasn’t helped him so far. He’s supported by a couple of others, Lord Percy and Baldrick, a servant who is much cleverer than either of the nobles. The later series swap the Edmund/Baldrick dynamic so that Edmund becomes the more intelligent one, stuck with an exceptionally-stupid underling. This also means we are missing the sarcasm of later Edmunds, as it never quite works as well being used by his servant.

The following series are entirely studio-based, while The Black Adder includes plenty of location filming for the outside of the castle and the surrounding countryside. The grim winter landscape is wonderful and combined with the rest of the settings, helps set us in period well. It looks incredibly impressive for a sitcom.

 

27th September
Grange Hill ‘Episode 4’
BBC-1

 

I watched Grange Hill when I visited 1978 and having enjoyed going back to school, I’ve since watched plenty more from those early years, though I haven’t made it as far as 1984.

All the school kids I know from those initial years have left by now, so I was coming to the show afresh again. There are familiar faces on the staff, with Mr Keating, a rather stern maths teacher, being one who has grown on me. He just appeared very strict at first and I think I would have disliked and feared him at school, but Grange Hill has shown him as being both tough and fair.

 

A Kick Up the 80s
BBC-2

 

There are a lot of familiar faces in A Kick Up the 80s, although I don’t think any of them would have been quite so familiar in 1984. The listing for this sketch show includes Robbie Coltrane and Miriam Margolyes, while also mentioning Kevin Turvey, who I knew was played by Rik Mayall, so I was keen to see it.

I had mixed responses to the sketches, with some just completely missing me, but many were very short so if one didn’t quite hit home, there was something else along quickly. Having women in the cast makes a nice change as in earlier sketch shows female characters were either obviously-dressed up male stars, or young women playing stereotypes, often with extremely short skirts.

There seemed to be a variety of sketch types, with several as monologues in numerous forms, including as vox pop-style interviews. Kevin Turvey’s appearance had him talking down the camera from a TV studio. His was one of my favourite sketches as it went off on bizarre tangents, never going anywhere in particular, and at one point was interrupted by a shot of a rhino, which Kevin addressed, shouting, “Get them rhinos out of here!” before carrying on.

One sketch depicted the home life of the Krankies, with the A Kick Up the 80s cast depicting the husband and wife double act, in which the diminutive wife Janette dressed up as a schoolboy called Jimmy. It’s an odd concept but somehow they managed to make a good go of it, at least partly evidenced by the fact I saw them 20 years after this in a pantomime. The sketch shows husband Ian frustrated that Janette insists on playing Jimmy at home, with some illusions to their sex life, and the absurdity goes a step further when the Krankies’ son comes in dressed as an adult woman.

Another sketch I enjoyed was again a monologue, with Robbie Coltrane as a comedian on stage in a club. His topical ‘jokes’ aren’t really proper jokes but he thinks he’s doing an excellent job. It includes Coltrane simply pointing out Labour MP Denis Healey’s giant eyebrows, that British Leyland’s cars go rusty, that Liberal MP Cyril Smith is very fat and, “Isn’t British Rail food terrible?” At first it seemed odd to find such references in a sketch show that wasn’t particularly topical. Yet as it went on I realised these are clearly topics that had been around for several years already by this point. There are some I was vaguely aware of – there are disparaging comments about British Rail sandwiches in Goodnight Sweetheart 10 years later – but I wouldn’t have recognised Cyril Smith and know little about British Leyland. It’s interesting that the sketch implies that the majority of the audience are expected to be very familiar with them and yet to an outsider several decades on, these references could be completely lost.

 

28th September
‘Allo ‘Allo! ‘Saville Row to the Rescue’
BBC-1

 

I’ve seen a fair amount of ‘Allo ‘Allo! but rarely in order. The more I’ve seen, the more my opinion of it has grown. After originally seeing it as a fairly standard sitcom, I have come to appreciate its brilliance.

‘Allo ‘Allo! is set in occupied France during World War Two and revolves around a cafe, run by René and his wife. They receive visits from the local Nazi officers, the Gestapo and the French Resistance, with René finding himself having to aid both sides. He’s also hiding two British airmen and has to put up with his wife’s appalling singing, his bedridden mother-in-law, and the advances of the waitresses, the French Resistance, and one of the Nazi officers.

At the start of each episode, René breaks the fourth wall to speak to us, explaining what has been going on in the plot so far. This is far from a new idea, but it still isn’t used too often in television. The Saint uses it for Simon Templar to make some overarching comments to the audience on the upcoming episode. But ‘Allo ‘Allo!’s plots run across episodes, can be odd and, with lots of characters, having René offer a quick catch-up is often useful.

There are several characters I haven’t managed to mention above, all adding their little aspects of comedy value. Led by Gorden Kaye as René, it’s a real ensemble piece and there is plenty to enjoy. If you aren’t keen on one of the characters, another one will be along in a minute. There are repeated character traits and catchphrases, which start to become more fun once you’ve seen a few episodes.

One of my favourite clever things the programme does is its use of accents. There are at least three languages spoken in ‘Allo ‘Allo! but we only ever heard English. The French speak with French accents, the Germans speak with German accents and we just assume they can understand each other. The Englishmen speak with English accents but the only time they understand anyone else is if they speak with an English accent. There is an Englishman disguised as a French police officer whose terrible French is represented by his inability to speak English properly. It all works so well and clearly that we never have to question it.

The middle aged Gorden Kaye is not your traditional dashing leading man, which makes it all the more wonderful that so many people fancy him. René is happy to return the young ladies’ advances, though often finds himself having to politely excuse himself from those of the Nazi officer, Gruber. Even among this, ‘Allo ‘Allo! always remains a suitable pre-watershed show. There are lashings of innuendo and absurdity as well as visual gags, which should give it a cross-generational appeal.

Mocking Nazis should always be encouraged and it’s interesting that ‘Allo ‘Allo! manages to have several regular characters who are the bad guys, but who aren’t actually bad guys. I don’t feel I have seen enough episodes to fully judge this representation. However, the three main Nazi officers are often shown to be a bit dim and are not particularly interested in being part of the war. The Gestapo officer Herr Flick is far more feared, and the army officers do their best to avoid his attention due to the ever-hanging threat of being sent to the Russian Front. They want a quiet life in France, drinking wine in its cafes.

Despite the changing comedy landscape in the 1980s, there is still a place for this sort of show. I think it has developed beyond the sometimes-predictable fare of the previous decade and started to explore slightly different ways of doing a sitcom.

 

You Say

4 responses to this article

Jesse J. Tripp 3 June 2020 at 1:12 pm

The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon DID have a script for a finale that would see them get home. …sadly, it was never even produced. The show was just too dark for the time.

Joe 3 June 2020 at 2:05 pm

I’m still enjoying your reviews, H E.

As an ‘enjoyer of TV’ in general, and a fan of ‘Allo Allo’, you should seek out “Secret Army”, a drama series following the adventures of a (fictional) Belgian resistance group during WWII. The group, Lifeline, smuggles downed airmen out of occupied Europe and back to Britain so they can rejoin the fight. You will enjoy seeing how much of the framework was borrowed by ‘Allo Allo’, including the accented English of the various nationals.

Joanne 5 June 2020 at 3:00 pm

I’m 48 and grew up in the ever present shadow of the Cold War. I’ve never managed to watch Threads all the way through, but the bits I’ve seen have mentally scarred (and SCARED) me for life :(

Edd 15 July 2020 at 10:04 pm

In your excellent review of Threads, you mentioned that we never knew what happened to Jimmy’s sister – she survives and is one of the prisoners the traffic warden is guarding. It’s only a brief glimpse though of her.
The programme the children are watching is ‘Words and Pictures’ which was a mainstay of BBC Schools during the 1980/ and 90s.

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