Back in time for TV: 1989 

21 December 2020 tbs.pm/71877

INDEX

As the 1980s draws to a close, we stand on the edge of old and new. The Cold War is still evident and the UK is years behind Australian soaps, but we can glimpse an exciting future of satellite television and closed circuit television cameras. Sometimes, the changes of the 1980s have been slower than I expected, yet looking back I can see that it’s been merely a new beginning. The decade’s television has shown the potential of new and different things to come for our world.

 

12 April
Jameson Tonight
Sky Channel

 

 

The Sky Channel has been around in some form under different names for several years by now, but back in February it became part of the new Sky Television Network, which also includes Sky News, Sky Movies and Eurosport. The majority of people watching these channels in the UK are receiving them through cable, although that still only totals a potential 600,000. A further 10,000 are able to see them beamed into their homes via a satellite receiver.

I was surprised to discover that if someone had the equipment to receive them these channels were completely free to receive at the time – it will be a few years before they are encrypted and only available to paying subscribers. Aside from the main terrestrial channels, Sky Television’s competition is limited at the moment, with rival British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB)’s launch delayed until March next year. Both companies would struggle to make a profit and ultimately merge later in 1990.

I’m sure there were numerous reasons for Sky Television’s economic failings, but one may have been the dire product on offer here. Jameson Tonight appears to be an attempt at a late-night chat show yet it fails mostly for not having an engaging host, which I’d say is a chat show’s minimum requirement. At times, Derek Jameson seems underprepared; the evening’s first guest is an Australian author and at no point does anyone mention the title of her new book, let alone hold up a copy or tell us when it’s out.

Jameson has a sidekick and I’m not entirely sure what the point of her is as she contributes little. During the show they read out newspaper reviews of the programme that comment on the sidekick, their focus is on the unfair description of her as a “bimbo”, yet the quotes also reveal that overall the show hasn’t begun life well.

There is a cheapness shining through in their low-budget guests, with one even stating that he isn’t being paid. As well as the author, we meet one of Britain’s top surfers and an elderly surfer who demonstrates her technique in the studio. There is also a performance from a stand up comedian, whose increasingly bizarre and fantastical tale I rather enjoyed.

It’s hard to judge how many people are in the audience but they don’t seem enthused as Jameson’s attempts at humour go down like a lead balloon. The guests themselves aren’t uninteresting but it’s hardly worth staying up late for on a Wednesday night.

 

 

13 April
Crimewatch UK
BBC-1

 

 

I’ve vague memories of catching bits of Crimewatch in its later years and its lengthy life of over 30 years is a testament to its success. Currently, it still exists in its Crimewatch Roadshow daytime format. I do think it’s a super idea: reconstructing crimes for television in the hope it will prompt witnesses to come forward.

Among tonight’s reconstructed crimes are the robbery attempts of a serial railway station thief. It’s never occurred to me that railway stations would be somewhere with large sums of money on the premises and I’m unsure if that’s still the case; most of my ticket purchases over the last decade have been from machines that take debit cards.

Another reconstruction was the attempted robbery of a security van. The would-be robbers watched the security man collect the money from a Tesco employee, then get back into the van, and only then did they move in to try to force him to hand over the money. I found this hilariously stupid. The security officer simply activated the van’s alarms and took cover in the footwell while the criminals fired at the bulletproof glass. The excitement didn’t end there though – once the ne’er-do-wells had given in and went to drive off, a plucky member of the public gave chase in his car! Unfortunately, the bad guys gained ground and hopped out of their own van, blocking the road with it, so the daring bystander was thwarted.

In addition to the reconstructions, there are studio interviews with police officers investigating the cases, sometimes with examples of evidence. It all helps give a picture. There is a Crimewatch phone number that viewers are encouraged to ring and we get updates on some of the cases during the show. I think the idea is that it’s anonymous; however, they often ask specific people to ring back – the dog walker who saw the car speed off, for instance – so the police can ask for more details.

Besides reconstructions, we are also shown some CCTV footage. I was surprised by this as I hadn’t expected CCTV to be around yet and it can’t have been as widespread. It’s telling that the examples we see aren’t from any old off-licence, but from a building society and a bank. CCTV must have been cheaper than security panes because the bank robber was able to threaten a cashier with a gun. Yet although both have “security video”, only the building society’s is smooth video as we are used to now, while the bank’s is a series of jumpy images, roughly a second or two apart. They are both of such poor image quality that although I initially laughed at how daft the criminals were to walk in without so much as a nylon stocking, they probably have little to fear from this new security system.

The majority of this episode’s wanted criminals were thieves of some sort but I was interested that they were also looking for the murderer of a homeless man (it was a tad jarring to hear the presenter refer to him as a “tramp”). The case was presented movingly with his final hours reconstructed, followed by interviews with local people who knew him.

I found Crimewatch enjoyable and rather interesting. The reconstructions were lengthier than I expected as they show events before and after the crimes to jog people’s memories. Even so, it gets through a lot and switching between the narrated reconstructions, interviews and CCTV sections meant the show was varied.

 

 

14 April
London’s Burning
LWT

 

 

I knew London’s Burning was about firefighters so I was expecting an equivalent of The Bill. Instead, the fire service is simply the way all our characters are linked together.

The one female member of the crew has recently split from her partner, who seems a nasty sod. She meets a man at her Spanish class and agrees to go for a drink. She’s reluctant to invite him in for coffee until he confesses he’s bursting for the toilet. He has seemed such a pleasant person, which is what makes it so shocking when he attempts to force himself on her as there had been no dramatic hints at all. It’s intriguing watching her deal with the aftermath of this. With her male colleagues making jokes about her split lip, she doesn’t feel able to tell anyone about what happened.

One of the senior men is shown to be a drinker. It’s confined to his evenings, but its effects are creeping into his work as his tiredness affects his decision making. After he oversleeps one morning, his wife is both angry and upset, insisting that it can’t go on and he needs to get some help. He doesn’t show up for work one morning and disappears for an entire day, before finally reaching out for support the following day. It’s only then that we learn that he’s been affected by things he’s seen in the job, although seeing this episode in isolation means I can’t be sure how much build-up for this there has been in previous episodes.

I’ve seen a couple of other depictions of alcohol problems with Back in Time for TV. The first was back in monochrome with Nearest and Dearest, where I found the comedy around a man who was clearly an alcoholic very strange. By the time I reached Bergerac there was still humour, but this was a condition to be helped through. The drink problem in London’s Burning is different still as it is explicitly shown to be a symptom of mental health issues. While I was intrigued by this extra layer of detail, I was left unsatisfied by the ending. The man is given a week off work and that appears to solve everything. I’d like to think the series explores it beyond this episode because it’s far too fast a turnaround and I was unconvinced.

Alongside these larger plots, there are lighter moments as one of the crew is cajoled into taking part in a boxing tournament. Interspersed with such heavier situations in the rest of the episode, this ensured the programme wasn’t utterly emotionally draining.

Although London’s Burning lacked the action I thought I was going to get, it was so well-written that I was keen to see more from these characters and discover how their stories all progress. Sometimes these types of shows are difficult to join partway through but I’m glad I was still able to get so much out of this episode.

 

 

15 April
Going Live!
BBC-1

 

 

I only caught a brief bit of this edition of Going Live!, which visits West Berlin to interview Nik Kershaw. I’m not familiar with Nik Kershaw’s music, so I was less interested in him than I was in Berlin itself – this is a mere eight months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

By 1989 the Wall had separated East and West Berlin for over 25 years and I am always intrigued when it can be seen simply as part of everyday life in the city, rather than a tourist attraction. I was a little surprised when Nik was asked why the Wall exists and he didn’t seem able to give an answer, yet he’s still a willing tour guide. One nice historical tidbit for me was Nik telling us that the graffiti on the wall is cleaned off roughly every three weeks before soon being covered again, which makes me wonder why they bother.

As well as the Wall, they visit the stadium used for the 1936 Olympic Games before heading off to meet Elton John, whose tour Nik is supporting. It’s a fairly relaxed interview and it sounds like they are having a good time on the tour.

 

You'll Never Walk Alone

 

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Grandstand
BBC-1

I tuned in to Grandstand at a few different times to catch brief sections. When the programme starts, its theme music is familiar to me. I never consciously chose to watch Grandstand, but it stirs memories of someone else having it on in the background. It’s an exciting opening and I’m drawn in by the enthusiasm of the presenter, Bob Wilson.

Horse racing and snooker are scheduled for most of the programme. Today is the start of the Embassy World Professional Championship, with the snooker tournament taking place at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. I wouldn’t have expected tobacco sponsorship to still be permitted by this time, but after my journey through the last three decades I’m not shocked. We are actually still 14 years away from a ban on sport sponsorship and when I pick up this week’s TVTimes there is an advert for Benson & Hedges on the back cover. The advert itself is quite obscure and it feels somewhat ironic that it’s the government health warning at the bottom that alerts me to it being a cigarette advert.

Aside from the snooker, the other main events today are the two FA Cup semi-finals between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and Everton and Norwich. After Grandstand‘s opening previewed what was coming up, I returned for another section that was providing some pre-match build-up for the semi-finals and as various players were interviewed the tension was starting to mount – these are important games. In earlier years, any type of interview was conducted at a relatively slow pace but here we quickly cut back and forth between numerous people, enabling Grandstand to create the narrative it wants, and this faster pace also adds to the excitement as we get lots of different voices emphasising their points.

The next section I watched came a long time later, with high views of a mostly-deserted football stadium. My viewing of today’s programmes was always going to be coloured because I already knew what happened this afternoon. If another viewer had tuned in to this footage, it wouldn’t be immediately clear what is going on, but the sombre tone of the commentator as we watch policemen move around tells us something is amiss.

This footage is from Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, where the Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest match was abandoned after Liverpool fans became trapped in a crush in the stands. There isn’t much to glean from this bit of Grandstand though – I’ve missed whatever information may have been shared, though it doesn’t seem to be much at the moment. Emergency numbers are flashed on screen for people to find out information about anyone they know who was there.


 

Results Service
LWT

Over on ITV, some busy titles open the sport results. The presenter expects his viewers to already know what has happened at Hillsborough Stadium and it does seem likely that sport fans would have been either watching Grandstand or listening to the radio coverage. At this point, they suspect there may be as many as 20 fatalities, but possibly more. The emergency numbers are repeated.

This programme is only 15 minutes long and while today’s disaster is the main news, the show also quickly covers the day’s other results. I’m used to most sport news cutting to footage of the event, but there is none of that here – the closest we get is a still image with recorded audio of reporters at the game.


 

ITN News

This appears to be the early evening news that follows the sport results, although it also receives a caption of ‘F.A. CUP DISASTER/SPECIAL REPORT’. The details from Hillsborough Stadium are much more certain, with 93 deaths and 200 casualties confirmed. The cause of the crush is attributed to ticketless Liverpool fans rushing into the stadium. Photos accompany statements from the Queen; the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; and the Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, with the newsreader reading their words out.

There is now footage from the stadium that shows fans being pulled from the crowd by police officers, credited as ‘Pictures by arrangement with BBC TV’. There are some from just outside the stadium as fans are taken into ambulances and these are ‘Yorkshire Television pictures’. We also see images from the aftermath, with devastated fans and police officers sat around in the stadium.

A camera crew has been to a hospital and interviews several fans outside. I’m struck by one man with his arm in a sling who calmly describes how he and his father were getting crushed in the crowd before being let into the stadium, then rushed forward with everyone when the gates were opened. He finishes matter-of-factly, saying, “Well that was it, yeah, me dad died in the crush.” The footage cuts away while I’m still processing what he’s said – his tone made that ending so unexpected and clearly his grief has yet to fully hit him.

The report repeatedly mentions how young many of the victims are, saying that “by the very nature of those who follow football” lots of the attendees were teenagers and children. This description brings me out a little as I have always seen football as attracting fans evenly from all age groups. I ponder whether this was a perception at the time or whether football stands across the country really were so youthful.


 

ITN News

This looks like it is the late evening news at around nine o’clock. It’s partly a repeat of the early evening edition, but with some extended interview sections. It is also now asking: what next? How do we prevent this happening again?

There are snippets from interviews with the chairmen of both clubs. The Liverpool chairman is sombre and expects “a very searching enquiry”, while the Nottingham Forest chairman strikes a despairing tone: “I’m sure a lot of people will feel that there’s just nothing left. There are people that came today full of hopes and aspirations – they’re in the mortuary at the moment. God, it’s sick.” There is also an interview with the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, who refutes the claim that the surge inside the stadium was caused by the police opening the gates to relieve the crush outside the stadium.

While the emergency numbers weren’t read out until towards the end of the earlier special report, they are highlighted twice during this one.


 

Match of the Day
BBC-1

Tonight’s Match of the Day was supposed to run for 75 minutes but has been reduced to half an hour. It completely eschews its usual purpose and instead is entirely devoted to a report on the events at Hillsborough, attempting to understand exactly what happened and why.

It’s been an intense day and, after what’s felt like only bits and pieces of information from earlier programmes, Match of the Day strives to give as full a picture as possible. Des Lynham provides a different sort of commentary and I appreciated his calm tone taking us through the unfolding events. This includes some of the footage used in earlier programmes, but now it’s all in context. There aren’t many disasters with this many television cameras already watching, so a considerable amount has been captured.

It’s an uncomfortable experience because everything looks so normal. It’s a long time before people begin to realise the severity of what’s happening. When the game is paused after only a few minutes, the Nottingham Forest fans start booing: from a distance, it must simply look like a disturbance or fight in the crowd. Purposefully, the spectators are told little and the announcement that the game will not continue is held back to prevent them flooding outside – the space needs to be clear for ambulances to get through. I found the commentary necessary to explain these details. It isn’t always obvious what is going on from the images because they are often long and wide shots – they were supposed to be shooting a football match after all.

There are interviews with a range of people including fans, the team managers, the FA Chief Executive and the South Yorkshire Chief Constable. The fans are interviewed on the pitch and outside the stadium, where some have been helping to load casualties into ambulances. There are understandably heightened emotions. Most are young, there is a hint of anger, and the interviewer does well to keep a handle on things at times as other passing fans want their word in front of the camera too.

It’s quieter for the other interviews indoors, where the lighting isn’t always ideal. All major football stadiums now seem to have designated and highly branded areas for press photography and filming, but here the camera crew have crammed into offices. It feels like they have had to intrude into places that should be private.

The Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, gives short answers. I get the impression that he doesn’t want to be doing this, but probably feels he has to and doesn’t know what to say. Afterwards, I reflect that he must have understandably been in some shock. The FA Chief Executive seems stunned while the interviewer tries to get answers about what will happen next. The Chief Constable appeared standoffish and was incredibly guarded. Perhaps his interview did include some sympathetic words somewhere, but he came across as very detached.

One moving part was watching people at Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. Most of them are there because they couldn’t get through to the emergency numbers. I’ve grown up used to reaching my close family easily on a mobile phone and I now find it hard to imagine any circumstances in which I wouldn’t be able to. It strikes me that even if anyone did get through to the emergency numbers, surely the only information available would be for people dead or injured. Those at the station know that some people have died – though the evening papers have figures sadly way below the real total – and are all waiting to see if their loved ones are still alive.

The highlights between Everton and Norwich have not been shown. As far as I can gather, they were held back and eventually shown during the pre-match build-up for the FA Cup final the following month.

This has been an interesting way to see how such a large news story was covered because I’ve always had 24-hour news channels or the ability to look up something instantly on a mobile phone. While I thought I might view the day as a removed historical observer, it proved emotionally taxing. It has entrenched some of my opinions about 24-hour news channels; rolling news inevitably means seeing the same things repeatedly and, here, I saw the same footage on several programmes in one day, either because that was all there was or because each programme felt it was the best to use. It was wearying and it felt like there wasn’t much new information being confirmed. But it was limited to an extent because it wasn’t constantly available, whereas in the present day I think, for the sake of our mental health, we have to find ways to limit ourselves from an overload of television and online news.

 

 

 

16 April
Prisoner Cell Block H
Central

 

 

I was expecting this Australian series to be a drama, but it became clear that it’s more of a soap. We are clearly picking up plots from previous episodes and not entirely concluding them here. Set in a women’s prison, a couple of strands surround Ferguson, one of the officers, who’s a bully and seems to get away with a lot. She’s the main one we see interacting with the prisoners in this episode, proving a sense of ‘us and them’, but the other officers are suspicious of Ferguson’s background and she’s certainly not one of them either, which was interesting.

Among the prisoners, Hannah Simpson is awaiting trial for armed robbery. This became intriguing when we learned she tried to rob money that had belonged to her rich but absent father, who had recently died but left her nothing, even though he was supposed to. Another prisoner, Doreen, is suddenly released and turns out to be rolling in it, so is happy to gift some to the halfway house she stays in. This episode didn’t tell us why the woman was in prison and it is never explained exactly where this money has come from, though no one questions its legitimacy. Also in the halfway house is a freshly-released heroin addict, Donna, who is supposed to be staying clean else she’s back inside. It doesn’t last long. Despite this, she was not the most convincing addict I’ve seen.

The quality of the acting did seem variable and, overall, the show had a low-budget feel to it. We see little of the prison and saw no connection between the one cell and the blank corridors or the officers’ staff room. I can’t help but compare it to Porridge, which managed far more in the previous decade. Distracted by action in the foreground, it was a long time before I noticed the painted backdrop in that series and I think I might have preferred that here. It’s as though another programme is visiting a prison for one or two scenes so makes do as best they can, yet surely these sets were needed week after week?

There are other studio sets needed for the halfway house, so it appears that this could be a regular part of the show too. I did enjoy the location scenes as, having expected a drama confined to a prison, they came as a surprise. As well as a street outside a factory, one of the officers visits Hannah’s mother on her porch and we see Doreen leaving the prison. There is also an outdoor scene set within the prison walls when Hannah’s mother visits and they meet outside, which I thought strange as I had expected a proper prison visitors’ room.

As the credits rolled, I saw that this episode was from 1982 and I remain unsure if the UK is just very behind or if this was a repeat.

 

 

17 April
Don’t Wait Up
BBC-1

 

 

I was curious about this sitcom depicting father and son doctors, and starring Tony Britton and Nigel Havers. I’d enjoyed Tony Britton in Robin’s Nest so liked the idea of seeing him in another comedy. It was strange for me to see Nigel Havers as a young man as I’m used to seeing him as a charming older English gent.

I thought I would probably find the two doctors sharing a practice but in fact they are split with son Tom working for the NHS while father Toby has been in Harley Street for years. In this episode, Toby agrees to help out at Tom’s practice and discovers that patients on the NHS don’t get 45 minutes each, nor a cup of tea with a saucer.

Even ignoring the leads’ accents, this quickly because the most middle-class sitcom I’ve ever seen, with the father at one point facing the tough decision of a Van Gogh exhibition in Paris or a country golf weekend. Don’t Wait Up hit plenty of stereotypical middle-class boxes with people discussing tennis lessons and their cleaner. I think the deal was sealed for me when a phone conversation included the phrase, “She doesn’t understand that some people have to work for a living.”

Despite an interesting start, the episode tailed off and there were few jokes to be found in the second half, which is surprising because it centres around the classic comical device of a misunderstanding. The last minutes were particularly devoid of comedy. Nonetheless, I would probably watch more of Don’t Wait Up because I did enjoy the cast and thought they were doing their best with limited material.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Ben Grabham 21 December 2020 at 4:14 pm

Firstly, as ever, a superb review of those programmes you chose to watch. I think you’ve picked up on the fact that TV hasn’t quite become ‘modern’ in 1989 – and yet it’s starting to change.
Secondly, thank you and the Transdiffusion team for the subtle trigger warning around the FA Cup coverage – perfectly done.
That’s a day that I remember vividly (as a neutral observer of football), yet I think I must have been listening to it on the radio (Radio 2 MW at that time – Radio 5 was yet to come).
What lingers most is Peter Jones’s perfect summing up at the end of Sport on 2, which if you’ve never heard it is here https://youtu.be/wnAOam5oFvQ
I think one of the most remarkable pieces of radio I have ever heard, and my heart still breaks every time I hear that final sentence ” And the sun shines now at Hillsborough”…

AndrewP 29 December 2020 at 8:29 am

Thank you – again – for this fascinating summing up of some very diverse bits of British broadcasting. As always, the comments are incisive and the context that you offer is most engaging.

The memory of seeing the Hillsborough tragedy unfold is still chilling. I was in Liverpool that day and remember the news slowly coming through with nobody quite understanding the scale of what had happened at first. Very different to what technology now allows in the way of communication.

And a special THANK YOU for this 30 year odyssey through the schedules. I’ve found it fresh. I’ve found it informative. I’ve found it full of understanding.

All the best

Andrew

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Liverpool, Thursday 21 October 2021