Thursday 19 December 2013

Thirty-Five Years On

Neil Clark writes:

"The holiday starts here. And to put you in party mood some of your favourite comedians bring the spirit of pantomime to these pages. Mike Yarwood, on our cover, opens the festivities, followed by a host of BBC TV comedians – Michael Crawford, Ronnies Corbett and Barker, John Inman, Larry Grayson (with Isla St Clair, of course), Little and Large, and last, but not least, a villainous Peter Cook."

And so begins the bumper 118-page edition of the Christmas and New Year Radio Times for 1978. The 26-page guide to BBC television and radio for 23 December 1978 to 5 January 1979 is more than just a list of programmes: it's a fascinating historical document, revealing much about the country we were that last Christmas before Thatcherism arrived and changed everything.

Like everything else, broadcasting was to be subject to "market forces". There would be "deregulation" and outsourcing. Viewers would be given more "choice". The "broadcasting oligopolists", to use Thatcher's own phrase, would be tackled.

How ironic then that the first thing one notices in the 1978 schedules is the sheer variety of programmes on offer on just two television channels. Magic shows. Animated films from Eastern Europe. Charlie Chaplin. Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman in Concert. Arthur Lowe reading Joan Aiken short stories on Jackanory. Glas y Dorlan, a situation comedy in Welsh. Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan, a magazine show for Asian viewers.

Another noteworthy point is how undumbed-down television was 35 years ago compared to now. Leonard Bernstein at Harvard was a series of six lectures given by the famous composer and shown on BBC2 over the holiday period. On 28 December viewers were treated to the first (repeated) episode of The Tongues of Men, an "epic examination of language".

On Christmas Day, the matinee on BBC2 was Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, a joint Soviet/Japanese production that told the story of the relationship between a Russian army explorer and a "woodsman with an uncanny instinct for survival".

The Thatcherites denied that deregulation would lead to a deterioration in quality: the 1978 Christmas Radio Times suggests that it did.

Punk had arrived on the music scene two years earlier, but there were no television equivalents. The entertainment was traditional because programmes were aimed at the widest possible audience – this was still a time when families watched television together.

Before the advent of Thatcher's elbow society, the listings were full of gentle, unthreatening fare. On Christmas Eve, Mrs Pumphrey's Pekingese Tricki-Woo was nursed back to health in All Creatures Great and Small.

On 27 December, on primetime BBC1, there was Val Doonican's Christmas in the Country, featuring the popular Irish crooner renowned for his cardigans and rocking chair. Appropriately as it turned out, the last year before neoliberalism was seen out with a special edition of The Good Old Days, from the "Famous City Varieties Theatre, Leeds", with guests including Roy Castle and the German circus artists Perkano and Christiana.

Even the satire was kinder in 1978. Leading the way was Radio 2's The News Huddlines, fronted by the genial comic Roy Hudd, and featuring Janet Brown, with her impressions of Mrs Thatcher.

Just about the only "alternative" comedy to be found over the festive period was Black Cinderella Two Goes East, broadcast on Radio 2 at lunchtime on Christmas Day. "The fact that everyone involved in this show is an ex-member of Cambridge Footlights is completely coincidental, and has nothing to do with any form of nepotism or old-boy network at all, whatsoever, honestly," the blurb declared.

In fact university-educated comedians – so ubiquitous today – were absent from our screens at Christmas 1978. There was a solid working-class feel to much of the programming, reflecting the more egalitarian politics of the age and also backgrounds of many of the writers themselves. 

Steptoe and Son Ride Again, featuring the rag-and-bone men from Shepherd's Bush, was the primetime film on BBC1 on 28 December. Galton and Speight's Tea Ladies – billed as "a new comedy show set in the House of Commons", and starring Mollie Sugden from Are You Being Served?, had its debut on 4 January. That same night on BBC2, James Bolam played Jack Ford in James Mitchell's proletarian Tyneside drama When the Boat Comes In.

There are relatively few films in the listings. On Christmas Eve there were just three on BBC1. This year, by contrast, BBC1 will show over seven hours of films between 10.15am and 7.30pm. In 2013 we get Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo; in 1978 we got The Sleeping Beauty from the Royal Opera House and the final episode of a four-part dramatisation of Pinocchio.

In 1978 we had "special guests", "stars" and "presenters" but I could find only one mention of the word "celebrity" in the listings, used in relation to David Soul, in a programme on 29 December. "David Soul epitomises the star of today. He is the new-style Hollywood celebrity," we were informed.

We quickly got back down to earth, though: the programme was followed by Citizen Smith, the sitcom starring Robert Lindsay as Wolfie Smith, leader of the revolutionary Tooting Popular Front.

It's also interesting to note just how many programmes there were from other European countries in 1978, and in particular how cosmopolitan children's TV was. At 6.20pm on New Year's Eve BBC2 showed Matt the Gooseboy, a cartoon feature from Hungary. On 29 December there was A Dog in Paris, in which a French schoolboy spent a hectic day helping a canine in distress. From Czechoslovakia we had The Mole; from Norway The Seppala Race. The Cossack's Horse told of a Russian boy who looked after an old war-horse.

The 1978 Christmas Radio Times confirms that we were exposed to a wider range of cultural influences on our television screens 35 years ago: the globalisation that Thatcher's reforms did so much to usher in has meant Americanisation, with Hollywood destroying the opposition.

It's just as interesting to reflect on what we didn't have on television back in 1978. There were no property programmes. No programmes encouraging people to boast about themselves and back-stab other human beings in their race to get to the top, such as The Apprentice. No shows in which contestants were cruelly humiliated, such as The Weakest Link. No programmes with "Celebrity" in their title. No programmes sneering at the proles.

Such programmes needed radical political, economic and cultural changes before they could appear on our TV screens. Thatcherism made Britain a more aggressive and individualistic country, in thrall to the cult of wealth and celebrity, and the changes that began in 1979 are reflected today in our television and radio schedules.

The 1978 Christmas Radio Times takes us back to a very different era. It proves that the greater "choice" that the neo-liberals offered us was just an illusion, a far greater conjuring trick than anything we saw from the magicians who entertained us that last Christmas.


  1. Not that Thatcher bashing is undeserved, but Neil Clark gets things badly wrong.

    In fact the range of programming Clark finds in the "Radio Times" for Christmas 1978 continued for some years afterwards and actually increased under the Tories. The early years of Channel 4, which began broadcasting in November 1982, were antithetical to the Lady's government as far as its programming policy was concerned. It even had a programme on Saturday evenings for trade unionists. C4 had a heavier commitment to foreign language films in its early years than had been displayed by BBC 2.

    The rot though had definitely begun by the time of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (which can be blamed for the mergers of the ITV contractors) and the beginning of satellite broadcasting. Naturally all this is too "nuanced" for Neil Clark to consider.

  2. Channel 4 is an example of old-fashioned public ownership.

    I am amazed that you even defend existence, never mind laud it output.

    But of course you are right that it was created by the most unlikely of Prime Ministers.

    You are also right about the Broadcasting Act 1990. But, again, I am very surprised that you are.