Was television in Seventies Britain that good? Is today’s better? James Walton investigates
On the weekend of 2–3 December 1978, two ambitious drama projects began on television. One was the BBC Shakespeare — which seven years later had finally carried out its promise to make TV versions of the entire canon. The other took rather less time, but these days is perhaps even harder to imagine. ITV (yes, ITV) gave over the first of six Saturday nights to a series of new and sometimes experimental plays by Alan Bennett.
In late 1978, the solid cultural fare didn’t end there. The weekend before, BBC1’s long-running Play of the Month (in the slot recently occupied by such shameless heart-warmers as Lark Rise to Candleford or The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) had allowed Sunday-evening viewers a rare chance to see Kean by Jean-Paul Sartre, with a cast including Anthony Hopkins and Robert Stephens. On the Thursday afterwards came the Bavarian State Opera’s production of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
I know all this because the other day in a second-hand bookshop I happened to find The Crystal Bucket by Clive James, a collection of his Observer television reviews from 1976 to 1979. Reading them now, it’s clearer than ever that James’s essentially genial tone — with its ability to treat and not treat television very seriously at the same time — has influenced British TV criticism ever since. The content occasionally suggests that some things haven’t changed much. (In 1978, controversy apparently raged over the amount of licence-payers’ money being paid to presenters like Sue Lawley.) On the whole, though, the book plunges us deep into a TV world that’s not just lost, but already almost inconceivable.
James, for a start, constantly emphasises the sheer amount of airtime that had to be filled — in an age when there were three channels, which closed down at midnight and which packed their intermittent daytime schedules with schools programmes. Nonetheless, what remains most striking to a 21st-century reader is how astonishingly high-minded the television of the late 1970s was.
Back then, not many weeks ever seem to have gone past without a documentary on the Italian Marxist composer Luigi Nono, a production of Verdi’s Macbeth or a two-hour drama about the death of Dylan Thomas. Nowadays, even BBC4 might balk at a new three-part translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In 1979 The Serpent Son showed up on primetime BBC1, with a script by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, and Denis Quilley, Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren among the cast. Meanwhile, ITV hit back at Play of the Month — with its regular diet of Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw and Restoration comedy — by serving up The Best Play of 19… This was a series put together by Sir Laurence Olivier and starring the man himself in dramas ranging from Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Saturday, Sunday, Monday by Eduardo de Filippo. And when Olivier was unavailable, ITV could always fall back on the likes of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
Just in case this doesn’t sound unbelievable enough to younger readers, there’s also Clive James’s airy certainty about the intellectual superiority of British over American television. The US imports that James reviewed were shows like Dallas, The Man from Atlantis and The Incredible Hulk — although he does permit himself a frankly lecherous soft spot for Charlie’s Angels (particularly after Cheryl Ladd joined the cast). In more recent times, faced with The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The West Wing, Mad Men and at least a dozen more, he’d surely have had to concede not only that these are in a totally different league from anything Britain has to offer, but also that — to judge from their ratings here — they’re too clever for British viewers. One of the most nationally humiliating sights of the past few years came in Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe when Brooker showed episodes of The Bill to a group of American film students. They reacted exactly as we do when seeing, say, a Turkish soap opera on holiday: with a mixture of amazement and amusement at the utter amateurishness of the whole thing.
All of which should mean that the debate about whether British television ever enjoyed that famous ‘Golden Age’ is settled at last. Yes, it did, and Clive James was there to record it. Certainly, the sort of swaggering confidence that the British television of the 1970s had in its own worth — and in its own viewers — has long gone. Yet before we get carried away with the always-enjoyable business of lamenting lost glories, The Crystal Bucket does contain some other reminders too.
In the introduction, written in 1981, we discover that, if the 1970s was a Golden Age, it was one dominated by the debate about a lost Golden Age. ‘Many people,’ says James, ‘were thrilled by the 1960s and disappointed by the 1970s.’ In fact, ‘television continued to be roughly what it had been before — i.e., a curate’s cornucopia’. The same phrase wouldn’t be out of place today, when even the most raddled nostalgia-addict would be hard-pressed to deny the claims for TV greatness of such 21st-century series as, among others, Iran and the West, QI, Early Doors, Life on Mars, Planet Earth, Bleak House, The Office, Shameless, The Thick of It, The Power of Nightmares and Cranford.
The book also makes it wincingly obvious that what the anti-Golden Age camp always says is true, too: in the Seventies there was an awful lot of rubbish amid the good stuff. Admittedly, today’s audience might have to wait a while for the next all-star production of Chekhov on BBC1 — or for Pinter’s return to ITV. On the other hand, we’re equally unlikely to see anything as bad as Golden Gala, a variety show (complete with dancing girls and Noele Gordon from Crossroads) that was broadcast in 1978 to mark 50 years of women’s suffrage. Or The Little and Largest Show on Earth — about which James rightly points out that ‘[Syd] Little is not pretending to be just standing there. He is just standing there.’
But there’s perhaps something else, too. If you’re honest, would the average Spectator reader prefer to be settling down tonight to watch Helen Mirren in a couple of hours of uncompromising Greek tragedy or in Prime Suspect? A challenging new TV production of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (‘stunningly dull’ — Clive James) rather than Harry Hill’s TV Burp? Of course, it’s tempting to think that this is television’s fault too; that it’s created the taste by which it’s now enjoyed: a much lower one than 30 years ago. And yet, mightn’t the terrible truth be that these days we do indeed get the television we deserve — and possibly even want?