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.