Mark Mason

Did we know TV was crap in the old days?

Did we know TV was crap in the old days?
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Here’s a question for those of you old enough to remember 1980s television: did we realise at the time how crap it was, or did we simply not know any better?

I’ve been struggling with my own answer to this, ever since watching Danny Baker’s World Cup Brush Up on BBC4 the other night. Yet again the fabulous Baker boy proved that the ‘clip show’ doesn’t have to be an insult. Among the many choice morsels was an early-80s side-splitter from Blue Peter, in which Kevin Keegan was shown a 3D model of himself made by artist Silvia Gardner. (That’s a guessed spelling by the way – inexplicably Google doesn’t seem to have heard of her.) The presenter Simon Groom explains that Gardner has constructed Keegan by ‘working out things from old tights and bits of foam rubber’. If that sounds alarming, wait till you see the result (see above).

Had the props guy on The Exorcist gone to William Friedkin with this creation for the scene in which Regan’s head spins round, the director would have rejected it as too frightening. Either that or flooded the set with tears of hilarity. Quite how Keegan managed to get through the item without doing one or the other remains a mystery. Groom, on the other hand, was either the best TV presenter (ie, liar) in the world, or genuinely believed that the monstrosity in front of him merited several minutes’ worth of live broadcasting.

The very reason Baker chose the clip is that it’s laughably bad. But looking back on the era now - these were my prime Blue Peter-watching years - I have absolutely no idea whether or not I recognised that at the time. Was I sitting there saying ‘Simon’s right, that really is an artistically impressive likeness of Kevin Keegan, how lucky I am to have been given the chance to gaze on it’, or was I thinking ‘this is rubbish. When will Channel 4 get invented so the three exisiting channels can have the boot of competition applied to their complacent backsides?’ Did we know no better because there was no better? Or were we taking 1980s television the same way we take it 30 years on, smothered in several layers of irony, garnished with a sprig of so-bad-it’s-good? My memory is a blank.

It’s the same with Dennis Waterman. He co-anchored two of the greatest shows of that era, The Sweeney and Minder. Watch a re-run of either programme now and you’re confronted with one inescapable truth: Waterman can’t act his way out of a paper bag. But did I notice that then? I honestly can’t tell you. Perhaps I was so distracted by Waterman’s supremely talented co-stars (John Thaw and George Cole respectively) that I failed to notice the absurd mockney shenanigans occurring stage-right. Or maybe standards were just that much lower then. ‘We’ve given them one proper actor,’ the producers would say, ‘who cares if we pad it out with a bit of plywood from Dennis?’

It's curious that your cultural memory can be wiped so effectively. Either way, though, I feel sad. If I knew at the time that TV was crap then my childhood was one long string of disappointments. If I believed in what was being served up then it was an age of innocence that can never be recaptured.