The Guinness Book of Classic TV by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping


Imagine, if you can, a time before the Internet. Back in those far off days, obtaining information about your favourite television programme (especially if it was slightly obscure) was both difficult and time-consuming.

So The Guinness Book of Classic TV (2nd edition, 1996) was a real godsend. To be able to have episode guides close at hand for series such as Doctor Finlay’s Casebook was very welcome, even if there was no way to actually watch the programmes.  Still, we could dream about a time when all this material would be available at the touch of a button ….

Over 100 programmes were covered, including the likes of The Troubleshooters, The Forsyth Saga, The Army Game, Up Pompeii!!, Citizen Smith, Hancock’s Half Hour, The Young Ones, Absolutely Fabulous, Watch with Mother, Dixon of Dock Green, Callan, Edge of Darkness, Doctor Who, The Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Upstairs Downstairs, Colditz, Secret Army and I Claudius.

The opening analysis – an absorbing ten-page trot through the history of Coronation Street – begins the book with a bang and this high standard is maintained throughout. Mind you, given this is a Cornell/Day/Topping tome it’s unlikely that you’re going to agree with all their opinions (poor Crossroads is given a bit of a kicking).

It’s also interesting to find the later years of Dixon of Dock Green labelled as a dangerous and embarrassing anacronym. That was certainly a widely held view back in the nineties although the DVD release of most of the existing colour episodes has helped to rehabilitate the show in recent years.

There are a few omissions – Public Eye and Sergeant Cork for example – although in the pre-DVD age that’s not really surprising (Cork especially languished in obscurity prior to its emergence on DVD, so if it wasn’t available twenty five years ago you can’t really blame them for ignoring it).

The Guinness Book of Classic TV has aged well. As I’ve said, a few entries are slightly eyebrow raising but most of the book is packed with pithy and well-constructed capsule reviews. It’s been a well-thumbed favourite on my bookshelf for over twenty years and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it for many years to come.

16 thoughts on “The Guinness Book of Classic TV by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping

  1. Is there a *second* edition? Oh (annoyed grunt)… I bet it’s so impossible to get now.
    Also, what would be included in a 3rd ed’n now 25 years ( nearly) gone by?


      • There are a number of misquotes of dialogue often which are close but not quite right, suggesting that the authors didn’t see some of the episodes as much as they could have and were working from memory.
        The Charmers, for example, they quote Steed’s reply to Fenella Fielding’s concern to being sent to Holoway as “do you think that could be arranged?” when the line is “do you think that’s a possibility?”

        They ascribe a quote in the Rotters to the wrong actor.

        Liked by 1 person

    • This book was certainly a lot more useful than Halliwell’s TV Guide. That book copied the format of Halliwell’s Film Guide, but it didn’t work because television is a different medium. Halliwell’s TV Guide tried to cover everything, but ended up not saying much about anything.

      The Guinness Book of Classic British TV selected a handful of key programmes from each genre and takes a more in depth look.

      In one of the early editions of the aforementioned fanzine the editor suggested that Halliwell’s TV Guide could be the Bible of the fanzine. But firstly, the cult tv appreciation group was actually part of a larger organisation whose golden rule is that the organisation as a whole as no opinions, so to say that a particular book should be our Bible would be to impose an opinion. And secondly Halliwell’s TV Guide was a useless book.

      So I said in the review that the Guinness Book of Classic British TV shouldn’t be the Bible for the fanzine, but it was a useful reference.


  2. It’s an interesting observation about Dixon of Dock Green. In Stephen Frears’ documentary about British Cinema, ‘Typically British’, Gavin Lambert seemed to hold that view dating all the way back to the movie forerunner, The Blue Lamp, in 1950. From memory, I think his contention was the fact that when PC Dixon was shot and killed by Dirk Bogarde, (a moment Gavin Lambert very much enjoyed), it was a metaphor for the death of stifling middle-class cinema epitomised in Brief Encounter, and paved the way for the rise of the working class and the New Wave. Digressing slightly, there’s a great blooper tape from Dixon of Dock Green you may have seen, where Vic Maddern is trying to say ‘Dock Green Nick’, but comes out with everything from ‘Dock Green Dick’ to ‘Dick Green Dock’.

    Liked by 1 person

      • There are some programmes where the out-take has become more famous than the programme.

        There was a quiz at a Doctor Who convention where they showed a clip from The Awakening where the horse and carriage was about to go into the church, and they stopped the tape and asked “What happens next?”. The contestant said that the carriage gets stuck in the gate, and then they showed the rest of the tape and the carriage went through the gate because it was a clip from the broadcast programme and not the out-take.

        But the prime example was a comedy sketch show where they parodied a lager commercial. There was a lager advert where Franz Schubert is composing a symphony when his friends come round and ask him if he wants to come with them to the tavern. Schubert tells them that he’s working on his latest score, but his friends tell him that the tavern is selling a particular brand of lager, so he joins them. It then cuts to the men in the bar drinking lager, and one of the friends says “hey Schubert, what about your unfinished symphony?”, to which he replies “what about my unfinished lager”.

        But the only reason this advert is remembered is because there was a comedy show where they did a sketch where Schubert’s friends come round his house and ask him if he wants to come with them to the tavern. Schubert tells them that he’s working on his latest score, but his friends tell him that the tavern is selling a particular brand of lager, but Schubert replies “But you haven’t seen my latest score.!, and this young women joins him at the window.

        But the only reason the sketch is remembered is that there was an edition of It’ll Be Alright On the Night where they showed the out-take from the sketch when Schubert and the woman fall off the bench.

        Liked by 2 people

    • When I wrote my review of the Guinness Book of Classic British Television I said that Dixon of Dock Green was “a surprisingly reactionary programme”. But that was just based on the authors’ assessment. Their chapter on Dixon of Dock Green said that in a programme broadcast during the late sixties Dixon stated that he was pro-death penalty.

      Then again the first ever Z Cars begins with Barlow and Watt visiting the grave of a policeman who was murdered while on duty, and both are hoping the murderer will be hanged.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Apparently there was a live episode of Z-Cars in which one of the actors opened the front door to the house (set) they were in, only to find one of the studio cameras in the doorway. I think it might have been Alan Plater that shared that little anecdote on Desert Island Discs, but I can’t remember for certain. It’s funny, looking back now, just how many clangers were actually left in programmes of the 60s and 70s, owing to the difficulties of editing. I’m thinking of Dad’s Army in particular, which was riddled with little verbal slips and stumbles, and one occasion when John Laurie actually referred to a guest actor by his real name rather than that of the character.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I bought both editions…well, it seems like not too long ago but I’ll probably find it’s five years or more. It’s worth getting both because they both cover series the other volume doesn’t. Unfortunately, some of the updates on series still ongoing (Casualty for instance) amount to one or two tacked on paragraphs, and the availability of shows like Doomwatch and Secret Army makes it clear that some sections were written from flawed memory. (They might even include that mostly-made-up quote from The Tomorrow People:A Rift in Time.) But all the same, I completely devoured them and am glad to have them.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Some Mothers Do Ave Em, Rumpole of the Bailey, Alas Smith and Jones, Carrott’s Lib, The Comic Strip Presents, The New Statesman, Captain Pugwash and Count Duckula are only in the 1st edition. Brookside, One Foot in the Grave, Absolutely Fabulous, Harry Enfield, Between the Lines, The Bill, Cracker and Poldark are only in the 2nd edition.

        (And having checked…yes, they do include the mostly-made-up Tomorrow People quote.)


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