Back to 1982 – 9th August 1982

Not a lot that’s sourceable on BBC1 today. I might watch tune into Doctor Who and the Monsters for nostalgia’s sake – even though Earthshock is one of those stories that really grates on me these days (the plot, such as it is, is full of holes that I find hard to ignore).

BBC2 is a happier hunting ground. There’s tea-time Laurel and Hardy whilst later a repeat of The Paul Daniels Magic Show will definitely go on the list. Today Paul welcomes Reveen the Impossiblist with his Chess Magic, Mr Electric (the magician who beat the Energy Crisis) and Ray Dondy with his crazy diving skills. If that’s not entertainment then I don’t know what is.

Moving to ITV, an afternoon Van Der Valk repeat is a possible. VDV is a series I’m always surprised to find that I don’t enjoy more – all the building blocks are there (good central performance from Barry Foster, the usual roster of familiar faces guesting) but often the stories are just a little humdrum. Maybe today’s effort will surprise me though.

The blurb for this evening’s Coronation Street (courtesy of Stan Sayer) sounds intriguing. Alf Roberts off to watch a blue film? I’m in.

I’ll round off the evening with Arthur Lowe in A.J. Wentworth B.A. Broadcast after Arthur Lowe’s death in April 1982, the series always had a melancholy feel for that reason. It’s certainly not Lowe at his best, but I felt obligated to watch it forty years ago out of respect, so I think I’ll honour that feeling again today.

(And for those wondering, the eyes belong to John Alderton).

Back to 1982 – 8th August 1982

I’ve fired up the randomizer again and it’s taken me back to August 1982 for the next seven days. As before, I’ll peruse each days listings and select my viewing choices (but they have to be programmes that I have access to, rather than simply a wishlist of what I would watch had I the opportunity).

The 1980 Classic Serial of adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities continues its repeat run – today it’s episode six. These adaptations had been Sunday tea-time staples for so long that it seemed they’d run for ever – but that wasn’t to be. They’re good for a few more years, but eventually their cheap and cheerful style (VT for interiors, film for exteriors) would fall out of fashion as  big-budget all-film productions became the norm.

There’s no shortage of familiar faces – Paul Shelley, Nigel Stock, Ralph Michael, Judy Parfitt, Stephen Yardley, Harold Innocent, David Collings – appearing and Michael E. Briant is a typically strong behind the camera presence so I think I’ll be tuning in.

Prior to the new series beginning in September, the previous run of The Chinese Detective was given a repeat run – today it’s S01E04 – Income Tax. With the DVDs long deleted and no television station yet to pick it up, The Chinese Detective has rather faded from view. A pity, as there was a lot to appreciate over its short run – from David Yip’s engaging lead performance to Ian Kennedy Martin’s scripts (the fact he wrote most of them suggests he was very invested in the series). The always reliable Lee Montague guest-stars today, which is another plus in this episode’s favour.

Over on BBC2 there’s a Jane omnibus. For a myriad of reasons it’s a series you’d never see today – the overdose of CSO for one (I miss programmes that had the sheer nerve to go full-on CSO) and the mild (very mild really) titillation for another.

Not a great deal available on ITV, but Holding the Fort is a possible. It’s a Marks and Gran sitcom that has rather sunk without trace, even though the cast (Peter Davison, Patricia Hodge, Matthew Kelly) were more than passable. Possibly its low profile is due to the fact it’s an ITV sitcom that Network never got around to releasing on DVD. But the episodes are up on YouTube (click here) if you wish to investigate.

Back to May 1986 (22nd May 1986)

It doesn’t look like a classic Top of the Pops line-up tonight, but it’ll give me a good snapshot of musical tastes from mid 1986, so it’s going on the list.

The Clairvoyant on BBC2 will also be worth a look. The combination of the two Roys (Clarke and Kinnear) promised much and whilst you didn’t have to be a mind reader (sorry) to have predicted that this sitcom wouldn’t have a long run, it’s still amusing enough.

ITV offers Never the Twain. It’s a sitcom which ran for an incredibly long time and was sustained throughout its life almost entirely by the larger than life performances of Windsor Davies and Donald Sinden. They could always be guaranteed to make something out of the most predictable situations.

I’ll round the evening off with the 1983 American TV movie version of A Caribbean Mystery.  I’m rather fond of all the 1980’s US Agatha Christie TVMs and whilst it’s obvious that Helen Hayes was no Joan Hickson, on her own terms she makes for an appealing Miss Marple.

Most of the US Christie TVMs of this era feature impressive supporting casts (for example, the other Helen Hayes Marple mystery has Bette Davis, Leo McKern, Dorothy Tutin and John Mills amongst others) but A Caribbean Mystery is a bit bereft in this respect, although the likes of Bernard Hughes, Brock Peters and George Innes do feature.

Back to May 1986 (20th May 1986)

Once again, the number of prime time repeats rather surprises me. My recollection of this era tended to confine re-runs mostly to July and August (a dead couple of months,  which saw the impatient viewer counting down the days before the exciting new season launched in September).

One Arabian Night is the Terry and June episode on offer. Written by Colin Bostock-Smith, it’s a politically incorrect half hour – Derek Griffiths guests as an Arab Prince who takes a shine to June and offers to buy her for fifty camels.

We’re on firmer ground with Juliet Bravo (The Day The Circus Left Town). The Kenny Everett Show is also worth a look – it’s a re-run from the third series, so the strike rate is still pretty high (the show tended to tail off somewhat during the next few years).

Over on ITV there’s Duty Free – a series that was incredibly popular at the time (even displacing Coronation Street at the top of the ratings) although didn’t seem to generate an equal amount of love. Even today, it’s seen as a lesser part of the Eric Chappell canon – but I’ve always loved it. Very studio-bound, it has the feel of a stage farce which is one of the reasons why I’ve always found it appealing. When the Christmas Special went to Spain for location filming it seemed to kill the comedy stone dead, which suggests that the artificiality of studio VT work can sometimes be a positive.

And if there’s time I’ll catch a bit more of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

Back to May 1986 (16th May 1986)

The randomiser has taken me back to 1986, to sample a week’s television. What does Friday the 16th of May offer? Let’s take a look ….

BBC1 offers a repeat of Home and Dry, the final episode from Big Deal’s first series (watching this might spur me into attempting a complete rewatch). There’s more repeats on ITV – Me and My Girl and Home to Roost. Me and My Girl isn’t greeted with much enthusiasm by the Daily Mirror blurb writer, Tony Pratt (who also seems unaware that the show had already clocked up three series by this point) but you can’t argue with the combined talents of O’Sullivan, Brooke-Taylor and Sanderson.

Home to Roost isn’t a sitcom that’s ever really clicked with me (which is surprising, since I’ve always enjoyed most of Eric Chappell’s output). Maybe time to give it another go and see if it’s more engaging this time round.

The undoubted pick of the evening is Quo Vadis, Pet, the final episode of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet‘s second series. At the time this seemed to be the final end (although it’s slightly disturbing to realise that the first comeback series aired twenty years ago. Where has that time gone?)

The second series, of course, was overshadowed by the death of Gary Horton – especially towards the end of the run when his absence had to be explained away by a double passing through shot or amended dialogue. Despite this, all of the series’ remaining story threads are neatly tied up and even if the second half of series two did sag a little, I’d have to say it slightly edges the first run as my favourite.

Back to April 1982 (7th April 1982)

There’s nothing sourceable for me on BBC1, whilst BBC2 offers The Ascent of Man and M*A*S*H as possibilities.

ITV’s a happier hunting ground – there’s the always reliable Coronation Street (Derek Wilton making his first appearance since April 1979) followed by a repeat of The Benny Hill Show. I’m not sure whether I’ll attempt to track down exactly which one it is, as you’d no doubt get the gist from any of his shows at this point ….

Undoubted highlight of the evening is In – the final episode of Minder‘s third series. There’s a grimmer tone to this one – Arthur’s behind bars and desperate whilst Terry, still on the outside, attempts to clear his friend’s name.

This was one of Leon Griffiths’ last scripts for the series. Several writers (Tony Hoare especially) very effectively developed and broadened Griffiths’ original concept, but there’s always something satisfying about watching something written by Minder‘s creator.

Featuring a typically strong supporting cast (Brian Cox, Frederick Jaeger, Diane Langton, Russell Hunter) it’s the sort of episode that makes me want to go back and rewatch the whole series in order.

Morecambe & Wise at Thames

The news that Network look to be releasing all of Morecambe and Wise’s Thames shows soon (DVD covers have appeared on Amazon) fills me with a certain amount of joy. I took to Twitter to express my delight but Twitter being Twitter it wasn’t long before somebody stopped by to tell me that the Thames era was a bit rubbish really ….

This is a widely held view, but hopefully after all the shows become accessible we might see something of a reassessment. It’s true that Morecambe and Wise’s Thames twilight years don’t match their BBC peak – but then both performers were older and slower (especially Eric, who had suffered his second heart attack in the late seventies). And no matter how good Eddie Braben was, after more than a decade writing for Eric and Ernie it’s not a surprise that sometimes things seem rather familiar.

But one thing you realise when working through the BBC era is that not everything is gold. The hit rate is pretty good, but there’s a fair bit of chaff too. For me, it’s Little Ern’s plays which are the main sticking point – had they been tight, ten minute skits then they’d pass by very agreeably (but many tend to be twice that length and are more of a trial than a treasure).

Since the regular Thames shows were only twenty five minutes, this sort of indulgence was no longer possible. Possibly the shows were shorter in order not to put too much pressure on Eric, but whatever the reason it was a positive move.

Although I watch a considerable amount of archive television (a self evident statement I know) I’m very rarely motivated by nostalgia. I’m prepared to make an exception for E & E at Thames though.

I don’t have any clear memories of their first run BBC performances (and in the late seventies, early eighties their BBC shows didn’t get repeated very often) so I really hopped on board at the start of their Thames transfer. So little things (“here they are now, Morecambe & Wise” sung to the Thames jingle and Eric walking off at the end of each show to catch the bus) still give me a little nostalgic frisson.

Fingers crossed that these DVDs don’t go into limbo like certain other Network titles (Biggles, Hollywood). Time will tell ….

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club – 8th March 1975

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Tonight’s Turns:

The Flirtations
The Krankies
George Melly with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers
Richard and Lara Jarman
Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson

There seems to be a never-ending line of girl groups who are available to be wheeled on to open the show. Today it’s the Flirtations, who have an impressive history and look to be another group that I’ll need to investigate further at a later date. Put Your Hands Together is the song they perform here – all three take turns to trade main vocal lines (although it’s fair to say that some seem better suited to taking the lead than others).

The Krankies are back. It’s slightly baffling now to understand quite how they managed to maintain such a long career, given the thinness of their act (possibly it was a mystery back then as well). The formula is as before – straight man Ian (lovely ruffled shirt, sir) finds himself continually interrupted by the highly irritating schoolboy Jimmy.

A sample joke will give you a flavour of their act. “Do you know anything about general knowledge? Yes, he was a soldier”. I don’t know why, but this time round I found their shtick to be somewhat creepy.

Still, things pick up with George Melly. Along with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers he rampages through The Boogie Woogie Man. They were an act surely good enough to be top of the bill, instead of being relegated to five minutes just before the advert break. Oh well.

Considering he wasn’t a name performer, Richard Jarman (together with the lovely Lara) gets a very generous chunk of the show (some thirteen minutes). It’s a perfect example of the sort of magic act you could expect to see in clubland, utilising props which don’t take up a great deal of floorspace.

Things don’t get off to the best of starts when Richard, preparing for the egg into dove illusion, drops the lid onto the floor. But quick as a flash he picks it up and things carry on. Once this minor miracle is out of the way it’s time to concentrate on the two main illusions.  The first is the very familiar Zig Zag Girl, although back then it was more current – having been invented just a decade earlier by Robert Harbin (one of his performances can be found on Network’s London Palladium release).

The trunk illusion is much older (it was a favourite of Houdini’s) and although it’s not too hard to work out how it’s done, the trick is still a good one.  Both illusions do take a while to set up (which helps to explain why the spot was so long) although it’s a slight surprise to me that Richard was allowed the two big tricks, rather than just one.

No act could be better suited to the Wheeltappers than Joe ‘Mr Piano’ Henderson (he plays the piano, you know). ‘Mr Piano’ leads the faithful in a number of sing-alongs (including You Made Me Love You which seemed to feature every other week). Joe’s amiable pub style of playing is the ideal way to close the show. Not an edition that’s particularly high on star power, but there are worse ways to spend forty minutes.

Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show (1982)

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Although Mike Yarwood was one of the kings of 1970’s light entertainment television, his profile has remained fairly low during the last few decades – mainly because few of his shows are commercially available or receive television airings.  Selected Morecambe & Wise and Two Ronnies Christmas Specials pop up in the schedules each year, but Yarwood (whose 1977 Christmas Special achieved a record rating of twenty eight million – just narrowly beating that year’s Morecambe & Wise show) has tended to remain trapped in the archives.

Maybe this is due to concerns that some of his impersonations are too obscure for modern audiences or possibly his brand of humour just seems too bland and middle of the road.  I’d love to see a run of his work for the BBC in the 1970’s – as that’s generally held to be his strongest – but as it’s not available the next best thing is the DVD It’s Mike Yarwood.

Released by Fremantle in 2007, it contains four shows that he made for Thames between 1982 and 1984 as well as a documentary from 1984 – Mike Yarwood: This Is Him.  The documentary is by far the best thing on the DVD, as it offers a well-observed insight into both the man and the mechanics of how his television programmes were put together.

It’s possible to sense from the 1984 interview material that he knew his time was nearly up.  Like Morecambe & Wise, Yarwood’s move from the BBC to Thames wasn’t the happiest of periods in his professional life.  Thames had the practical resources to match the BBC, but for both M&W and Yarwood the spark seems to have gone.  In M&W’s case it was age – Eric Morecambe’s health became a major limiting factor – whilst Yarwood struggled with the brave new world of the 1980’s.

Many of Yarwood’s favourite subjects (especially Harold Wilson) were no longer central figures in British culture – although that didn’t prevent him from continuing to mimic them.  As he struggled to find new people to add to his act, there was also the question of material.  In the This Is Him documentary, Yarwood comments that he could never impersonate anybody he didn’t like – and his gentle mockery would seem increasingly out of place as the alternative comedy boom of the 1980’s wore on.  The next generation of impressionists, such as Rory Bremner, offered more caustic political commentary which was a world away from Yarwood’s style.  Struggles with stage-fright and alcohol were other reasons why Yarwood gradually faded from the public view.

Like Stanley Baxter, Yarwood was a king of makeup and sometimes this was necessary to sell the illusion of his impression.  Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show, broadcast in 1982, opens with him dressed as Matthew Kelly on the set of Game for a Laugh.  Without this, it would be impossible to guess from the voice alone who he was impersonating.  Yarwood was quite happy to mock this, as later in the show he hands over to himself dressed as Bob Monkhouse, who offers this tribute to the star of the show.  “The man with a million voices – every one exactly the same.”

He seemed to have been a generous performer though – witness the sketch where he plays Prince Charles.  Suzanne Danielle is Princess Diana and the pair are interviewed by Selina Scott.  Danielle gets several of the best lines and the biggest laughs (it’s easy to imagine some of his contemporaries wouldn’t have been happy with this and would have insisted on some rewrites to redress the balance).

Christmas at the White House sees Yarwood play Ronald Reagan, Sammy Davies Jnr, George Burns and Frank Sinatra.  This sequence offers more proof that his style remained rooted in previous decades (he could have impersonated Davies Jnr, Burns and Sinatra in the 1960’s or 1970’s just as effectively).

During the last ten minutes he does some stand-up impersonations in front of the studio audience.  There’s few props (just the odd hat and chair) but it’s easily the best part of the show.  His subjects remain established figures – Bob Hope, Ken Dodd, Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughan, Dave Allen – but there’s something about his direct connection with the audience that works really well.

Had there been more of that (and less of the elaborate make-up) then the show would undoubtedly have been better, but Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show is still a diverting way to spend fifty minutes.

Duty Free (YTV 1984)

L-R - Neil Stacey, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor
L-R – Neil Stacey, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor

Incredibly popular in its day, Duty Free is a series that has aged pretty well. Yes, it’s predictable stuff, but the regulars (particularly Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor) are so good that they can, and do, lift the sometimes thin material.

The first series is by far the best, particularly once Amy (Taylor) discovers her husband, David (Barron) has been involved with Linda (Joanna Van Gyseghem).

Rather endearingly, David and Linda’s affair never seemed to have progressed beyond holding hands and the odd clinch. Like the Carry On films, frustration is the name of the game.

But after Amy learns the truth, Taylor has some wonderful scenes that have a little more depth than might have been expected. Gwen Taylor is the star player throughout the run, and never more so than here.

The second and third series tend to stretch the love triangle to breaking point, but they still have their moments.

Not ground-breaking then, but certainly an enjoyable watch.