Back to May 1986 (19th May 1986)

The repeats just keep on coming, although many of them (like The Rock ‘N’ Roll Years) are very welcome. It’s difficult to articulate today quite how magical this series was back then – when history (news, music, entertainment) wasn’t available at the click of a button, these half hour digests were windows into vanished worlds.

Today’s episode, 1963, was – of course – notable for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but for a generation of young Doctor Who fans it meant we could enjoy a clip from An Unearthly Child. With the Five Faces repeat from 1981 a distant memory and the VHS release still four years away, it was like gold dust ….

Moving over to BBC2, there’s another chance to see The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. And on ITV’s there’s a re-run of Edward and Mrs Simpson, now stripped over three evenings. As it was originally broadcast in seven parts, it looks like it’s been trimmed down to fit six one-hour slots.

Rather like, Winston Churchill – The Wilderness Years, it has a supporting cast to die for. If the likes of Nigel Hawthorne, Peggy Ashcroft, Marius Goring, Cherie Lunghi, Kika Markham, John Shrapnel, Maurice Denham, Geoffrey Lumsden, Patrick Troughton, Patricia Hodge, Wensley Pithey, Gary Waldhorn and Hugh Fraser doesn’t get the pulse racing then you’re probably reading the wrong blog …

Back to April 1977 (29th April 1977)

Drawing a blank with the BBC channels, but luckily ITV is a pretty happy hunting ground today.

First, there’s a repeat of The Ghosts of Motley Hall. You can’t fault the cast (Arthur English, Peter Sallis and Freddie Jones amongst others) plus you’ve got scripts from Richard Carpenter, so we should be set for an entertaining half hour.

At 7.30 pm on London there’s an episode of Backs to the Land (Alarms, Excursions and Day Trips). This DVD’s been sitting on the shelf for a while, so this is a good opportunity to dust it down and take a look (David and Michael Troughton featured in the first series playing – not surprisingly – brothers).

After Hawaii Five O, the main drama of the evening will be Raffles. Mr Justice Raffles is tonight’s installment – John Savident (on excellent form as an odious moneylender) and Charles Dance guest in an episode from towards of the end of the series. Like the majority of the episodes it was adapted by Philip Mackie, which is an extra incentive to watch (two of Mackie’s previous serials, The Caesars and An Englishman’s Castle, are currently sitting on my tottering pending rewatch pile).

Back to April 1977 (27th April 1977)

First stop is The Peacemaker, an episode from the third and final series of Survivors. Written by Roger Parkes it was the first of three scripts he contributed to series three (having already penned two episodes the year before). Parkes had an interestingly varied career – beginning with ITC series like The Prisoner and Man in a Suitcase before plying his trade during the seventies with the likes of Doomwatch, Crown Court, The Onedin Line, Blakes 7 and Z Cars (amongst others).

The M*A*S*H boxset has been sitting on my shelf for a number of years, so I might as well dust it down in order to enjoy a repeat of Check-Up.

Over on ITV there’s a repeat of Bless This House. The Frozen Limit is the episode in question (in which Sid and Jean buy a fridge freezer with the inevitable hilarious consequences).

For more light relief there’s Coronation Street. In today’s episode Alf, Fred, Renee and Mavis go fishing and have a day to remember. Renee ends up in the river (the stuntperson performing an athletic forward roll) and Mavis gamely jumps in to save her.

Back to April 1981 (6th April 1981)

BBC1 is my first stop for Star Trek and The Lights of Zetar. It’s a series three episode, which is the cue for disappointment for some (although I’ve never found the later episodes to be that bad). And since this is the only one co-written by Shari (Lamb Chop) Lewis, it’s worth a look for that reason alone. According to Genome, it was previously broadcast in 1971 and 1973, so Zetar fans have had quite a wait to see it again.

Today’s Coronation Street is slightly ahead of my current rewatch, but I think I’ll dip in to see what’s going on (possible romance for Fred, according to the Daily Mirror blurb).

Undoubted highlight of the day is Yes Minister on BBC2 at 9.00 pm. The final episode of series two, A Question of Loyalty is as sharp today (if not more) than it’s ever been.

If there’s time, I might catch the repeat of The Sweeney over on ITV. Ranald Graham’s Nightmare is the episode getting another airing today.

Back to April 1979 (4th April 1979)

During the next seven days I’ll be sampling April’s schedules between 1979 and 1985. As before, I’m only going to choose programmes that I can actually source from my archive, so anything which looks intriguing but I don’t have will have to be sadly passed over. Let’s dive in ….

BBC1 offers a repeat of Happy Ever After which is followed by a repeat of Accident (no doubt the high preponderance of repeats was irritating certain viewers).

Accident has reached episode two, Take Your Partners. It’s an interesting series, which focuses on the ramifications of the same event (a multi vehicle accident) from different perspectives. This gives it a similar feel to Villains (LWT, 1972). There’s no shortage of good actors across the series’ eight episodes and this was one of three directed by the always reliable Douglas Camfield.

Over on ITV, there’s chicken issues in Coronation Street (a short-lived but nevertheless amusing plotline which sees an initially reluctant Hilda transformed into a doting fowl lover). Later I’ll be crossing over to BBC2 for the start of a new series – Q8. By this point, Spike Milligan’s idiosyncratic sketch show defies any sort of description – but, if you’re in the right mood, there’s usually some nuggets of gold still to be found.

Annie Walker’s Greatest Hits

As it’s the anniversary of Doris Speed’s birth, I’ve been mulling over some of my favourite Mrs Walker moments (everyone needs a hobby). This isn’t an exhaustive countdown but hopefully it’ll be of interest. Please feel free to add any I’ve missed on the comments section.

10. 14th July 1976 – Hilda unveils her muriel.

09. 8th May 1978. Mrs Walker, returning from holiday, is appalled to learn that someone’s pinched her car. And as for Fred’s choice of alternative transport …

08. 19th October 1977. The regulars throw a party to mark Mrs Walker’s forty years at the Rovers.

07. 11th October 1978. Mr Garfield from the Weatherfield General is revealed to be a lowly hospital porter rather than a consultant. Mrs Walker, who has benefited from his healing touch on her bad back, isn’t best pleased to learn the truth …

06. 1st November 1976. Mrs Walker broaches the wages issue with Betty and Bet. It’s not good news.

05. 6th June 1977. It’s the day of the Jubilee parade and Mrs Walker assumes the role she was born to play.

04. 4th August 1976. Mrs Walker crosses polite swords with her arch enemy Nellie Harvey (Mollie Sugden) for the final time.

03. 10th January 1979. Setting Mrs Walker up for a comic fall was something that happened again and again over the years. This one – Mrs Walker discovers that the artwork hanging on her wall was painted by Hilda – is an excellent example.

02. 7th November 1977. A lovely dramatic moment for a change, in which Mrs Walker confronts her feckless brother (played by Derek Francis). Although she had been a widow since 1970, Jack’s presence – thanks to his prominent photograph in the sitting room – tended to be felt on many occasions.

01. 21st September 1977. Another classic moment where Bet takes sadistic delight in puncturing Mrs Walker’s pretensions. The slowly sinking realisation that her monogrammed carpet hails from a bingo hall clearly cuts like a knife …

On this day (21 January)

Spyder Secures a Main Strand, the first episode of Spyder’s Web, was broadcast on ITV in 1972.

Spyder’s Web is a rum old thing. Running for just 13 episodes, it’s a spy series which owes a certain debt to the likes of The Avengers and James Bond. It possesses a tone that can vary from bizarre and light-hearted to grim.

Starring Patricia Cutts, Anthony Ainley and Veronica Carlson, there’s some familiar names on the writing front (Roy Clarke, Robert Holmes, Alfred Shaughnessy with Malcolm Hulke as script editor). Not everything works although Clarke, who wrote five scripts, tended to deliver.

A pity that most of the series now only exists as black and white telerecordings (altough of course that’s preferable to them not existing at all). Having not seen it for a while, I feel in the mood to give it another spin.

By Order of the Fuhrer, the first episode of Enemy at the Door, was broadcast on ITV in 1978.

Enemy at the Door is an interesting series. At first glance it looked like it was ITV’s attempt to copy the BBC’s Secret Army, but the differences between the two become quickly apparent.

Secret Army saw a regular stream of Allied airmen sent back home to Britain. This was the motor that drove the series – the constant underground struggle by a group of Belgian patriots against their numerically superior German overlords.

Enemy at the Door, by virtue of the fact it was set on an island (Guernsey), could never duplicate this – instead it concentrated on the uneasy alliance forged between the islanders and their new German masters. For example, as time goes on the audience is invited to ponder whether Dr. Philip Martel (Bernard Horsfall) is just doing his best for his fellow islanders or if he’s an active collaborator.

An extra layer of drama is generated by the fact that the likes of Major Richter (Alfred Burke), Major Freidel (Simon Lack) and Oberleutnant Kluge (John Malcolm) are portrayed as reasonable men rather than monsters. Of course you also need the balance of an icy and implacable German – Hauptsturmfuhrer Reinicke (Simon Cadell) is on hand to deliver this.

As a pre-watershed series, Enemy at the Door shies away from anything too graphic but the stories still manage to be nuanced and downbeat. With scripts from the likes of N.J. Crisp (no stranger to this type of drama) it’s a series that still packs a punch today. If you’ve not seen it, then it’s worth tracking down the DVDs or keeping an eye out to see if Talking Pictures TV re-run it.

On this day (16th January)

Hazell plays Soloman, the first episode of Hazell, was broadcast on ITV in 1978.

Based on the novels by Gordon Williams and Terry Venables (writing under the pseudonym P B Yuill) Hazell was a series that I’m always surprised didn’t run longer (it clocked up 22 episodes between 1978 and 1979).

Although Williams and Venables thought Nicholas Ball was a little too young to play the title character, he’s always a strong presence at the centre of each episode, more than holding his own against a diverse group of decent guest actors (not to mention Roddy McMillian as Hazell’s nemesis, ‘Choc’ Minty).

Employing the sensibilities of 1940’s American private eye thrillers (such as laconic narration) transported to a late 1970’s London setting was one of those nice touches which signaled that the series was attempting to do something a little different. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t a Euston Films production – instead it uses the more traditional VT for studio, film for location mix which makes it look a little old-fashioned compared to The Sweeney, The Professionals or Minder.

Maybe it was the emergence of Minder in 1979 which curtailed Hazell‘s run. If you have one series dealing with London’s criminal lowlife, do you really need two? Also, there were some suggestions that Nicholas Ball refused to make a third series if it wasn’t shot on film.

This opening episode was based on the first novel and boasts an impressive guest cast (Jane Asher, Fiona Mollison, George Innes, Patsy Smart).

The Infinite Variety, the first episode of Life on Earth, was broadcast on BBC2 in 1979.

Although David Attenborough had been making wildlife documentaries since the 1950’s, Life on Earth was a groundbreaking production – utlising a variety of innovative filming techniques to present breathtaking images of the natural world never before seen on screen.

Having said that, possibly the series’ most enduring moment was Attenborough’s encounter with a group of mountain gorillas (which was certainly easier to film than sequences which necessitated hundreds of hours of patience to capture just a few seconds of screentime).

For those in the UK, or who are able to access it, the complete series is available on the iPlayer whilst there’s a radio documentary reuniting key members of the production team available here.

On this day (6th January)

The first episode of Dick Barton was broadcast on ITV in 1979.

Tony Vogel is the square-jawed Barton, doing his best to deal with some beastly villains (foreigners naturally) whilst also rescuing the odd damsel in distress. Played entertainingly straight, Dick Barton has to be an oddity – offhand I can’t think of many UK drama series made in 15 minute episodes.

Swiftnick, the first episode of Dick Turpin was broadcast on ITV in 1979.

Two Dicks making their debut on the same day …

Richard O’Sullivan is good value as the dashing highwayman in Richard Carpenter’s extremely loose retelling of Turpin’s life and crimes. It’s easy to see this as something of a training ground for Carpenter’s next outlaw based series (Robin of Sherwood) although the fact each episode only runs for 25 minutes does mean that there’s not much time to develop characters and stories.

Michael Deeks no doubt got some teenage hearts fluttering as Swiftnick whilst Christopher Benjamin (Sir John Glutton) and David Daker (Spiker) both seem to be enjoying themselves as the villains.

A pity that the film prints are so mucky, but – notwithstanding the series’ brisk running time – Dick Turpin still entertains today.

What I Don’t Understand Is This …, the first episode of The Beiderbecke Affair, was broadcast on ITV in 1985.

Alan Plater’s serial is one that I’ve rewatched a fair few times over the years and it still shows no sign of losing its sparkle. Which no doubt has something to do with the combination of that cast (James Bolam, Barbara Flynn, Terence Rigby, Dudley Sutton, etc) and that script.

The two sequels are also watchable, but never quite hit the heights of Affair.

The Dead of Jericho, the first episode of Inspector Morse, was broadcast on ITV in 1987.

I’ve always been rather fond of the opening sequence in which Morse (very briefly) seems to be channeling Jack Regan. Was this done deliberately in order to wrong foot the viewers about the type of series this was?

The format of Morse would point the way ahead for the next generation of television policeman, many of whom were also given a generous two hours to solve each crime. This wasn’t always a good move though (indeed, some of Morse’s later adventures would have been twice as good had they been half as long).

The early episodes, based on Dexter’s books, are all pretty strong though. Mind you, a fair amount of retooling has been done – the less charming aspects of Dexter’s Morse (such as his lechery) were excised, so anyone who reads the books after watching the series tends to have something of a shock.

The Dead of Jericho is a convoluted tale, which makes it surprising that it was chosen as the lead-off story. But Anthony Minghella’s adaptation captures the essence of the original and the guest cast (including James Laurenson, Gemma Jones and Patrick Troughton) all impress.

Today’s a busy day for television debuts – as there’s also the likes of Mr Aitch (the wiped and forgotten Harry H. Corbett sitcom written by, amongst others, Galton & Simpson and Clement & La Frenais), Rentaghost, The Shadow of the Tower, Alice In Wonderland (1986, Barry Letts overdosing on CSO), The Shillingbury Tales and Hannay.

On this day (2nd January)

Four of a Kind, the first episode of Z Cars, was originally broadcast on BBC Television in 1962.

So it’s the sixtieth anniversary of Z Cars (looks in vain for BBC4 documentary and extensive repeat season. Ho hum).

This opening episode hits the ground running by deftly establishing the differing personas of the four policeman selected for the new crime patrols (Lynch, Steele, Smith, Weir) and their two bosses (Barlow, Watt).

It’s true that broad brushstrokes are used though – Lynch is a garrulous Irishman, Steele might knock his wife about but we’re assured he’s a good chap really, Fancy is a ridiculously confident Teddy Boy and Jock … ah poor Jock (he very much gets the short end of the stick in this debut episode, only being called upon to mumble a few incoherent words).

Fare Forward Voyagers, the first episode of Manhunt, was originally broadcast on ITV in 1970.

The premise of the series is simple – Nina (Cyd Hayman) has vital information about the French resistance networks. The Germans desperately want it, but so do the British – which means that Jimmy (Alfred Lynch) and Vincent (Peter Barkworth) have to somehow spirit her out of occupied France and back to London.

Rewatching this opener, it’s impossible not to nitpick a little – how did Nina escape after the Germans gunned down every other member of the Paris resistance cell? We’re never told (and given how hysterical she is for most of the episode, it’s difficult to see how she could have gone more than a few paces).

And why are the Germans so trigger happy? If they hadn’t massacred everyone, then Nina wouldn’t be such a valuable property.

All of the three regulars have a tricky time in this episode, as their characters are so extreme – Jimmy’s a wisecracking RAF pilot, Vincent’s a cold-hearted killer and Nina’s little more than a bundle of nerves. Putting the three of them together seems like a recipe for disaster, but hopefully they’ll settle down over the course of the next 25 (!) episodes. Given that Secret Army tended to spirit British airmen out of Belgium in a single episode, 26 episodes to get Nina over to Britain seems rather generous ….

The fine guest performances of Peter Copley, Andrew Keir and Yootha Joyce are one of the saving graces of Fare Forward Voyagers. Keir is especially impressive as the doomed Robespierre, a radio operator who sacrifices himself in order to allow Jimmy, Nina and Vincent the chance to escape.

Ringer, the first episode of The Sweeney, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.

Following the Armchair Cinema ‘pilot’ in 1974, The Sweeney burst onto our screens with this effort. Subtle it isn’t (the closing punch up is so ridiculously over the top that I’ve never been sure if it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek or not) but overall the episode is still rather bracing.

Brian Blessed (with a stick on beard) and Ian Hendry are the main guest stars whilst there’s plenty of familiar faces (Ray Mort, June Brown, Alan Lake, Angus Mackay) also present and correct.

The Way Back, the first episode of Blakes 7, was broadcast on BBC1 in 1978.

This dystopian tale of thought control and (thankfully trumped up) charges of child abuse had a surprisingly early evening slot. Fair to say that The Way Back is very much a one-off as the following 51 episodes never recaptured the tone of this opening installment.

Writing (or at least credited for) all 13 episodes of the first series, it’s not surprising that Terry Nation’s at his sharpest here. As time wore on and inspiration began to dry up, his scripts became rather more perfunctory.

Special Branch – Depart in Peace (25th August 1970)

Edward Kirk (David Langton), an ex-colonial policeman, has been invited to return to Kenya in order to give evidence at the trial of a notable Mau Mau terrorist. Despite the best efforts of both Jordan and Inman he flatly refuses, but Moxon isn’t prepared to let the matter rest there ….

Alun Falconer’s sole script for the series, Depart in Peace is something of a slow burn. We eventually learn the reason for Kirk’s reluctance to leave the country, but the episode is in no rush to get there.

Before that point, there’s several entertaining confrontational scenes between Moxon and Inman to enjoy. The friendly relationship between Kirk and Inman is something that Moxon attempts to use to his advantage – indeed, this is an episode where he’s at his most silkily manipulative.

When even Inman can’t make any headway with Kirk, Moxon speaks to a journalist called Sullivan (Brian Marshall). Whilst not mentioning Kirk by name, Moxon drops enough hints to link him to a massacre in a Kenyan village – old history maybe, but possibly it’s the sort of lever that will galvanise the inactive Kirk.

David Langton plays to type as the patrician Kirk (Pauline Letts compliments him as Mary, Kirk’s wife). It seems that their idyllic life – running an antique shop in Surrey – is due to be disrupted by ghosts from their Kenyan past, but the truth is a little more complex.

Their current surface happiness is something of a sham, as it’s finally revealed that Mary is suffering from leukemia and may only have months to live (hence the reason why Kirk doesn’t want to leave the country). What’s remarkable is that she’s totally unaware there’s anything wrong with her. No doubt Kirk thinks he’s doing the right thing by keeping her in the dark, but it’s hard to sympathise with this point of view.

Although Jordan takes something of a back seat today, he does have a few memorable scenes. My favourite is when he partakes of lunch and drinks at Moxon’s club (Moxon asks him if he has a club, Jordan replies “only ones with bunnies”). Inman doesn’t take the news that his DCI has been chumming it up with Moxon very well, although eventually he calms down.

By the end of the episode everything’s been neatly wrapped up – Kirk agrees to go to Kenya and Moxon tries to plant another story with Sullivan (singing Kirk’s praises).  All in all it’s rather a low-stakes sort of story, but the guest playing of Langton and Letts certainly gives the script a lift.

Special Branch – Dinner Date (18th August 1970)

Jordan and Morrissey travel to Frankfurt. They’ve come to collect Selby (John Rolfe), a British national who went missing in East Germany three years ago and has just resurfaced in the West. It seems like a straightforward job, but appearances can be deceptive ….

The return of George Markstein to scripting duties also heralds the reappearance of Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant). Since all of her six SB episodes were scripted by Markstein he clearly felt that the continuing relationship between Christine (now confirmed as a senior KGB officer) and Jordan was something that had legs.

Her sudden return initiates a sharp story shift – before that it seemed that Morris would be the focal point of the episode. Instead he turns out to be something of a MacGuffin, existing purely as an excuse to bring Jordan and Christine back together.

Their first meeting – in Jordan’s hotel room – is an early sign that she holds the upper hand. Having booked the room next to his, she then orders a slap up meal for two and champagne. Although he’s initially reluctant, he drinks the champagne with her and we’re told later that they enjoyed the meal.

The action deliberately cuts from their champagne sipping to Jordan waking up the next morning, so it’s never make explicit what (if anything) happened during the night. But when he picks up Christine’s cigarette lighter from his bedside table the inference is plain.

Today’s DCI Jordan fashion-watch. He sports a rather natty pink shirt and tie combination. And when Christine breaks into his hotel room to take photos of any interesting documents lying about, she pauses to admire his collection of ties hanging up in the wardrobe.

Since this is a Markstein script, you’re never quite sure who to trust. Are the hotel staff colluding with Christine? And then there’s the West German police authorities, represented by Otto Pohl (Frederick Jaeger) and Bauer (John Bailey). Pohl is relentlessly jolly whilst Bauer is clipped and abrupt. Neither play a central role, but both provide some local colour (and it’s always a pleasure to see both actors).

If this was an ITC series then we’d have started off with some stock footage location shots of Frankfurt. There’s no such window dressing here – we just have to accept that the series of studio sets are real German locations.

With Jordan and Morrissey abroad, Inman complains that he’s somewhat short staffed. And indeed, at present Special Branch does seem to be comprised of just those three (along with the occasional silent, leggy female secretary). Morrissey contributes little to the investigation, but seems to enjoy himself offscreen by spending an agreeable evening with an obliging fräulein.

As for the specifics of the plot, was Christine sent to stop Selby returning to Britain or did she have some other purpose? Jordan’s decision to not tell Inman about her sudden appearance is a telling one, as is his reluctance to confirm whether he saw her again (all he will say is that everything will be in his report).

From a few hard looks Inman gives Jordan, it’s obvious that the friendly relationship between him and Christine is a cause of concern. And as she’s due to return later in the series there’s time for this story-thread to be developed further.

Special Branch – Inside (11th August 1970)

Inside (the first episode of Special Branch‘s second series) features another new title sequence (the series’ third) and a new theme tune. The first title sequence was quite stark and downbeat whilst this one is very different (Inman and Jordan strike heroic poses whilst looking intently through their binoculars).  It never fails to raise a smile, although I’m not sure that was the intention.

The episode has quite a straightforward story to tell – Jordan finds himself banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, placed in the same cell as Gillard (Michael Goodliffe), a spy who’s due shortly to be released. Gillard knows the identity of another traitor high up in the British Establishment, but isn’t talking. So if Jordan can gain his confidence, maybe he’ll be able to learn something.

There’s a certain attraction in seeing the dapper Jordan dressed dowdily for once (although he’s allowed to keep his sideburns intact). Don’t worry, the neckerchiefs make a comeback later this series.

Goodliffe’s presence raises expectations, as he was always an actor who caught the eye. Gillard’s a rather taciturn sort of character though, so Goodliffe doesn’t have a great deal to play with (not until the end, when Gillard’s fears for the safety of his daughter opens up some cracks in his previously iron character).

That’s something of a story weakness. Gillard’s daughter, Sarah (Wendy Gifford), is the only thing in the world he cares about and it’s pressure applied to her which eventually forces him to speak to Inman. So Jordan’s undercover prison stay turns out to be fairly incidental, although it’s good fun seeing him pretending to be an irritating wide-boy.

We don’t get to see much of the prison, although at one point Jordan gets his hand scalded by a pre-Gan David Jackson. Although it’s hard to believe that he received that much of an injury as his hand was only plonked in a basin full of hot water (just how hot is the water in prison?).

And remaining in picky mode, we’re told that Sarah is a rather dowdy, unattractive sort. But as she’s played by Wendy Gifford there’s something not quite right there ….

One of those rare stories where Moxon doesn’t spring a last minute surprise on our SB boys, Inside is competent enough but I’d have expected a little more from a Trevor Preston script.

Coronation Street in the Seventies

I’ve recently been watching a fair amount of late seventies Coronation Street (currently up to August 1978, which sees Hilda having problems with her muriel).

As mentioned in previous posts, thanks to the Granada Plus repeats it’s not too difficult to locate most episodes from early 1976 onwards. And when you get into the groove of watching consecutive episode after consecutive episode you find there’s something very moreish about this era of the show.

Unlike modern soaps, it’s not because of a constant stream of high octane storylines. 1970’s Corrie is a gentle thing – true, there is drama (the recent strike at Baldwin’s Casuals, say) but it’s usually always leavened with humour.

Deaths of regulars were kept to a minimum during this period, and usually they occurred either because the actor decided to leave (like Anne Reid) or they were let go (such as Stephen Hancock, fired after he complained about the series’ wage structure). The notion of killing off a long-running regular just to get a bump in the ratings wasn’t really a thing.

Affairs were also a rarity. Yes, Ray Langton is shortly due to depart Weatherfield after a short fling, but this storyline only came about because Neville Buswell decided to leave the series.

So given that the stakes were often low, why is the show so enjoyable at this point in time? Maybe that’s the reason why. 1970’s Coronation Street isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s just a slice of gently comic life.

No, it’s not an accurate reflection of life in a big Northern city during the late seventies (although the series can often surprise you with the occasional sharp topical barb) but then there’s no reason why it has to be.

Instead, the Street was content to play to its strengths, particularly when it came to servicing the series’ long running regulars. When they started to depart the stage in the eighties (for a number of reasons) the show began to lose something of its sparkle.

So I think that when my rewatch reaches the mid eighties I’ll just loop back to the first episode in 1960 and begin again ….

Coronation Street – March 1978

Having had a bit of a break, I’ve recently picked up my Coronation Street rewatchathon from January 1978 (at the rate of two episodes per evening).

The trial of Ernie Bishop’s killers, from mid March 1978, has been an interesting storyline. This was partly because it allowed the topic of capital punishment an airing (most of the residents were in favour although there were some voices raised against). One naysayer was Emily, who reacted with characteristic quiet dignity when Ivy blithely shoved a petition under her nose.

We never actually saw the trial (the viewers got no further than the corridor outside the courtroom). It’s hard to image a soap opera today not milking this scenario for all it was worth, but there’s several possible reasons why the 1977 Street decided to be more discrete.  I’ve a feeling that it may just have been budget related – a one-off courtroom set might have been too expensive to build (ditto filming on location).

The audience doesn’t lose too much by having the events reported second hand though. Indeed, the endless sitting about and waiting for something to happen is nicely captured. When Betty caustically wonders if Hilda would be taking her knitting, it deftly creates the image that she was attending purely out of ghoulish curiosity (although since Hilda was quite happy to sit and keep Emily company maybe we shouldn’t judge her too harshly).

The mother of one of the accused – Mrs. Lester (Penny Leatherbarrow) – is also at court, and her close encounter with Emily is another fascinating moment. The pair are briefly in the same space but don’t talk to each other (which might seem like a missed opportunity, but I think things play out better this way).

Emily slowly realises that even the successful conviction doesn’t offer her any closure (with good behavour, the pair might be released in ten years time). Long-time viewers would be rewarded though, as Ernie’s killer returned in 2005 and 2006, now a changed man and seeking forgiveness from Emily. Nearly thirty years is an incredibly long time to wait for a storyline pay-off, but it was appreciated by this viewer.

The Main Chance – The Walls of Jericho (12th October 1970)

Abdul Naji (Aly Ben Ayed) alleges that his brother was murdered and a precious artifact – one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – was stolen from him. David Main is sympathetic, but doesn’t believe Naji has much of a case – unless he can force a libel action (by penning a thinly disguised novel about these events). The book is swiftly published and a libel action is forthcoming, but not in the way Main was expecting ….

The first of two Main Chance scripts by Louis Marks, The Walls of Jericho features an increased role for Anna Palk (as Sarah Courtney), who has a little more to do for once than just take messages and look at Main in a worried and/or affectionate way (Sarah’s the one who befriends Naji and brings his case to Main’s attention). As per usual, Main begins by telling her (and later him) that there’s absolutely nothing to be done. But since that would make for a rather dull fifty minutes, by now the attentive viewer will be well aware that he’s bound to have a trick or two up his sleeve.

There’s a similar trick to be pulled in the episode’s ‘b’ plot (Main’s car is severely damaged when a lorry sheds its load of oil drums right onto it).  The company who owns the lorry aren’t admitting liability and both Margaret and Henry Castleton are convinced there’s nothing to be done, but wily old David Main pulls something out of the bag.

It’s something of a story contrivance that the scroll is put up for auction at exactly the same time Naji’s book is published. The name of the auction house – Christaby’s – rather tickles me (an obvious amalgamation of Christie’s and Sotherby’s).

The seller of the scroll – Professor Ian Allardyce (Freddie Jones) – isn’t the man Naji alleges murdered his brother (Allardyce bought the scroll off this apparent murderer). But the problem for Main is that, as the current owner of the scroll, Allardyce is the one who’s been libeled and he’s been convinced to sue.

As you’d expect, Jones gives his usual polished performance. Allardyce might be the walking cliché of an academic (hard-working, distracted) but Jones manages to tease out some decent moments from this fairly stock character. Jones’ best scene occurs when Naji confronts Allardyce. It’s also good for Aly Ben Ayed, who elsewhere tends to overact a little.

Allardyce maintains that he bought the scroll in good faith, although it’s left hanging about whether or not he’s telling the truth. What isn’t in doubt is his belief that the scroll belongs in expert hands (otherwise it risks damage or destruction). That’s laudable enough, although it’s odd that he’s selling it now for a large profit (why not donate it to a museum?)

Although Main appears to have won the day, there’s a late twist in the tail regarding the scroll’s ownership. This isn’t really a surprise though – indeed, it’s odd that no-one mentioned the possibility earlier.

The Walls of Jericho  isn’t top tier MC, but it clips along very nicely. Cynthia Grenville (as Allardyce’s wife, Mary) and Peter Cellier (as Braintree, a man who crosses swords with Main and fails badly) both catch the eye with small, but well-played roles.

The Main Chance – A Little Black and White Lie (5th October 1970)

A Brazilian diplomat, Manuel Patino (Clifton Jones), and his wife, Carlo (Valerie Murray), are desperate to adopt a baby. The only problem is that they’re black and their intended adoptee is white ….

This is the second of David Weir’s three Main Chance scripts, so you should once again expect a few slightly jarring scene transitions (although this episode flows better than his previous effort).

The colour problem was a topic tackled in numerous British drama and comedy series during this period (often well-meaning, sometimes controversially). A Little Black and White Lie falls into the well-meaning category, although the first half of the story does display something of a sledgehammer subtlety.

The baby’s natural mother, Eileen Donnell (Margaret Brady), remains pretty passive until the last few minutes of the episode, which means that her mother, Mrs Donnell (Elizabeth Begley), makes all the early running. What can you say about Elizabeth Begley’s performance? Hmm. It’s certainly memorable, although maybe director John Frankau should have asked her to tone it down several notches.

Mrs Donnell is very, very Irish (swigging pints of Guinness like they’re going out of fashion). She launches a tirade of racial abuse against the Patinos which is fairly shocking, although if she’d been less of an Irish caricature this scene might have had even more of an impact.

Convinced that Margaret Castleton has become emotionally involved, Main takes over the case and proceeds in his own fashion (bad-tempered as usual). Indeed, Main’s apoplexy reaches new heights today although thankfully things quieten down for a scene which is easily the highlight of the episode.

Similar to Bernard Kay a few episodes back, it was initially a surprise to see Douglas Wilmer tackling the role of Dr. Lowton. The doctor responsible for arranging the adoption, to begin with it looked like a pretty minor role.

But when they meet, Main is able to dispassionately chip away at Lowton’s seemingly honest façade to reveal an unrepentant racist underneath. Lowton knew trouble would erupt when news filtered out that a black couple intended to take a white baby out of the country (indeed, he did all he could to stoke things up). This scene is far more chilling than Mrs Donnell’s tirade, thanks to Wilmer’s underplaying.

It’s Lowton’s calm denial that he’s done anything wrong which really has an impact (so maybe we had to suffer the rantings of Mrs Donnell first in order to appreciate this contrast).

Apart from Wilmer, there’s another familiar face guesting – Jack May. He has a fairly unexciting part though (a newspaperman called Harry Turner who doesn’t – as expected – look to dish the dirt).

Things are left open ended. Eileen visits Mr and Mrs Patino and – seeing how much they love the child – elects not to contest the adoption. But as Main says, that still only means that there’s an even chance it will be approved.

A Little Black and White Lie is rather heavy-handed in places, but it does generate some food for thought.

Upstairs Downstairs – Married Love (4th November 1972)

Relations between Elizabeth and Lawrence are worsening due to his inability to consummate their marriage. Shuddering at the thought of such gross physical activity, he turns to his publisher and mentor – Sir Edwin Partridge (Charles Gray) – who may be able to assist ….

The opening of this episode feels a bit abrupt (the UpDown website confirms that the first few lines are inexplicably missing from all copies currently in circulation). Thomas’ incredulity that bootlaces and newspapers need to be ironed raises a smile (as does his suggestion that he could do the same to the bacon). The truculent cook, Mrs. Fellowes, also helps to create an air of sour comic relief – it’s all to do with her leg you know.

Laughs are thin on the ground when we move upstairs to Elizabeth and Lawrence’s bedroom. His total disinterest in that side of their relationship (as a poet he apparently finds it too ghastly to contemplate) is made plain – which launches Elizabeth into the realms of deepest despair. Matters get no better over the breakfast table and they part – he to visit Sir Edwin – on the worst of terms.

Elizabeth has very few role models to turn to. It would be impossible to speak to her mother about such a delicate subject, so instead she sounds out Rose. This is a gloriously uncomfortable scene – the pure and innocent Rose is just about the last person to advise anyone on sexual matters (all she can do is pass on second hand information about her aunt and uncle’s strained relationship and how all working men are only after one thing).

Given that the first half of the episode is claustrophobic and rather unhappy, it’s a jarring (but not unpleasant) change of pace when the action switches to Thomas and Elizabeth taking a drive. The wily Thomas has persuaded the Kirkbridges that buying a car would be a wise move – he, of course, will be more than happy to act as chauffeur.  Although the OB VT makes things look a little cheap, it still must have been quite an expensive scene to mount as there’s a fair number of extras dotted about the park.

Whilst Elizabeth is getting the colour back in her cheeks, Lawrence is unburdening his soul to Sir Edwin. Charles Gray is on typically mesmerising form throughout – purring like a particularly well-fed cat as Sir Edwin elects (with Lawrence’s blessing) to try and lift Elizabeth’s spirits by any means necessary.

By seducing her? During a party held by Lawrence to celebrate the publication of his new book, Sir Edwin and a rather tiddly Elizabeth do visit her bedroom, but it’s not specified in this episode exactly what they get up to.  Sir Edwin does look satisfied when he later bids Lawrence farewell, but then that seems to be his default setting.

Elizabeth and Sir Edwin’s conversation during the party is fascinating. Although he toys with her, Elizabeth does possess some intellectual tools of her own (even though, as events during previous episodes have proved, she still has a strong streak of naivety).

The champagne flows freely at the party, which is just as well as the sample we have of Lawrence’s poetry (all doom laden stuff) would no doubt sound a little better after a few stiff drinks.

In some ways Married Love serves as a prologue to the drama of the next episode, but John Harrison’s script (the second of his two UpDown efforts) is still a strong vehicle for Elizabeth. Since Harrison’s previous effort was The Path of Duty (Elizabeth’s debut in the series) it’s possibly not surprising he was chosen to move her character on to the next stage.

The Main Chance – First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You (28th September 1970)

Kenneth Manmer (Peter Jeffrey) enters into a lucrative property deal with David Main. Main’s 7.5% holding promises to make him a rich man – although it isn’t long before he starts to wonder exactly where the seemingly affluent Manmer’s money is coming from ….

The first of three Main Chance scripts by David Weir (and not a killer cat in sight) there’s something a little off-kilter about First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You. Partly this may be down to Weir’s unfamiliarity with the series and characters (it’s very jarring to see a happy Main singing arias at the top of his voice whilst cleaning his teeth!) but there’s also some bafflingly quick scene transitions, which are unusual to see.

Most notably this occurs at 14:10 into the episode. We go from a scene with Margaret, then to Sarah, then to Main, then to Sarah again (wearing different clothes, so obviously time has passed) and back to Margaret. It’s a bewildering series of jumps which in total lasts no more than twenty seconds.

Remaining in niggle mode, you have to say that it was very unwise for Main to so readily agree to jump into bed (business wise) with Manmer. The attentive viewer would have expected there to be a sting in the tail (after all, Peter Jeffrey’s stock in trade was playing shifty types). Any time the audience is ahead of Main, it doesn’t make him look good.

It’s a very entertaining guest turn by Jeffrey though, who plays the affluent lord of the manor (chomping cigars and shooting pheasants) very well. And everything is given a little extra spice when we meet Manmer’s rather frightening wife, Meriel (Valerie Sarruf), and begin to learn that his devoted assistant, Doran (Tom Kempinski), is possibly the one pulling the strings.

Main makes a totally pointless trip to Switzerland in order to question Manmer’s banker. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that Swiss bankers don’t divulge any secrets, but it was nice to see Vladek Sheybal.

Even though Peter Jeffrey has the most screen time of any of the guest stars, my favourite performance came from Bernard Hepton as Bridges (the man from the Inland Revenue). Hepton always seemed incapable of giving a poor performance and he’s very much on song today. Bridges is a softly-spoken, seemingly innocuous sort of man, but it’s plain that he possesses considerable tenacity. This character type was very much Hepton’s stock in trade.

Oddest performance comes courtesy of David Hutchenson as the crusty old banker, Sir George More-Litton. Hutchenson struggles with his lines at times, particularly in a key scene towards the end of the episode.

Everything is wrapped up a little too neatly. Just before the second ad break a jubilant Manmer tells Main that he can’t walk away from the deal (Manmer’s been paying funds into a Swiss bank account in Main’s name just to make him look even more guilty). But over the remaining twenty minutes Main is calmly able to extract himself whilst Manmer is never seen again (the inference is that he’s been chopped up into tiny pieces by his Mafia associates).

Although there’s not a lot of time for pleasure in this episode, Main does hook up with Edie Semple (Georgina Ward), a fellow divorcee who seems to have always carried a torch for him. She appears in the next episode (also written by Wier) although I found Edie to be a little distracting today, mainly due to her wig.

First, You Eat – Later We Ruin You is a decent watch, thanks to Jeffrey and Hepton. It’s just a shame that Main comes over as a little foolish.

Public Eye – A Mug Named Frank (7th July 1971)

A Mug Named Frank, the first episode of series five, in some ways feels like an addendum to series four. There’s the Brighton setting, the black and white visuals (albeit only due to the colour strike) and the reassuring presence of Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). And yet …

Series four of Public Eye was very much an authored piece. Roger Marshall wrote all seven episodes, which helped to give them a serial-like feel, but for the remainder of PE’s run his input would be drastically reduced. Producer Michael Chapman penned this installment, which concerns itself with uprooting Frank from Brighton and settling him down in Windsor.

Marshall would later cast a slightly withering eye over the direction of the Windsor series, labelling it as rather cosy (this interview is a fascinating read). Although it’s worth noting that it was Marshall who created Mrs Mortimer and established a “will they, won’t they” vibe between her and Frank.

How Marshall would have developed their relationship is unknown but it seems unlikely he would have gone in the direction of Chapman’s story – which not only abruptly wrenches them apart, but also rather off-handedly negates most of Frank’s Brighton experience. And this is why I find this episode a rather curious watch – rather like The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin’s departure, A Mug Named Frank feels inauthentic (Chapman attempting, but not really succeeding, to mimic Marshall’s voice).

The main plot is quite simple. Frank befriends an old lady, Mrs. Stuart (Nora Nicholson), who he spots in the supermarket popping a tin into her shopping bag, presumably with the intention of stealing it. He manages to diffuse the situation, but this plot-thread isn’t really developed. Was it an absent-minded slip, a cry for help or a theft borne out of necessity? We never find out, so it appears to have been little more than a clumsy way of bringing Frank and her together.

She lives in a rather threadbare couple of rooms with only one object of value – a silver box – which was given to her by her son, Gerald (Barry Foster), shortly after the war. He’s a clearly something of a shifty type (I think it’s the moustache) and is keen to “borrow” the box in order to raise some money for his failing business.

Frank knows him of old – they were fellow jailbirds for a brief while – and their clash towards the end of the episode is a definite highlight. As is André Morell’s cameo as Gerald’s rich uncle, who mockingly declines to bail him out. The scene adds little to the story overall, but I’ll never turn down a few minutes of Morell.

Travelling to Windsor in search of the silver box, Frank meets Inspector Percy Firbank (Ray Smith) and Nell Holdsworth (Brenda Cavendish), two characters who will loom large in the episodes to come. Although I take Marshall’s “cosy” point, the series quickly establishes itself in Windsor – shaking off the last vestiges of the Brighton era with a crop of strong scripts from a pool of first-rate writers.