Following on from attempts by ‘television insiders’ for the 50th anniversary of MIP TV to create a list of the ‘Most Influencial TV Shows’, and The Telegraph’s own list, published on the 20th April 2013, I thought I’d have a think and nominate the ten programmes I feel have had the most influence and impact.
The Forsyte Saga (1967). Across twenty-six fifty-minute episodes, this family drama, an adaptation of the novels of John Galsworthy, was the first dramatic series to really impact on the social habits of the British – not only affecting church attendances on Sunday evenings, but also dividing the nation with the storyline relating to the marriage of Soames and Irene. The series is important because it was the only UK television programme to be widely sold abroad, including in the United States (where it became the inspiration for the long-running Masterpiece Theater) and in the Soviet Union. It is also influencial because its character storylines pre-empted those which run today in shows like EastEnders and psychological thrillers.
Face to Face (1959-1962). John Freeman’s series of interviews with figures from the fields of politics, entertainment, and literature stand as the gold standard with their in-depth questioning and close scrutiny of subject. Later chat shows had a lighter feel but it does seem unlikely that later interviewers such as David Frost, Bernard Levin, or Michael Parkinson could evolve their own styles of engagement with a guest without Freeman’s pioneering show. An attempt to revive the style with Jeremy Isaacs as host aired from 1989, while Laurie Taylor’s In Conversation is currently running on Sky Arts. Freeman’s show often surprises and intrigues, from high profile subjects such as Tony Hancock, Martin Luther King, and Adam Faith through to less familiar figures like Bertrand Russell.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). Not the first comedy series to nudge towards the absurd (It’s A Square World, The Telegoons, Not Only … But Also, and Q all preceded it), but from humble beginnings as an early colour late night programmer on BBC2 ‘Python’ became a global phonemenon, and paved the way for the alternative comedy scene’s next generations, the Saturday Live and Comic Strip Presents crew. Cast members too influenced television in their own ways – and entered various screen fields from Shakespeare (Cleese), silent cinema appreciation (Gilliam), history (Jones), travelogues (Palin) and catchy theme tunes (Idle). Graham Chapman’s early demise brought parallels with the Beatles – cult group with one missing – although his own contribution to the show as off-the-wall writer and exceptional comedy performer is often overlooked. ‘Python’ has also transferred well to the USA, where it has major cult status.
Coronation Street 1960-date. It’s tempting to put The Grove Family in the list as the first regular British soap opera, but it is long forgotten and ‘Corrie’ has endured through its fifty-three years on the air, remaining a household word across the nation and in many countries to where the language of barm cakes and ecky thumps is sold. In the 1960s this series was a gritty Northern slice-of-life and although a handful of characters still remain from those days, it is now something of an identikit soap fighting for viewer attention with everything else in a multi-channel world. However it cannot be denied that this series has broken into the national consciousness in a way other programmes have not achieved – the ‘Free Deirdre Rachid’ and the earlier Ken-Deirdre-Mike love triangle being testment to this.
Play for Today 1970-1984. I thought about including The Wednesday Play but decided that its successor, Play for Today, is perhaps more influential and better remembered. Many people remember the set of plays as political – and some were – but the scope and variety of this series, its writers, directors, and performers, make this a golden age of drama in the UK and still a gold standard for drama anthologies that people remember. Also, some plays from the series spawned iconic programmes like ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ and ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, Each and every title from the series probably stands up today – from ‘Red Shift’ and ‘Double Dare’ to ‘Leeds United’ and ‘Abigail’s Party’, from ‘Z for Zachariah’ and ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ to ‘Kisses at Fifty’ and ‘Two Sundays’.
The Singing Detective 1986. Dennis Potter’s all singing, all dancing, dark drama followed ‘Pennies from Heaven’ into prime-time television in the 1980s. In terms of influence of style, perhaps this title has not been so influencial, but in breaking boundaries of linear plot structure and untouchable subjects it was a trailblazer.
Hollywood 1980. Kevin Brownlow’s love letter to silent cinema in Hollywood did much to bring this era of movie-making into public consciousness, with many interviews with stars such as Viola Dana, Harold Lloyd, Leatrice Joy. Clips from films of the period were probably shown for the first time in years during this series, which blazed the way for any film-based documentaries that followed.
The World at War 1973-4. ‘The Great War’ was the first series to focus on a world war, back in the 1960s, with narration by Michael Redgrave, but the definitive documentary of World War II was ‘The World at War’. Narrated by Laurence Olivier, with music by Carl Davis, this series takes its time to tell the story of the war between England and Germany, the USA and Japan. Without this series there would be no History or Discovery channels.
Pride and Prejudice 1995. The BBC series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle kickstarted a new era of period drama, focused on the bodice-ripping elements rather than straight adaptations of the works of the Regency and Victorian authors. In making an eighteenth-century text into watercooler television, Andrew Davies influenced a new era of sumptous and glossy drama.
Bagpuss 1974. Children’s television can bring whole generations together and in thirteen short episodes, Bagpuss became one of the most fondly remembered series of a golden age of pre-school programming. Without Bagpuss it is unlikely we would have The Teletubbies or In The Night Garden.