Archive television fans have been rejoicing over the past few weeks with reruns of some of the Thames episodes of Armchair Theatre on Talking Pictures TV.
Armchair Theatre was a series which ran on the ITV network between 1956 and 1974. It was originally a production of ABC (Associated British Corporation) until its successor Thames Television took over in mid-1968.
Network on Air have released several volumes on DVD, beginning in 2010 with a two-disc set of Thames episodes and then in 2012 with another two-disc set. Since later in 2012, subsequent releases have been purely of ABC episodes, licensed to the company by Studio Canal, and have so far numbered two four-disc releases in the general range, and four Armchair Theatre Archive releases of one-disc each.
There are approximately 170 episodes which have survived the widespread wiping of video tapes in the past, from a total of around 450. As well as official releases a number continue to circulate on the collectors’ market either as DVD-Rs or uploads to streaming sites.
Made during a time when plays were regular fare on television (The Wednesday Play/Play for Today, Theatre 625, Thirty Minute Theatre, Play of the Month, Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and others), Armchair Theatre stands out as a groundbreaking training ground for writers and directors finding their feet as well as stand-out performances from a wide range of actors, both veteran and new faces.
Although some actors rated performing on the stage over the new medium of television in the 1950s, writers were far more pragmatic, with Harold Pinter as one who recognised that an at-home audience of just over 6 million for A Night Out (1960) was far more lucrative than a theatre audience for The Caretaker, which was running at the same time.
I’ve started putting my thoughts together on the various episodes on the associated Armchair Theatre review project page here, and eventually all the episodes I have seen will have capsule reviews. Not every episode is a winner, but the standard, at least in the ABC years, seems consistently high, especially in the years where Sydney Newman was in charge (1959-1962).
There were spin-off series (Armchair Mystery Theatre), later Thames series using the same prefix but little in common (the group of TV movies under the title Armchair Cinema and the serial thrillers under the name of Armchair Thriller), and even a parody on radio in Round the Horne’s Armpit Theatre. The titles gave a sense of occasion, too, whether theatre masks or something more abstract, and in an era of two TV channels at the start of the series, Armchair Theatre could guarantee a captive audience, as well as giving the new upstart ITV a bit of class.
In the early days plays were performed live, and were a mix of new drama, titles imported from the USA, and adaptations of well-loved classics (The Emperor Jones, The Importance of Being Earnest). Later the plays were more or less original, and if a slight dip in quality occurred in the later Thames years, it coincided with what many archive TV fans class as the end of the golden era of the television play.
The news reports have largely been about the rediscovery of The Beatles’ only live appearance on Top of the Pops but it is really just a squint at a few seconds of “Paperback Writer”.
Far more interesting were clips from Ready Steady Go including a snippet of Nina Simone, a couple of high energy and vibrantly filmed numbers from The Who, and some close-up filming of lovely Paul Jones from Manfred Mann playing his harmonica in a couple of blues numbers.
Two compilations suffered a bit from not identifying the acts, although of course we knew Sweet, T-Rex, Elton John, plus Lieutenant Pigeon, Peters and Lee, and even Geordie (pre-AC/DC Brian Johnson) and a knockout performance from Jethro Tull.
Guests were the veteran broadcaster Pete Murray and Sweet leader Andy Scott, and David Hamilton hosted the afternoon, before the last edition of Top of the Pops to be filmed in black and white. This included the original promo of The Beatles with “Something”, oddly eschewing shots of Linda McCartney for Paul skipping about alone. A side-by-side comparison with the final version rectified this and was weirdly touching.
An excellent show, especially the pieces retrieved from 1960s and 1970s computer tape recordings. Kaleidoscope, now in their 31st year , of finding, restoring and curating archive TV clips, programmes and continuity, are to be applauded for their continued efforts in this sphere.
I started this blog in 2011 to report back on shows I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.
It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.
On a professional level I worked for twenty-five years as a librarian, and also am a published writer – academic articles, poetry, popular culture – and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.
As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.
Fay Weldon’s absorbing play teams a small cast headed by Ian Hendry and Annette Crosbie to explore the problems of middle-aged marriages and the preoccupations of the younger generation.
Tony (Hendry) is a writer and TV personality who has been married to Joy (Crosbie) for twenty years. She is a brittle and bitter woman of forty who regrets not having a child, and her closest friend Bridget (Zena Walker), is also her biggest irritation.
Bridget, a ‘suburban housewife’ with a dull marriage and four children, ‘two with asthma’, and a couple of weeks away puts the smile back on her face when she has a fling with Tony’s agent, Jude (Norman Eshley).
In the meantime, we know that young Clemence (Judy Loe) has got herself pregnant from her affair with Tony, fifteen years her senior, and isn’t keen on keeping the baby. Throw in a bohemian girlfriend for Jude, Julia (Amber Kammer), a randy cat, generational attitudes towards love, commitment, and abortion, and you have a provocative drama which may not feel entirely contemporary in the 21st century, but which still engages audience empathy even if the majority of the characters are dreadful, self-obsessed, selfish and stagnant.
Hendry, Loe and Crosbie in particular shine as the unhappily married couple and the ‘slut’ who the wife first tolerates, then sees as a threat, then realises her usefulness. Walker’s frumpy mother lights up when a chance to relive her girlhood offers itself, while Eshley and Kammer are quietly obnoxious twenty-somethings abjecting themselves of any responsibility.
Utilising several extreme close-ups and some clever scenes with minimal dialogue, we see the unfolding plot from each point of view, and get a measure of what the future holds for each and every character.
I think I finally called time on Coronation Street about sixteen years ago. There were too many episodes, too many silly storylines, and after about 25 years viewing I’d noticed a definite decline in quality.
I know it’s still there, and that Ken, Rita, Gail, Audrey, Kevin and Sally are still on the cobbles they probably all wanted to leave far behind.
For several months now, since 2nd October 2017, ITV3 have been showing two episodes a day of classic 1980s Corrie, starting with a storyline which is about to reach its lengthy conclusion – the arrival of arch-villain Alan Bradley (Mark Eden).
This was on the 15th January 1986, when he was a fairly mild-mannered man, reunited with his daughter Jenny (Sally Ann Matthews, who these days has returned to the cobbles as a forty-something lady causing as much trouble as she did as a teen).
Fast fact one: the social worker who engineered this touching reunion, and incidentally gave the widow Fairclough (Barbara Knox) a bit of rough and romance, was no other than the actor who returned as Gail’s third husband and smarmy serial killer Richard Hillman (Brian Capron).
Aside from Bradley, those 80s episodes introduced the threat to the Rovers of the grotty Graffiti Club, run by Alec Gilroy (Roy Barraclough), who chased the leopard-printed and huge-bosomed Bet Lynch (Julie Goodyear) like a little tiger cub, until financial ruin, a job in sunny Spain waiting tables, and a touch of vulnerability, united them in marriage.
This marriage was a joy to behold as this couple were a rich source of comedy, as well as one of the shortest but saddest storylines: they found themselves prospective older parents planning a baby bedroom, then having a tender moment after the pain of miscarriage before picking themselves up and going on as before.
Fast fact two: Julie Goodyear’s second marriage ended at the reception, as her new husband left her for his own best man, after she had put everything she owned in his joint ownership.
Later in the run, the Gilroys would have a divorce scare due to their mutual jealousy, but soon grew together again. Their reign in the Rovers was a high point of the late 80s and early 90s, even if Barraclough took a lot of time away from the programme due to other commitments in a busy career – he was half of the double act Cissie and Ada with the fabulous Les Dawson, and a regular in the theatre.
Youngsters Kevin Webster (Michael Le Vell) – whose family had upped and left him, following the marriage of his father Bill to Elaine, the niece of local busybody Percy Sugden – and Terry Duckworth (Nigel Pivaro) fought over pretty Sally Seddon (Sally Whitaker) until Kevin married her and Terry went through a succession of married ladies including his own father’s mistress, horny Dulcie.
The Duckworths were growing from grasping and selfish to national treasures during this period. Jack (Bill Tarmey), a layabout who once bedded Bet Lynch and sees himself as a wise lothario, and Vera (Liz Dawn), a loudmouthed, spiteful chav who thinks the sun shines out of her son, have some great storylines on the periphery, but their best years are ahead of them.
Fast fact three: Bill Tarmey was an accomplished singer despite Jack’s lack of talent, and Liz Dawn had also started her career as a nightclub chanteuse. Jack’s on-screen death memorably had him visited by the ghost of his beloved Vera, as they dance to Matt Monro’s ‘Softly As I Leave You’.
Vera works at Baldwin’s Casuals factory alongside Ivy Tilsley (Lynne Perrie), Ida Clough (Helene Palmer), Shirley Armitage (Lisa Lewis), and Emily Bishop (Eileen Derbyshire). Over this re-run we have seen Ivy deal with the scandal of her son Brian’s split with daughter-in-law Gail (Chris Quentin and Helen Worth) when Gail, bored, has a fling with an Aussie, Ian Latimer (Michael Loney) and thinks the resulting pregnancy might be his.
After an age, the Tilsleys reconcile, only for Brian to be killed in a knife attack. In the episodes currently being shown, Gail is living with Martin Platt (Sean Wilson) who was previously a teen dating young Jenny Bradley, before suddenly growing up and finding himself able to support a family of three.
In the meantime, (poison) Ivy, who is a strict Catholic with a range of expressions from darkest disapproval to the sunniest of smiles, has hooked herself husband number two to help her forget her first, Bert, in fiery taxi driver and gambler Don Brennan (Geoff Hinsliff). We will see his story arc develop into obsession and madness over the next decade.
As the Websters get closer together as they lodge with the wonderful Hilda Ogden (Jean Alexander) and her ‘muriel’, the twittery Mavis Riley (Thelma Barlow) and the dithering Derek Wilton (Peter Baldwin) also make their way to the altar (fortified by a lot of Dutch courage in Derek’s case, as he gets completely blotto at the stag night). Mavis and Derek will offer another ten years of amusement in the show., as well as the second union of a Barlow to a Baldwin (albeit utilising real names).
Another marriage does not fare as well, as Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) falls for Susan Barlow (Wendy Jane Walker), daughter of his sworn enemy, Ken (William Roache). Why enemies? Well, in the early 80s, Mike had availed himself of the bespectacled charms of the dull Deirdre (Anne Kirkbride) and nearly caused Mrs Barlow Number Three to escape to more exciting climes.
Fast fact four: the Ken-Deirdre-Mike storyline was the talk of the North West, and even caused the message “Ken and Deirdre reunited. Ken 1 – Mike 0” to be displayed on the scoreboard at Manchester United’s ground during a football match!
Still, with Ken showing what a pompous man he really is, up on his moral high ground, he can’t stop Susan and Mike being happy for a year or so, even when he plans a 21st party full of bright young things to show up the 40-something boyfriend. It’s enjoyable watching the starchy Barlow fail in his machinations, but less enjoyable later watching him put down his wife when she successfully runs for council, then start an affair with Weatherfield Wendy Crozier (Roberta Kerr).
After the Baldwins plot to bring Alan Bradley and Rita Fairclough back together (Alan’s been straying, with barmaid Gloria Todd (Sue Jenkins), who puts herself about so much she goes – via Baldwin – to her own tempestuous exit after stealing the beau of mousy cleaner Sandra (Sally Watts)), they part following Susan’s decision to abort the baby Mike so desperately wants after his previous girlfriend Maggie stopped him seeing their son, Mark.
It’s another powerful storyline (showing even the brash Mike has a soft side) somewhat cheapened these days by the 2001 retcon that Susan did not in fact abort the child at all. I prefer to believe the original storyline, which was played out beautifully by all concerned, particularly Anne Kirkbride’s Deirdre who still, at this point, wants a child with Ken.
Fast fact five: Mike Baldwin’s life was retconned more than once, as his long-standing status as an only child was changed to give him yet another son he did not know about (Danny, played by Bradley Walsh). Mike’s eventual exit was in true King Lear style, dying in the arms of his arch-enemy Ken Barlow on the Street’s cobbles.
The Bradley-Fairclough relationship takes several turns – Jenny proves a problem teenager, who briefly and amusingly gets engaged to a comedy Frenchman; Alan shows a tendency to violence when he batters Terry and threatens Martin, and further romantic excursions when he starts an affair with a married woman, Carole. He also tries various business ventures, always leeching off his unsuspecting partner – you even realise his attempt to marry her had financial gain in mind.
Rita, who confesses to Mavis that Alan reminds her of her late husband Len, isn’t put off by all the red flags, and even grovels to tempt him back for her money. Barbara Knox plays the vulnerable core under the steely front of Rita brilliantly, and Mark Eden’s Bradley develops in a terrifyingly realistic way from a man with a wandering eye and a bit of temper to a psychopath.
Fast fact six: Mark Eden (Alan) and Sue Nicholls (Audrey) were and are a real-life couple, having been married since 1993 and together for some years previously. Mark Eden (born Douglas Malin) was previously married to Joan Le Mesurier, the widow of the Dad’s Army star John. Sue Nicholls is styled ‘The Honorable’ due to her father’s status as a Life Peer.
I’m sorry we didn’t see more of Jean Alexander’s Hilda during this period, as she left in the Christmas episode of 1987. Looking back now, she could have had a future in Formby with Sally’s nice but boring Uncle Tom, but for dramatic licence she had to be nearly murdered (by the chap who returned in this week’s repeats, now playing a police officer, Mark Jordan) before deciding to move from the street. She was a great comic character who was also capable of pathos, Spoonerisms, and a motherly disposition and gossip.
Gail’s mother, Audrey (Sue Nicholls) is at this point married to the most decent man on the cobbles, grocer Alf Roberts (Bryan Mosley). She’s a grasping social climber while he’s a miser who can hardly believe he’s caught this vivacious party girl, even if she regularly causes him grief. Their mutual love was obvious in the storyline where Alf has a heart attack, leaving Audrey clearly worried and devastated.
Aside from a silly, but fun, interlude, where Audrey is tempted by Canada, a son we never knew about, and a chancing Canadian widower (Shane Rimmer, returning after playing the chap who widowed Elsie Tanner for the second time in 1970), they settle into a companionable union often characterised by ‘Alfie’ having those secret little smiles – although he will always have a yen for Rita.
The older characters are not neglected in 80s Corrie, either. We meet Vera Duckworth’s shop-lifting mother, Amy (Fanny Carby); the pious parents (Kenneth Waller and Angela Rooks) of Norman ‘Curly’ Watts (Kevin Kennedy), former dustman, student, and eventual supermarket supremo; Don Brennan’s mother Bridget (Pauline Letts); and already mentioned Tom (Len Marten).
These were fleeting appearances, but more solid were the two would-be lovebirds Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington) and Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers). The actors playing these two were old sparring partners from the days of music hall, and their naturalistic portrayals gave strength to the characters, even if Phyllis was occasionally tempted away by Sam Tindall (Tom Mennard), a meek man who might have a bit of money stashed away.
Percy’s barricade of his flat at the Community Centre gave him a sense of purpose which is now put to good use as a lollipop man, and nicely judged lodger of Emily Bishop – the two remain on formal terms, although you suspect Percy might yearn for something a little more.
Money was also a motivator for cafe owner Alma Sedgewick (Amanda Barrie), who isn’t particularly likeable at this point, but has already thrown her cap and more at Mike Baldwin, before he dumped her for another younger partner, Dawn Prescott (Louise Harrison).
Dawn is only back for the conclusion of the Bradley saga, though, as his early release from prison to terrorise poor Rita will lead him to the seaside, very soon, and his demise under that tram.
Alan Bradley’s run on The Street came to an end in the second episode to be shown on the 30th July 2018, on ITV3. It originally aired 8th December 1989.
These titles are still missing in action, surviving but with no video release. They are also, with one or two exceptions, completely absent from the bootleg circuit.
Is any company out there interested in securing the rights to get these out in the world for archive TV lovers to enjoy? Would lovers of comedy, drama, or period adaptations buy?
Phyllis Calvert and Penelope Keith in Kate. Photo via Nostalgia Central.
Kate – starring Phyllis Calvert. 38 episodes across three series, 1970-1972. Made for Yorkshire Television. Kate is an agony aunt who has a knack for getting into trouble. Also features Penelope Keith and Jack Hedley.
Helen: a Woman of Today – starring Alison Fiske and Martin Shaw. 13 episodes in a single series, 1973. Made for London Weekend Television. Helen is approaching middle-age and decides to end her marriage. Also features Sharon Duce and Sheila Gish.
Bel Ami – starring Robin Ellis. 5 episodes, 1971. Made for the BBC. Adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel about the amoral Georges Duroy. Also features Elvi Hale, Garfield Morgan, Arthur Pentelow and Peter Sallis.
Stanley Baker and Daphne Slater in Jane Eyre. Photo via Bronte Blog.
Jane Eyre – starring Daphne Slater and Stanley Baker. 6 episodes, 1956. Made for the BBC – my thoughts on seeing it at a BFI screening here. Rich adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, in fact one of the best I have seen.
Liza Goddard and Dinsdale Landen in Pig in the Middle.
Pig in the Middle – starring Liza Goddard, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Dinsdale Landen (and later Terence Brady). 20 episodes across three series, 1980-1983. Made for London Weekend Television. Comedy about the middle-aged Barty who is torn between two glamorous women.
Foxy Lady – starring Diane Keen and Geoffrey Burridge. 12 episodes across two series, 1982-1984. Made for Granada Television. Daisy joins a Northern newspaper in this breezy comedy. Also features Gregor Fisher, Milton Johns and Patrick Troughton.
The Informer – starring Ian Hendry. 21 episodes made across two series, but only 2 survive, 1966-1967. Made for Associated-Rediffusion. Alex is a former lawyer now released from prison, making a living on both sides of the law. Also features Jean Marsh.
Neil Innes as the Wizard with Toby Spelldragon in Puddle Lane.
Puddle Lane – children’s series with Neil Innes. 75 episodes, 1985-1989. Made for Yorkshire Television. A magician tells stories with the help of his cauldron and dragon. Also features Kate Lee.
Great Expectations – starring Dinsdale Landen. 13 episodes, of which 12 survive, 1959. Made for the BBC. The first television adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. Also features Colin Jeavons, Michael Gwynn, and Helen Lindsay. The atmospheric opening episode is accessible at the BFI Mediatheque.
Article from the Radio Times. Janet Munro in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Scan via Britmovie.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – starring Janet Munro and Corin Redgrave. 4 episodes, of which 3 survive, 1968. Made for the BBC. Adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel, clips were shown on ‘The Brontës at the BBC’. Also features Bryan Marshall, Megs Jenkins, and Felicity Kendal.
Nicol Williamson, George Segal and Will Geer in Of Mice and Men. Photo via eBay.
Of Mice and Men – starring George Segal and Nicol Williamson. A two-hour drama, 1968. Made for the American Broadcasting Company. Adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel. Also features Will Geer, Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton.
The Coral Island – with Nicholas Bond-Owen and Richard Gibson (I know of the German release without English soundtrack). 9 episodes, 1983. Made for Thames Television. Ralph, Jack and Peterkin find themselves shipwrecked.
Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter in For Maddie With Love.
For Maddie With Love – starring Ian Hendry and Nyree Dawn Porter. 48 episodes over 2 series, 1980-1981. Made for ATV. Maddie is terminally ill and her husband and children have to come to terms with change. An excellent and overlooked series, only one episode has been officially released on Network’s Soap Box set. Also features Colin Baker, Robert Lang and Bruce Montague.
Dinsdale Landen in Devenish. Photo via Memorable TV.
Devenish – starring Dinsdale Landen. 14 episodes across 2 series, 1977-1978. Made for Granada Television. Prufrock Devenish is an amoral social climber in this nutty comedy. Also features Doran Godwin, Terence Alexander, Geoffrey Bayldon and Michael Robbins.
Clive Dunn and Michael Bentine in It’s a Square World.
It’s a Square World – with Michael Bentine. 56 episodes, of which 45 survive, 1960-1964. Made for the BBC. Zany and influential sketch show . Also features Frank Thornton and Clive Dunn.
Thirty Minute Theatre – just under 50 episodes survive from 285 (many never filmed), but only a handful have been released. Includes key work from a variety of writers and directors. Made for the BBC.
Benedict Taylor and Paul Rogers in Barriers.
Barriers – starring Benedict Taylor. 20 episodes, 1981. Billy seeks his adopted parents. Made for Tyne Tees Television. This has turned up on YouTube so I rewatched it in a poor quality copy, but it has stood up well.
Hamlet – starring Ian McKellen. One-off film, 1970. A co-production between the BBC and Prospect Theatre Company. Also features John Woodvine, Faith Brook, and Susan Fleetwood. One of the few colour Shakespeares that remains resolutely in the archives.
David Swift and Richard Beckinsale in Bloomers. Photo via Nostalgia Central.
Bloomers – starring Richard Beckinsale and Anna Calder Marshall. 5 episodes recorded of the planned six, 1979, this series was curtailed with Beckinsale’s death. Made for the BBC. A comedy in which a resting actor starts work in a flower shop. I have seen the episodes in poor-quality copies, with thoughts here.
William Windom in My World and Welcome to It.
My World and Welcome to It – starring William Windom. 26 episodes, 1969-1970. Made for Sheldon Leonard Productions. John Monroe observes and comments on his wife and family in this comedy based on artist/writer James Thurber. I first saw this in the 1980s on Channel 4, and have seen the whole series on poor quality copies.
That’s my twenty most wanted at the moment – what’s yours?
It’s been an exciting few days over at Kaleidoscope, based in Birmingham, as a seemingly endless run of archive television goodies have been announced which were previously missing, believed wiped.
Mostly from one individual collector (!), here’s a quick highlights run down of what episodes and items have been returned to the rights holders:
Z-Cars. Two episodes of the gritty police series; Affray and Family Feud, both from 1962. This brings the survival rate of the first series to nineteen episodes out of thirty-one made. The early episodes I have seen have been very watchable – although only colour episodes from the later years have so far been made available on DVD, by Acorn.
The Avengers. Another episode from the underrated Ian Hendry years, series 1’s Tunnel of Fear, from 1961. One of my number one ‘wants’ so, yes, delighted! This increases the survival rate of the first series to three and a half episodes from the twenty-six made. Before Steed became the lead character with a feisty female sidekick, he was the companion to the decent Dr Keel, and the early extant episodes have quite a different feel to the classic series we know today.
Dr Finlay’s Casebook. A Questionable Practice, from 1963. Many of the surviving early episodes have made it on to DVD, from Simply, and I hope this joins them soon. A very enjoyable series, which benefits from the excellent casting of Bill Simpson, Andrew Cruickshank and Barbara Mullen. .This recovery means there are now seventy episodes available from a hundred and ninety-one made.
Softly, Softly. Talk to Me, from 1966. The pilot episode of the much-loved sequel to Z-Cars, and a very interesting survival.
The World of Wooster. Jeeves and the Great Sermon Handicap, from 1965. This means there are now two surviving episodes from the five seasons which featured Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael as the silly ass and his superior butler. I have heard very positive things about this series and can’t wait to see this episode.
Hugh and I. Beau Jesters, from 1966. A series probably best known as ‘that dreadful series’ David Croft was involved with prior to Dad’s Army, featuring Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott. Still, it has its fans, and it is always nice to welcome archive comedy back to the fold. This means twenty-five episodes now exist from an estimated sixty-nine made.
Here’s Harry. The Musician, from 1963. The surviving edition from series six of Harry Worth’s show, and notorious in its way for being one of the few programmes not pulled from the schedule on the occasion of President Kennedy’s assassination.
This is very much a time for celebration!
Tunnel of Fear is being shown at the next Kaleidoscope event in Birmingham on the 12th November (sadly now sold out).
Family Feud and Jeeves are being shown at the BFI Southbank’s Missing Believed Wiped event in December (exact date to be confirmed).
The second anthology set I’ll be taking a look at from Network is the twelve disc set released last year to celebrate 60 years of ITV.
Each disc is programmed to represent a typical evening’s viewing, although the earliest title dates from 1955, an episode of ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, with the latest programme being an episode of ‘Soldier, Soldier’ from 1994.
The audience for this set is unclear: there are many episodes of series which have been seperately released, with only ten items unique to this collection. Having said that, the variety here is excellent, and the handful of items from the days of Associated-Rediffussion are well-chosen.
Here’s what is included in this voyage though the first thirty-nine years of ITV:
ITV Opening Night Preview (Associated-Rediffusion and ABC), 1955
Thunderbirds: Trapped in the Sky, 1965. A fairly routine example of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series
The Army Game: April Fool, 1960. Painfully dated barracks comedy
Man About The House: While the Cat’s Away, 1974. Fun and games with Robin and his co-lodgers and the Ropers
Robin of Sherwood: The Greatest Enemy, 1985. Michael Praed’s farewell to the role
The Prisoner: Checkmate, 1967. Impenetrable tale already included on the previous ITC50 collection
Pathfinders in Space: Convoy to the Moon, 1960. Sci-fi drama for children
The Larkins: Frightful Nightful, 1960. Things go bump in the night for our comic couple
Sunday Night at the London Palladium, 1965. In which Sid James sings!
The World at War: It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow, 1974. Focusing on Burma, this is a typical episode of the groundbreaking documentary series
Callan: Let’s Kill Everybody, 1969. Tensions rise as a spy sets to eliminate the enem
Catweazle: The Sun in a Bottle, 1970. Series opener
The Arthur Haynes Show, 1962. Included for a short appearance from Michael Caine, this has some good sketches and items
The Avengers: The Winged Avenger, 1967. Emma Peel in comic-book land
Public Eye: My Life’s My Own, 1969. Downbeat episode featuring a young Stephanie Beecham
An Audience with Dame Edna Everage, 1980. Fun with a starry audience, many long since gone
Crossroads, October 1983. Absolutely terrible but previously unreleased
On the Buses: The Strain, 1971. Amusement as Stan has to wear a surgical corset
The Saint: The Contract, 1965. A typical episode
The Tommy Cooper Hour, 1974. Featuring the Sally the Sailor sketch
Auf Wiedershen Pet: The Alien, 1984. Michael Elphick causes trouble for the gang
Rainbow, December 1975. Ali Bongo joins the regulars at Christmas. Previously unreleased
Pipkins: Cowboys, 1977. Pip goes bad!
Doctor in the House: What Seems to be the Trouble?, 1970. Early episode showcasing the student doctors
The Power Game: The New Boy, 1965. The opening episode of the boardroom drama
21, 1977. Otherwise known as 21 Up, the third entry in the Michael Apted series following a group of children from the age of seven onwards
Magpie, November 1976. A mixed bag from the children’s series which was ITV’s answer to Blue Peter
Shut That Door!, 1972. The sole surviving example of Larry Grayson’s variety show
Space:1999: Breakaway, 1975. Nuclear problems hit Moonbase Alpha
No Hiding Place: A Bird to Watch the Marbles, 1963. One of just over twenty surviving episodes from the long-running police series, previously unreleased
The Sweeney: Tomorrow Man, 1976. An episode of the fondly-regarded series about Special Branch
Tiswas, August 1975. Edited version without all the inserts, this features Jon Asher as presenter and is very different to the later episodes we all remember. Previously unreleased
Four Feather Falls: Horse Thieves, 1960. Nicholas Parsons voices the cowboy in this early Gerry Anderson series
The Stanley Baxter Moving Picture Show, 1974. Comic sketches and music in this dated showcase from the Scots variety performance
Gideon’s Way: The Wall, 1965. A rather dark episode from the detective show with John Gregson
Tales of the Unexpected: Royal Jelly, 1980. Buzzzzzzz
The Adventures of Robin Hood: The Coming of Robin Hood, 1955. Series opener
Nearest and Dearest: What Seems to be the Trouble?, 1969. Dated fun with Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel
Rising Damp: Black Magic, 1974. Philip charms the birds
Mystery Bag: Lockhart Finds a Note, 1959. A second look at Chief Inspector Lockhart, previously unreleased
Upstairs Downstairs: Miss Forrest, 1973. A key episode from the period drama series
Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, 1979. Hard-hitting expose of the Khmer Rouge from John Pilger
Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie – Episode One, 1972. This already appeared on a Look Back volume. Frustrating not be able to complete the story of Brian Wilde’s creepy hypnotist
Coronation Street, May 1964. Excellent episode following the death of Martha Longhurst
Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased): Could You Recognise the Man Again?, 1970. Mrs Hopkirk is in trouble, and Marty has to try to help her
Crane: A Cargo of Cornflower, 1965. Smugglers ahoy in one of the two surviving episodes from this series. Extremely poor sound by the way, and previously unreleased
Soldier Soldier: Stormy Weather, 1994. Problems for Robson Green and his wife
A Fine Romance: Series 2, Episode 6, 1982. Nice but rather lame comedy with Judi Dench and Michael Williams
World in Action: The Chart Busters, 1980. Record pluggers who influence the Top 40. Previously unreleased
The Professionals: Blind Run, 1978. Bodie and Doyle turn bodyguard in an entertaining episode
Inspector Morse: Driven to Distraction, 1990. An episode which has been made available many times before, but doesn’t quite suffer from over-exposure
George and Mildred: Moving On, 1976. The Ropers go house-hunting
Jason King: To Russia With … Panache, 1971. Repeated from the ITC50 set
The Main Chance: The Best Legal System in the World, 1970. Series opener
Justice: A Nice Straight-forward Treason, 1971. Margaret Lockwood as the glamorous Harriet in Chambers
The Strange World of Gurney Slade: Episode One, 1960. Anthony Newley’s inventive comedy series
Our Man at St Mark’s: The Facts of Life, 1963. Leslie Phillips plays a sympathetic vicar in one of a handful of surviving episodes – previously unreleased
The Bill: The Short Straw, 1993. Viv regrets being late for work in this previously unreleased episode
Man at the Top: I’ll Do the Dirty Work, 1971. Joe Lampton gets his hands dirty in this TV series sequel to the classic film, Room at the Top
Whicker’s World Aboard The Orient Express, 1983. Practically a commercial for the train service, and previously unreleased
Armchair Theatre: Afternoon of a Nymph, 1962. There are so few of these officially released, I would have swapped for one which isn’t already on one of Network’s sets, although this is a very good example of the play strand
In summary, and especially now prices have dropped considerably from the initial RRP, this is worth your time if you wish to see a range of ITV product in one place, or want to sample some wider releases like The Power Game, Justice and The Main Chance without investing in the full series. However the selection could have included more single plays, more period drama, and some more unfamiliar titles.
I’ve been dipping into the anthology releases from Network recently, which collate a number of related programmes together in what might be described as ‘samples’ of full series.
This series of posts will look at seven such releases:
Soap Box Volume 1
Look-Back on 70s Telly (4 volumes)
Soap Box (2011)
Despite being badged ‘volume 1’ it seems unlikely that there will be a further set after five years has elapsed; still, this is a reasonable collection of both daytime and evening soaps produced across ITV.
Over four discs we move from the sole surviving episode of hospital drama ‘Call Oxbridge 2000’ from 1961, through to a 2006 ‘disaster’ episode of ‘Emmerdale’, which, when compared to an episode from thirty years before – when the series was still ‘Emmerdale Farm’ – shows clearly the decline of both focus and writing of one of Yorkshire TV’s most enduring soaps; although it is good to see both Ken Farringdon and Jenny Tomasin in the cast.
From the 1960s we have episodes of ‘Parkin’s Patch’, a police drama; ‘Weaver’s Green’, about a vet; an atypical episode of ‘Emergency: Ward 10’; and ‘Market in Honey Lane’, which makes an interesting comparison to ‘Albion Market’ which also appears here.
Although ‘Coronation Street’ started in the 1960s, the two episodes featured here are both from 1977 – one where Tracy is in peril, and the famous one about Annie Walker and the new carpet. Well-written, these are an interesting contrast to episodes which can be found on the ‘ITV60’ and ‘Jack Rosenthal at ITV’ sets. ‘Rooms’, about lodgers and bedsitters, is a bit disappointing; but both ‘The Cedar Tree’ and ‘Marked Personal’ are well worth watching. The aforementioned episode of ‘Emmerdale Farm’ is something of an odd choice, dealing with a family tragedy right at the end; while from 1972 ‘General Hospital’ and ‘Harriet’s Back in Town’ were worth revisiting.
Into the 1980s there is an episode of ‘Crossroads’, which hasn’t aged well; the opener of ‘From Maddie With Love’, which is well overdue a full release; ‘The Practice’, yet another medical drama, has good production values but is largely forgettable; ‘Gems’ has a bit of sparkle; and the short-lived ‘Albion Market’ shows it might have had legs if allowed to grow.
The 1990s episodes are from ‘Families’, ‘London Bridge’, and ‘Revelations’, all now largely forgotten, and the set is rounded off by the 25th anniversary edition of ‘The Bill’, a live episode which I last saw at the BFI Southbank with cast members including the late Bernie Nolan sitting behind us. It’s bordering on the hysterical and compares weakly to earlier episodes which can be found elsewhere.
If you like the genre of ‘soap opera’ in its loosest sense you will find much to enjoy here, and it is a varied collection of titles from the various ITV companies, with six examples from Granada, seven from ATV; five from Thames; three from Yorkshire; and one each from Anglia and Carlton.
Network have released ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale Farm’ and ‘Crossroads’ extensively, and there are also some releases of available of ‘Emergency: Ward 10’, ‘General Hospital’, ‘Parkin’s Patch’, ‘Market in Honey Lane’, ‘The Cedar Tree’, ‘London Bridge’, ‘The Bill’ and ‘Revelations’.
There have been many, many screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays – please follow the links below to my lists on Letterboxd to find a range of straight adaptations and versions inspired by the Bard’s work.
Such a rich store of films, television and recordings from the RSC, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Digital Theatre exist to prove the Bard remains relevant 400 years after his passing.
Shakespeare – The Tragedies (http://boxd.it/8yDy), covering 11 of the 37 plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida.
Five to try:
Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir Jon Scoffield, with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman). This will be released by Network Distributing later this year.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir Akira Kurosawa). A Japanese loose version of Hamlet.
Macbeth on the Estate (1997, dir Penny Woolcock, with James Frain).
Othello (1990, dir Trevor Nunn, with Willard White and Ian McKellen).
Romeo and Juliet (1984, from the Royal Ballet, with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri, to Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography).
Shakespeare – The Comedies (http://boxd.it/8yDS), covering 12 of the 37 plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing.
Five to try:
The Comedy of Errors (1976, dir Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench, with music by Guy Woolfenden).
McLintock! (1963, dir Andrew V. McLaglen, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara). A Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dir Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle). A Hollywood fantasy with Mickey Rooney as Puck.
Much Ado About Nothing (2012, dir Joss Whedon).
The Merchant of Venice (1972, dir Cedric Messina, with Frank Finlay as Shylock and Maggie Smith as Portia).
Shakespeare – The Histories (http://boxd.it/8yEc), covering 10 of the 37 plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, King John.
Five to try:
Richard III (1995, dir Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellen). Set in the Nazi era with a modern feel.
Henry V (1944, dir by and starring Laurence Olivier). A stirring version made during the Second World War.
King John (1984, dir David Giles, with Leonard Rossiter, for the BBC Shakespeare).
Henry VIII (2010, dir Mark Rosenblatt, for Globe on Screen, with Dominic Rowan).
Richard II (1978, dir David Giles, with Derek Jacobi, for the BBC Shakespeare).
Shakespeare – The Romances (http://boxd.it/8yEw), covering 4 of the 37 plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.
Five to try:
Prospero’s Books (1991, dir Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud). Inspired by The Tempest.
The Winter’s Tale (1999, dir Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher, for the RSC).
The Tempest (1908, dir Percy Stow).
Cymbeline (2013, dir Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke). With an urban gang setting.
I’ve been spending quite a large chunk of February reading through this charity anthology which gives fans and followers of The Avengers (and The New Avengers) centre stage, from those who have created websites on the topic, contributed to the DVD sets and series 1 reconstructions, or attended conventions around the world, to dedicated collectors of all things Mrs Peel, Steed-fashion-followers, admirers of the adventurous Miss Tara King, and those remembering an adolescent crush on Mrs Gale in her leathers and kinky boots.
I’m a casual Avengers fan myself, fond particularly of the Emma Peel era, and the surviving episodes from the lost lamented opening series with Dr Keel, but I am also intrigued by how people around the world come together in praise of a particular fandom, whether through TV showings and video releases, the lure of a particular character, the recording of audio from shows pre-VHS (which I did myself, but for Sherlock Holmes, which was my youthful fandom alongside Monty Python), or the borderline obsessive devotion to the cause enough to set up regular location hunts, episode synopses, or indeed, a collection like this one.
Very readable and full of references to pop culture and the TV culture of the 1980s (which spoke to me closely as I was growing up in that decade), this volume, tightly curated and edited by Alan Hayes, who has concentrated in print until now on that early, out-of-reach, set of 1961 episodes, is entertaining and full of anecdotes from the personal (James Spiers’ diaries and thoughts about Mrs Peel) to the professional (Jez Wiseman’s recollections about Patrick Macnee).
Buying this volume – from Lulu.com – will allow proceeds to be donated to Champion Chanzige, a charity organisation that exists to improve conditions for underprivileged children at a primary school in Southern Tanzania. You can almost imagine the dapper Mr Steed and his sidekicks appearing there to do their bit to improve the common good, seeing off the bad guys while always having time to stop and show off those marvellous clothes and exquisitely furnished rooms.
With the wide variety of television channels now available it is possible to see a wide variety of films from the 1940s onwards (and even, occasionally, one earlier: the 30s films of the Marx Brothers have recently shown on one of our comedy channels). Films back to the beginning of features just over 100 years ago can be viewed and celebrated, and in the case of silent cinema, new scores and restorations maintain interest. If you go back to the birth of cinema it is still possible to engage with works back to 1895.
For older television, though, the picture is far different. There are some repeat screenings on TV for the likes of Dad’s Army (1968-1978), the Blackadder series (1983-1989), Lovejoy (1986-1994), One Foot in the Grave (1990-1995), Porridge (1974-1977), and the revered Pride and Prejudice (1995). Largely, though, with the exception of cult favourites Doctor Who (1963-1989) and The Avengers (1961-1969), archive TV series are restricted to DVD and Blu-Ray releases aimed at small groups of enthusiasts, or screenings at the likes of the BFI Southbank or events such as those set up by organisations like Kaleidoscope, dedicated to the preservation and sharing of classic material.
Let’s consider the definition of ‘archive television’. Assuming that the earliest examples of TV broadcasts available in either the UK or the US are from the 1940s (or more likely the 1950s), the term probably encompasses material up to the turn of the century, 2000. I first found myself interested in older examples of period drama in the VHS age, while simultaneously drinking in the chance to see material such as the work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (1965-1966), Monty Python (1969-1974), and the aforementioned Avengers.
For me as a lover of classic cinema, I like to follow the careers of performers, writers and directors in all mediums. If the likes of Michael Powell, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach made material for TV, I want to assess it alongside their more showy film output. I want to see the early US versions of material which had a second life in cinema remakes (Bang The Drum Slowly, Marty, Judgment at Nuremberg, Requiem for a Heavyweight).
I want to see small scale material featuring my favourite cinema stars (Richard Harris in The Snow Goose, Richard Burton in The Gathering Storm, Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall in A Foreign Field, Peter O’Toole in The Dark Angel, Oliver Reed in The Debussy Film, Dan Dailey in The Four Just Men, John Mills in The Zoo Gang, Rex Harrison in Platinov, Judi Dench in Talking to a Stranger). I discovered Play for Today just after I had lived through the marvellous era of Film on Four, Screen One and Two, Performance, and Without Walls.
If people miss out on black and white TV purely because it is not in colour, they’re missing out on not just The Forsyte Saga (1967) but also two superior Sherlock Holmes series (1954 and 1965), the gritty early episodes of Z-Cars (started 1962), the Northern cobble saga of Coronation Street (1960- ), science fiction like Out of the Unknown (1965-1971), comedy like The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960), early music shows like Beat Club (1965-1972) and Ready Steady Go (1963-1966), and plays like Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) and The Wednesday Play (1964-1970) (where many cinema directors and performers cut their teeth).
I read on an archive TV forum today that there is little chance of a wide population being interested in this stuff because it is only of interest to small and discrete cults. I disagree – the releasing schedules of the likes of Network, Acorn, Simply, DD, Delta, Second Sight, and more have shown there is an appetite for the likes of Roots (1977), The Lotus Eaters (1972-1973), Lost Empires (1986), Hancock’s Half Hour (1956-1961,which I discovered from TV repeats in the 90s that would likely not happen now), Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Pipkins (1973-1981), Elizabeth R (1971), I Claudius (1976), Two’s Company (1975-1979), Crown Court (1972-1984), Public Eye (1965-1975), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988, which does get regular repeats, still), Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978), and Marriage Lines (1963-1966).
Interest in these titles is not exclusive. One may enjoy Widows as much as Rock Follies, Callan as much as Emmerdale Farm, Steptoe and Son as much as Justice, Outside Edge as much as Mr Rose, The New Avengers as much as The Duchess of Duke Street, Poldark as much as The Singing Detective. You may see a different side of a favourite performer by reaching back to their earlier work, or appreciate a fledgling writer’s lesser known screenplays.
While one can still enjoy and appreciate (although with increasing difficulty, often requiring a need to purchase DVD material or assess material via the grey market of YouTube, bootlegs, or torrents) a range of films made for the cinema, archive TV is often derided as cinema’s poor relation, stilted, badly made, unwatchable for recent generations. This is simply not true – yes, not everything is great, but this is also true of material released to the big screen, and one person’s highlights will be another’s rubbish.
Much of it prior to the 1980s is not simply unavailable, but lost due to videotape wiping. In comparison to films from the same era so much has gone – although perhaps not forever, as material does occasionally come back to join the creative ranks once more. You may have to dig hard to locate some material, but there is pleasure in the chase and the discovery of something fresh and new.
So I would say to you if you come across this post and like the old films for their performances, direction, charm, humour, tension or entertainment – you may be pleasantly surprised if you make the acquaintance of the material made for the days where a TV screen was the size of a postage stamp. For me much of this programming is ground-breaking, well-written, beautifully made, and intelligent material.
Don’t let this material disappear to become the preserve only of an elitist group who are ageing and, in the words of some of them, becoming more split into cult factions. Don’t let the huge fandom of Doctor Who swallow up the recovery and rehabilitation of other contemporary material. Don’t allow TV to become isolated as a present and ephemeral medium unable to set itself within the canon of the past. Discover and celebrate the material broadcast on the small screens of the golden age of television and, like me, you might never look back.
Play for Today: The Slab Boys, directed by Bob Hird. Starring Gerard Kelly, Billy McColl, Joseph McKenna and Tom Watson. 75 minutes. 1979.
An excellent ‘Play for Today’, this stage to screen adaptation by John Byrne, the first of an eventual trilogy, shows life in a Scottish carpet factory from the floor where the ‘slab boys’ mix the colours for the designers: three lads work there from the dim clown to the sparky fireball and the sarcastic quiff wearer.
When a posh lad comes into the firm straight from ‘uni’ and starts earning more in a week than all three slab boys together they get a glimpse of what could be, and what might be, for one of them. With realistic regional dialogue and some sense of urban working class life, there are watchable and strong performances from Billy McColl (d. 2014), Gerard Kelly (d. 2010), and Joseph McKenna (not seen on screen since Absolute Beginners).
The boss is one Willie Curry, sardonic and nostalgic for his desert war service. Tom Watson reprised the role nearly two decades later for the glossy feature film, but I find his performance here is more spot on.
Finally, the new lad Alan, still in his blazer and polite to a fault, is played by Mark Windsor, who has also disappeared from the screen after a brief flourish in the late 70s/early 80s. I didn’t find him that convincing but you need this kind of character for contrast and conflict, I suppose.
Very watchable and although it betrays its stage origins now and then, it translates well to the screen.
Play for Today: The Muscle Market, directed by Jim Goddard. Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Alison Steadman, Paul Jesson and Barry McCarthy. 75 minutes. 1981.
A very good Play for Today from the pen of Alan Bleasdale, this provides the missing link between the play ‘The Black Stuff’ which introduced Yosser and the gang, and the subsequent TV serial, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’. It’s a mystery why this particular play is missing from the DVD release.
This is the story of contractor Danny Duggan (Pete Postlethwaite), who is involved in bad company with some violent and dodgy characters, and the dark situation he finds himself in with books which don’t add up and numerous debts.
It might sound bleak, but there is a lot of black comedy here and a real sense of realism from a master writer. When he has to go serious, he certainly does, that’s the cleverness of the writing.
Strong support from Alison Steadman as Duggan’s secretary, and Terence Rigby as the amiable yet menacing Mr Big owed a lot of cash.
Play for Today: Home, directed by Lindsay Anderson. Starring Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Mona Washbourne, Dandy Nichols and Warren Clarke. 86 minutes. 1972.
This is a marvellous Play for Today featuring two theatrical giants, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, as two residents of a rest home: much of the play is the two of them, talking, which may not sound much but which is absolute gold.
David Storey’s play flourishes in the hands of director Lindsay Anderson (they would collaborate a number of times), and the joy of this piece is just watching two masters at work, while the audience has to work out just how nutty they are and how they interact with each other.
Mona Washbourne and Dandy Nichols have lesser roles, but are both good, while Warren Clarke has an early role as a simple-minded clot who is simply tolerated by the elderly pair of chatterers. The dialogue is very naturalistic, the set is purely theatrical, but the effect is one of being an audience member on the very front row.
Play for Today: Dinner at the Sporting Club, directed by Brian Gibson. Starring John Thaw, Billy McColl, Maureen Lipman, Jonathan Lynn, and Ken Campbell. 63 minutes. 1978.
“I married a ladies raincoat manufacturer, not a sportsman”.
Maureen Lipman and Jonathan Lynn as a bored and sniping couple are on the sidelines of this sharp and compact play featuring John Thaw as a boxing promoter and Billy McColl as his prizefighter, acceptable to the sporting club fraternity because he isn’t ‘chocolate’.
This is a sparkling character study in many ways – here’s the marvellous Ken Campbell propping up the bar in suit and bow tie, wondering whether to take a flutter on the boy.
“They get enough money for a down-payment on a bungalow out in Ongar and they’re satisfied”.
An on-the-surface romantic view of the boxing ring soon evaporates into the loss of hope in seedy surroundings as McColl’s fighter fails to reach his potential.
Gloriously un-PC, too, with lines like ‘He doesn’t drink, funny being a Mick’. Thaw and McColl are good, and this has a definite whiff of realism with the blood, sweat and tears of the fighting ring.