Sunday, February 25

Mastermind’s Gestapo origins, immortal sitcoms and the birth of reality TV: 100 years of the BBC, part six | TV

The BBC finds perhaps its greatest ever radio broadcaster and two finest sitcoms, and persuades Tom Stoppard and John le Carré to TV highs.

1972 – Terry Wogan/Im Sorry I Havent A Clue/Mastermind

Although TV by now claimed the bulk of BBC budgets, radio created greatness. At 7.03am on 3 April, Terry Wogan moved to the Radio 2 breakfast show that he turned into one of the finest wireless franchises, from 1972-84 then again from 1993-2009. His combination of literate wit, ingenious smut (the “Janet and John stories”) and discussion of the previous night’s TV (especially Dallas) remains the benchmark for morning broadcasting.

Full of ingenious smut…Terry Wogan. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Just eight days later, on Radio 4, another monument was unveiled. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, an “antidote to panel games”, survives to this day, rivaling Wogan for clever filth and sparky banter. But a TV long-runner started, too. The longevity of Mastermind is partly due to the British love of quizzes. But creator Bill Wright also showed a crucial understanding of televisual atmospherics in the leather chair, dimmed lights and threatening music; he claimed these were influenced by his own Gestapo interrogation of him as a prisoner of war. Original host Magnus Magnusson also created one of the most famous catchphrases outside of standup: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”

1973 – That’s Life!

Almost all power in TV at this time was male, so Esther Rantzen was a significant pioneer as presenter and de facto editor of a late-night Saturday (later primetime Sunday) series interspersing comedy (Cyril Fletcher’s Odd Odes) and songs (including early numbers by Victoria Wood) with investigations of viewer complaints about jobsworths, mis-selling and shoddy service. Running until 1994, the show was notable, through Rantzen’s Childline, for increasing awareness of paedophilia, although, ironically, That’s Life! initially shared a schedule with Clunk-Click, a show hosted by Jimmy Savile.

1974 – The Family

The Wilkins family.
Frontrunners … The Wilkins family. Photograph: BBC

British reality TV officially came into the world at 9.25pm ​​on 3 April 1974 with the start of Paul Watkins’ 12-part observational documentary, recorded by remote cameras in the home of the working-class Wilkins family of Reading, then edited into a weekly report. If the series had come after EastEnders, it would have been unremarkable; but, preceding the soap by 11 years, it revolutionized TV. Participants were promised they would not be filmed “making love or on the lavatory”, but marital misery, tensions with children and family secrets were certainly revealed.

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1975 – Porridge/Fawlty Towers/The Good Life

Whatever was in the water, it tasted good… Porridge. Photograph: BBC/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Between repeats of the first series of Porridge and the start of the second, two more immortal sitcoms debuted within five months. All three dramatized the nightmares of many middle-class viewers – imprisonment, terrible seaside hotels, agricultural and economic self-sufficiency – and they each featured actors with significant experience in theater and/or sketch shows: Ronnie Barker as old lag Norman Stanley Fletcher, John Cleese’s inhospitable hospitality worker Basil Fawlty with Prunella Scales as boss-wife Sybil, and Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington and Penelope Keith playing the precociously green Goods and the politically true-blue Leadbetters. Whatever was in the water at the time, it tasted good. In a 21st-century poll of the BBC’s Top Ten half-hour comedies, Fawlty Towers was fifth, Porridge seventh and The Good Life ninth.

1976 – I, Claudius

aged 54, BBC was heading for a serious midlife crisis (under Thatcherism) but its 50s were extraordinarily creative. Although prone to dramatizing the novels of Jane Austen in rotation, the source material here was bolder: 1934 novels by Robert Graves about an especially bloody, treacherous and licentious period of Ancient Rome. It proved an inspired choice, the impulse perhaps coming from a sense of western civilization imploding as – post-Watergate America and mid-oil crisis Britain – economies and democracies wobbled. Derek Jacobi stuttering in the title role, Brian Blessed roaring as Caesar Augustus, John Hurt’s magnificently crackers Caligula and Sian Phillips’s strong-woman Drusilla relished Jack Pullman’s magisterial scripts.

1977 – Professional Foul

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BBC Radio had given Tom Stoppard a useful experience on his way to theatrical greatness, and the launch of Play of the Week, a BBC Two sibling to Play For Today, showcased one of Stoppard’s finest displays of wit, political intelligence and clever metaphor. Peter Barkworth was a linguistics professor attending an international football match under cover of a conference in Prague and having to make a personal moral decision about human rights abuse. Written in three weeks to panicky deadlines, even he has rarely matched its bite-to-line score.

1978 – Pennies From Heaven/Grange Hill

Pennies From Heaven.
Pioneering … Pennies From Heaven. Photograph: BBC

Early TV playwrights tended to have had apprenticeships in theater or movies, but Dennis Potter was among the first to understand that TV fiction offered a specific canvas, especially the possibilities of a six-part weekly serial. Potter thought in pictures – his play Blue Remembered Hills memorably had adults playing child roles and, in Pennies From Heaven, even rethought the dramatic soundtrack. Taking a cue from Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) being a song-sheet salesman, the cast mimed to 1930s numbers, radicalizing the period crime setting. Potter used surreal solutions – grownups as kids, lip-synced singing – to get round obstacles to realism such as asking child actors to carry major roles or speech performers struggling to hold a tune. The rerun life of Potter’s work may have been truncated by later concern over his objectification of women, but he pioneered the concept of the “TV novel”. Another writer with a sophisticated understanding of TV was Phil Redmond, who radicalized BBC children’s drama with Grange Hill, set in a London comprehensive school, which tackled issues including drugs and bullying.

1979 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy/Not The Nine O’Clock News

A great decade for BBC comedy and drama finished with another classic of each. Ill-served by cinema, John le Carré realized that TV might better suit his long, deliberate plots. The six parts following super-spy George Smiley’s hunt for a Soviet mole in MI6 were notable for their daringly slow pace and lengthy theme song, although producer Jonathan Powell revealed that both decisions were caused by Arthur Hopcraft’s scripts coming in slightly short. Cast as Smiley, Alec Guinness at one point tried to leave the show – insisting that Arthur Lowe, Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, was a better fit – but he stayed to give a masterclass in TV acting.

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1980 – Juliet Bravo

With a female head of UK government for the first time, one of broadcasting’s more oblique responses to Thatcherism was to wake up to top women in other fields, especially policing. ITV had Jill Gascoigne in The Gentle Touch, while BBC One launched Juliet Bravo, created by Ian Kennedy Martin, perhaps as male feminist penance for his previous biggest hit, ITV’s hyper-masculine The Sweeney. Weirdly neither of the woman-cop shows was named for its central character, unlike Dixon, Maigret, Sherlock Holmes etc. Juliet Bravo was not the protagonist but the radio call-sign of Inspector Jean Darblay, played by Stephanie Turner. It was a standard paradox of the time that this female breakthrough show was almost exclusively written by men.

1981 – Only Fools And Horses

Only Fools and Horses.
‘You plonker!’ Only Fools and Horses. Photograph: BBC/Sportsphoto/Allstar

John Sullivan left school at 15 with no qualifications but enthused by one bit of the curriculum: Charles Dickens. Written in installations, and full of exaggerated characters, those comic novels shaped the sitcoms Sullivan began to write at BBC Television Centre. He created the Trotter family of south London, led by David Jason’s boosterish, delusional market trader Del Boy Trotter, a latter-day Micawber, luring younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) into money-making schemes doomed to failure. In retrospect, Del Boy Trotter (along with George Cole’s Arthur Daley in Minder), eerily foresaw the egalitarian spivvy aspect of Thatcherism. Sullivan had a knack not only for characterization and catchphrases – “Lovely jubbly!” – but also visual gags, such as a chandelier accidentally unscrewed during work on a grand house and Del Boy leaning on an unfamiliar bar and falling through the raised flap.

Coming up tomorrow (1982-1991) – Thatcher bites, and Victoria is crowned.

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