Friday, 27 December 2013

The Christmas that Nearly wasn't – The BBC Strike of December 1978 and Christmas Television of that year

Since December 1977, where the BBC had posted some of the biggest ratings for Christmas Day programmes ever with Mike Yarwood, contrary to belief being most watched programme on that day but with Morecambe and Wise plus Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game posted remarkable figures for that one evening's viewing. It could be safe to say that when the viewing public arrived at the big day one year later, that the whole entertainment landscape had changed totally.

With three of the BBC's biggest entertainment stars leaving the corporation for pastures new, Bruce Forsyth moving to London Weekend Television to present his 'Big Night', also Morecambe and Wise moved to the other London ITV franchise Thames Television to make shows for them, just like that had moved from Lew Grade's ATV to the BBC in 1968.

That left Mike Yarwood as the jewel in the crown for the Beeb, where as ITV pinned their hopes on Forsyth, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise hoping to repeat the success they had done at the BBC. Forsyth being a performer for LWT, was given his own Christmas Eve special which was an other edition of his ill-fated Big Night with Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday and Christmas Day on a Monday when Thames was broadcasting, meant that Eric and Ernie along with the première of the James Bond film – Diamonds Are Forever were ITV's main offerings on Christmas Day evening with the BBC offering a festive edition of 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em' and also the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show. But the BBC had scheduled Mike Yarwood's festive offering to finish fifteen minutes before Morecambe and Wise appeared with their Christmas show at 9pm.

However it is strange to think that ITV could have won the day through maybe unseen events of that time, a clear run if you will. Because seemingly not everything in the BBC camp was settled as it had been so smoothly in 1977.

The 1970's were a time of turbulent industrial relations right across the the board with not a week going by that a strike of one kind or another would take place, looking ahead what happened at the BBC in December 1978 would be but a small drop in the ocean as what occurred in the Independent Television network in the August of 1979. Where as ITV lost revenue and viewers through a technician’s strike, the BBC in 1978 could have lost their Christmas Schedule all together.

However you have to look back to earlier in that year for an indication of what was to come not only in December but in the year to come, Alan Sapper of the Association of Cinema Technicians and Television Technicians (ACTT) had written an article in the guide of that year's Edinburgh Television Festival guide which was seen as fanning the flames to the executives of that time, with Border Television going off the air for three days in November 1978.

But at Television Centre and Lime Grove, things were stirring with the ABS union, seen as the 'BBC' union the ABS decided to take on the BBC management to get themselves better pay and conditions for their members, however with the BBC already being pressured through limited revenue streams and also high inflation of this time, they could not afford to battle the ABS, but in principal they had to try and save their Christmas schedule.

The first union action occurred in November 1978, when the BBC wanted Radio 2 broadcast twenty-four hours a day, the action taken caused the schedule to be delay until 1979. But things were to be far from peaceful for the corporation during December, wildcat strikes were prevalent leading eventually to a two day stoppage on the 21st and 22nd of December, to make sure some sort of service either on Radio or Television was to happen on these days, a singular radio service was produced known as 'Radio 10' as it was combination of all the BBC's National Radio services, leading to classical music appearing on Radio 1, pop music on Radio 4, current affairs on Radio 2 etc. Against the backdrop of the television service broadcasting a caption explaining why there was no programmes on BBC 1 or BBC 2.

Though there was a price to pay, the BBC in not seeing their prized Christmas Day schedule being wiped out gave into the ABS union by granting a fifteen percent pay rise for its technicians. Unbeknown its was this decision by the BBC management which was to have a knock on effect to their counter-parts at ITV during the next year and for the BBC the unions picked and chose when they wanted to strike causing maximum disruption for some of the corporation's key programming through 1979 with A Song for Europe being blacked out and also that year's Miss World contest leading to Eric Morley moving the coverage to ITV in 1980 citing “That it was an embarrassment to me and the contest itself..”

After the strikes, came the schedules and naturally ITV was confident with their new signings and big movies, thinking that could this be their year after 1977's lean showing and the BBC's dominance. Even ITV's presentation had a classy look about it, making the previous year's effort of the commercial channel look almost cheap but cheerful with 'The Robin Song' being accompanied by an cartoonish Santa Claus having Christmas antics. Though the BBC management, with their many years behind them including Bill Cotton and his team of Light Entertainment Producers and Directors would deliver a schedule just as good as in 1977 or it would seem, at the strike stage the BBC had prepared an alternative schedule to be run by management if the strike had not been resolved by Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday led to strange mixture of usual Sunday programming and also major entertainment programmes on both the BBC and ITV, the likes of Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan rubbing shoulders with a performance of Sleeping Beauty from Covent Garden on BBC 1, Rugby Special with a mouth watering clash between The South and Edinburgh combined with a special edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test from Wembley Conference Centre introduced by Annie Nightingale and continuing the sporting theme ITV had their usual dose of Sunday afternoon football in the vast majority of the regions with Bruce Forsyth's Christmas Eve, a festive edition of his Big Night.

Both channels decided to put on movies filled with big stars whilst people were either wrapping last minute presents or cooking in preparation for the following day. BBC 1 went all Roman with the epic 'El Cid' at five past eight in the evening, starring like in most of these epics, Charlton Heston backed up by Sophia Loren. ITV on the other hand decided to go for the master of murder, mystery and suspense for their Christmas Eve film showing Alfred Hitchcock's Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at 9pm. However ITV decided to slice Charade into two with the ITN News sandwiched in the middle of it, a perfect crime perhaps to keep the viewers watching and extending the film so that take viewers away from Andre Previn's Music Night on BBC 1 at Ten past Eleven, with no Eric and Ernie to help him this time. Though both main channels had the traditional church services in and around midnight to welcome in the big day itself.

Because of the strikes, productions were affected as well such as the Top of the Pops Christmas special, with barely no time to record after the technicians started to work again. So effectively the Christmas Special was spilt into two, with a edition more akin to the usual Christmas Day special recorded and shown later in the festive holiday. On the main day itself, Noel Edmonds linked clips from a makeshift set, supposedly the Top of the Pops office.

With other productions taking priority such as the Mike Yarwood Christmas Show, the concentration being on getting these productions in the can ready to be able to be broadcast. Buf if Mike Yarwood was the jewel in the crown, then the early schedule on BBC 1 was hardly a classic beginning with a repeat of the previous night's Carols from Kings, Christmas Day Worship from Knutsford in Cheshire with an edition of The Flumps in between at 9.50am. Hardly rousing of the main channel, but ITV's approach was to make sure they caught the younger viewers attention whilst they were opening their presents. Over two hours, they showed The Christmas Story, The Wotsit from Whizz-Bang, a festive edition of Clapperboard and the usual visit to a Children's Home topped off with Christmas Morning Service from St George's Chapel in Windsor. Meanwhile BBC 2 opened up with an edition of Play School presented by Sarah Long and Don Spencer at five past eleven in the morning.

By lunchtime, BBC 1 had shown The Spinners from a Dickensian Street at York Museum and the late sixties Elvis Presley film Clambake based around the beaches and sunshine of America, whilst ITV went for warm sunshine as well in the form of the sequel to Born Free, Living Free starring Nigel Davenport and Susan Hampshire. Seemingly both movies were enough to keep the viewers attention through the frenzy of present opening, pleasingly they were entertaining enough to the day around to Christmas lunchtime when the schedules went up another gear, the day's viewing had been pedestrian up to that point but hear on in the BBC and ITV went their own ways with their choices of what their day's viewing should be.

At ten past one, ITV had an edition of Crossroads though it fell on Christmas Day, it was to be just part of an ordinary weekday schedule. Compared to modern standards, which have three or possible four soaps on Christmas Day concentrating on the darker aspects of story-lines, this edition was seemingly straightforward and harmless but with BBC with no soaps and going for a more entertainment based schedule decided to show Holiday on Ice, as popular as Billy Smart's Circus was at that time, this special show of glacial dexterity was the perfect start to the afternoon's schedule with radio presenter Brian Matthew on duty linking the programme together, it is important to remember that in 1978 through John Curry's success at the 1976 Winter Olympics that Britain had taken to its culture the sport and performance of ice dance, so seeing a lavish production wasn't surprising at all. BBC 2 on the other hand, went for an even more cultural approach with Sounds of Christmas from the Royal Albert Hall followed by a production of The Snow Queen. Their remit to do this was ideal to offer an alternative to BBC 1 and the ITV regions, even their main film of the day Derzu Uzala at 4.20pm was a Russian Film with English Subtitles.

For all this meanwhile in the Yorkshire Television region, they were on strike as well. Leading to the strange situation of none of the their productions being seen in their own region, but on the rest of the network with 3-2-1 being broadcast to the other companies. With the possibility of with the BBC strike not being resolved by Christmas of no television during the Christmas period in the Yorkshire area. But this was the least of ITV's troubles, with a printers strike ongoing, this meant not a full run of editions of the Christmas TV Times could not put out. So editions appeared sporadically in newsagents all over the country for their own regions, however an emergency edition was published and where a specific regional edition could be printed, that these emergency editions filled in for the usual editions over the Christmas period. With BBC and ITV seemingly settled in front of the camera, the behind the scenes activities were almost hidden secretly away.

Morecambe and Wise's move to Thames wasn't as straightforward as everyone thought, their main scriptwriter Eddie Braben was still contracted to the BBC until 1980 which mean when the duo moved to ITV that both Barry Cryer and John Junkin were charged with writing their first show for Christmas, competent writers both the actual Christmas special didn't feel that it was good as the last BBC show. But when put in a impossible position with the Christmas show of 1977, through the quality of the material and also the high ratings, anything less than Eric and Ernie had down before at the corporation would have been seen as a step down from where they had been.

Where as Mike Yarwood was the big star of the day with a festive edition of 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em' earlier in the schedule, Michael Crawford could be said with his broad comedy had appealed the most to the audience, matched with Michael Parkinson and his guests doing seasonal bit of business as characters from pantomimes it could have said that the BBC were pleased, but they couldn't even put as big a movie première as ITV had done with Diamonds Are Forever. BBC1 came up with a TV movie of True Grit : A Further Adventure as their main film of the day, it seemed like the corporation had to put a movie of any kind to match ITV, but knowing they could not beat the opposition, they used a movie which would appeal to their audience but to fill a slot.

However in the spread of Christmas, movies were put on to appeal almost weekday evenings with The Wizard of Oz making another appearance as well on the 27th of December as well Carry On Girls later on that day. Though Boxing Day, if Christmas Day had been targeted, then that day on the 26th was to be purely entertaining. The BBC's mixture of intelligent entertainment and also mass appeal, the usual Grandstand appearance, Disney Time, Its A Christmas Knockout and Jim'll Fix It were enough to keep the viewers in the afternoon and the early evening and later The final of Mastermind 1978 plus The French Connection with Gene Hackman showed the BBC were in for the long run over Christmas.

Meanwhile ITV decided to hit as hard as they could by engaging their viewers with programmes and films they wanted to see, Holiday on the Buses, Christmas Star Games and Sale of the Century were perfect ITV viewing with the ever popular Charlie's Angels and Benny Hill as well topped off with The Day of the Jackal providing the template for many ITV Boxing Days to come.

Looking back over this Christmas itself, the whole look for Christmas was to change for the next thirty five years, however taking out the soaps from the schedules it is interesting but not surprising that the 2013 rating battle was won by a broad comedy in the form of Mrs Brown's Boys where as in 1978 Frank Spencer was one of the winners of that Christmas and that the schedule have been straightforward in the past couple of years, ever day has had movies and entertainment instead of just giving up after Boxing Day, it might seem that the schedule wasn't the strongest but the spirit of Christmas past is still there. If it wasn't important to both channels in the past few years, the remarkable thing is that there is competition again. Where as ITV would have given up, the fight is back there and the BBC has thought they need to up their game.


It'll be interesting to see what Christmas 2014 will bring to all channels, but one thing is certain there will be a winner come Boxing Day, the Christmas Day crown is there for the taking.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

All Tinsel and Turkey... Christmas night in the Stars of BBC and ITV...

Christmas brings many things, presents, food and television in abundance. As the schedules have been released for this year the usual soaps and also big hitting programmes dominate, but it wasn't always like this. At one time there was a one stop shop to see all your stars in, the BBC coming together if you will. The show which dominated the big day itself for more than fifteen years was Christmas Night with the Stars, a place where the stars shone so bright and you could get the likes of Cliff Richard rubbing shoulders with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Usually in ten minutes sections of
the most popular sitcoms of the year, the best light entertainment shows and the biggest stars. This was a show of might by the BBC to show the viewers their selection box of personalities.

The first show in 1958 was hosted by magician David Nixon, performing tricks himself as well, the line-up was a stellar one with the cream of British comedy appearing in sketches such as Ted Ray, Charlie Chester, Charlie Drake combing with future stars Tony Hancock and Kenneth Connor, the nature of the show meant that Dixon of Dock Green appeared with Billy Cotton and also the Beverly Sisters performing, though the interest comes in the cast with future Benny Hill writer Dave Freeman performing with Charlie Drake and the writers of the show reads like a who's who of comedy writing. The partnerships of Galton and Simpson are there with Muir and Norden plus Charlie Chester as well. This was the cream of the talent the BBC had, meaning something was there for everyone. To say that the BBC wanted to get a march on the fledgling ITV franchises was an understatement, though this showed ITV on the biggest occasions that the Beeb were willing to fight for their audience. Plus with the Light Entertainment department getting new directing and producing talent into their ranks, this would set the BBC up for the 1960's.

With the BBC's intentions clear to fight for the audience which was out there, the sixties was to be a decade which would change light entertainment for ever. A decade of pushing the boundaries, where Britain would change in itself. At the start of the decade with the opening of the new Television Centre in 1960, one of the newest purpose built television studios in the world. The raising of the standard, made the programmes even better. The first show of the new decade featured Sid James from Citizen James, Harry Worth on film plus regulars David Nixon and Jimmy Edwards. It might seem the programme had hardly changed at all, but by 1962 Eamonn Andrews has taken on the role of presenting The Black and White Minstrels, Dixon of Dock Green and The White Heather Club. But backing these favourites up were two shows which were new and were to show the BBC had started to change in its comedy output. The Rag Trade starring Peter Jones, Reg Varney with support of Miriam Karlin and Esma Cannon, the show had been on the air since 1961 but 1962 was the first time when the honour of appearing on the biggest show of the year was bestowed on it.

By 1964, the programme had moved away from including shows with a dramatic narrative. So Jack Warner became the host as Eamonn Andrews had moved to ABC, but the focus was more about the light entertainment stars. The Black and White Mistrels were present with Billy Cotton, the traditional had there place in there but with pop starting to rule the roost, the show acknowledged this with appearances from Kathy Kirby and The Barron Knights. Two stars who were to become two of comedy's biggest stars performed sketches in the form of Benny Hill and Dick Emery, their comedy seemed the same by the end of the decade Hill had moved to Thames Television and Emery was still present on BBC1. Though with comedians there was a place for the all-round entertainers as well, Roy Castle being one of them. The future Record Breakers host had his own show, singing and dancing showing off his talents on a weekly basis, Castle was very much a British 'Sammy Davis Jnr.' , though his career though bubbling along didn't hit the heights as many people thought he would do at that time. Alongside Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, Freddie Frinton and Thora Hird performed a shortened version of their sitcom Meet the Wife, but 1964 also saw the launch of BBC2 and one their biggest comedies which had been repeated on BBC1, The Likely Lads was asked to film an insert for the programme with Rodney Bewes as Bob and James Bolam as Terry reflected on the Christmas season in their own inimitable way. It was a sign that a new wave was sweeping through light entertainment.

Come the end of the decade, with the new ITA franchises in place and the BBC looking towards newer talent, it gave the 1968 a new fresh look which would start the new era of light entertainment at the BBC. In this year, the show was a powerhouse, the host being the newly arrived from ATV, Morecambe and Wise hosted the programme. Just having Eric and Ernie on Christmas Day was a bonus, allowing them to perform at their best, though the supporting cast was one which the BBC could be proud of. The personality led variety show had come to define light entertainment by the end of the decade, ITV had led with the Tom Jones show but the Beeb could count on Cliff Richard to do pretty much the same job but in a more boy next door style, the might of pop was important to the very important teenage audience so both Lulu and Petula Clark were included too. Both performers would go on to have their own personality led variety show the same as Cliff Richard with in the next five years following the programme.

Though the biggest star the BBC could offer was Rolf Harris, this antipodean bundle of many talents had his own show on a Saturday night inviting the top singing stars of the day, performing dance routines with Duggie Squires' Young Generation containing a future Blue Peter presenter in Leslie Judd and future Light Entertainment executive who would put his own mark on the genre in the 1990's, Nigel Lythgoe. Add in the combination of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, comedy from Marty Feldman and with new to that year comedies Not in Front of the Children and more importantly Dad's Army filming sketches for the programme, it is little wonder what the new ITV companies did for 1969, they thought back. They launched the All Star Comedy Carnival, taking the best of what ITV had to offer from all the regional franchises and showcasing them in one place. That first year one of the main attraction was the Granada series 'The Dustbinmen' featuring a pre-Are You Being Served Trevor Bannister.

With the start of the 1970's, it saw the death of Tom Sloan in May 1970. The head of the Light Entertainment group had been influential in bringing so many shows which would define the BBC's output in the 1960's such as Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Dad's Army, the Val Doonican shows and even Dixon of Dock Green. His influence over the BBC's biggest department meant that he could persuade the performers to make appearances on Christmas Night with the Stars, but all backed up with his team behind him like Stewart Morris, Yvonne Littlewood, Roger Ordish, Terry Heneberry, Michael Hurll and most importantly Bill Cotton Jnr. Cotton Jnr. himself had been a producer for in house BBC productions since 1956 including his own father's Band Show, so he was the natural choice to take over the role. The 1970 cavalcade of stars had Cilla Black appearing with Dick Emery, Terry Scott, June Whitfield and Stanley Baxter. But the star power the show had meant, Clodagh Rogers could be seen alongside Nana Mouskori, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis contributing to give a transatlantic feel but none could top an appearance by Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra that's without noting the 'Galloping Gourmet' Graham Kerr as well. This provided a combination of laughs, music and even cooking as well, all the things for a perfect Christmas party.

So with this wealth of talent on the one programme, what could ITV do for their All Star Comedy Carnival of that year? Well, at 6.30pm, the programme started with the mixture of The Lovers with Paula Wilcox and Richard Beckinsdale, Hark at Barker meant that Lord Rustless would get a place in the Christmas schedules for Ronnie Barker, the Doctors in the House were there from London Weekend with the jokes coming thick and fast from Yorkshire Television's Jokers Wild with Barry Cryer presenting and his future Kenny Everett writing partner Ray Cameron on writing duties. To add in variety, Des O'Connor brought a snippet of his own show with Des singing, even down in Weatherfield there was a seasonal visit to Coronation Street with the regulars of the Rovers Return pondering about the festive season in a especially written mini-episode. This of course pre-cursing the days when the soaps and their story lines would become a integral of the Christmas Day schedules. All linked together by Max Bygraves and with musical accompaniment from Geoff Love and his orchestra as well, even popular BBC sitcom stars Warren Mitchell and Rodney Bewes turned up on the programme. Though it is surprising that the programme that followed the show On the Buses wasn't part of the comedy carnival itself with it being one of ITV's top rated shows at the time, but maybe keeping separate from all the other shows meant the rest of ITV's comedy and entertain could be showcased without them being overshadowed by a mini-episode of such a popular show. On reflection, ITV's effort may have seemed weaker in comparison for that year to the BBC's effort but it did offer an alternative to the BBC though.

1971 saw more change with the BBC's Light Entertainment department bringing new shows to their schedule with the Generation Game, Parkinson and the Two Ronnies, Messrs Barker and Corbett being reunited with each other. Bill Cotton's stamp was firmly on the department now, but come Christmas Day the stars were rolled out once again including mini episodes of Dad's Army, Till Death Do Part sharing the limelight with efforts from Lulu and her show, Mike Yarwood making an impression on the audience both in the studio and at home. It was a show of force once again from the Beeb, but ITV counteracted pretty much with the same shows of the previous years but with the inclusion of The Fenn Street Gang and Please Sir! Which they had left behind, Father Dear Father came from Thames and Lollipop loves Mr Mole from ATV. Plus Les Dawson made a mini-episode of Sez Les which was doing great business for himself and also Yorkshire Television as well. Mike and Bernie Winters hosted this year, they themselves had made a contribution of a music item with Opportunity Knocks' Hughie Green on trumpet/guitar, ITN newsreader Gordon Honeycombe on sax, illusionist David Nixon on double bass, Eamonn Andrews on trombone and the whole of the World of Sport team providing the rhythm section, plus Mike Winters playing the clarinet. This is one of those occasions where you wish the footage has not been lost, just to see this spectacle. Not only for the sight of Dickie Davies on drums or the fact what song they actually played, with the Christmas TV Times of that year handily saying it would be an old favourite.

But with this chance at the BBC came a new policy to do with Christmas television, all the stars who had roughly ten minutes to showcase themselves and their programmes during Christmas Night with the Stars seemed such a tight time to do so. So it was that 1972 was the last Christmas Night with the Stars for another twenty four years, introduced by The Two Ronnies after their success with the own show in the previous year. As in previous years Dad's Army and Mike Yarwood did mini-episodes of their own shows, with this year two additions to the line up of The Liver Birds and The Goodies, themselves fresh from their own success on BBC2. Plus Lulu appeared as well as The Young Generation with this year Nigel Lythgoe being credited as the choreographer of their dance routine, the credits for this show read like a who's who of the BBC Light Entertainment department, the Two Ronnies directed by Terry Hughes, Dad's Army by David Croft, Jim Franklin producing The Goodies as well as Michael Hurll and Sydney Lotterby. In addition to both musical directors Ronnie Hazelhurst and Alyn Ainsworth and a stellar list of writers including Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Barry Cryer and Neil Shand to name a few. This was the way to go out, as from 1973, the Christmas specials would out on their own and longer then before. The BBC worked out that each show could do even more by each production
being able to work on their own efforts, thus focussing the talents of the crew, the writers and the performers. That idea was to have massive success as the Christmas schedules of the BBC would continue to dominate for many years to come.

The swansong for the All Star Comedy Carnival would come for ITV in 1973, up against the BBC's new style Christmas Day schedules. They could offer Jimmy Tarbuck in a mock house with the going on with Man about the House, Les Dawson making another appearance with Sez Les, My Good Woman from ATV and Billy Liar from LWT plus Spring and Autumn from Love Thy Neighbour's Vince Powell. But not even the might of the Wandsworth School Choir and Fyfe Robertson could overthrow BBC1's offering. So it was not surprise that after this year's edition that ITV took the same approach as the BBC of pitching the best of their shows up against each other, for Christmas Night with the Stars, the style of that programme was used for the Funny Side of Christmas in 1982. Again the best of BBC comedy all in the same place and with revivals in 1994 on BBC2 featuring the likes of Steve Coogan performing and again ten years later in 2004 presented by Michael Parkinson, but this version seemed more like an extend version of his chat show. For the All Star Comedy Carnival, the idea has not been revived by ITV and looks likely not to be any time soon.



Some people may say that these programmes, maybe they were of their time. But however without them we would not have got to the Christmas Day schedules today, they were the first to introduce soaps on Christmas Day, they were the first to have the leading comedies of the day back to back, they were the first to have top variety in the same place and they were the first to introduce new comedies to a wider audience. Whatever way you want to look at it, Christmas would not have been brighter places without them.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Born risky or Being safe? - Channel Four at 31

Last year, this article which was written for the Portsmouth News. In which I set out a brief description of The Tube, but as Channel Four becomes thirty-one. What can we learn from this? First of all, the article as published.

On Guy Fawkes night 1982, Channel Four provided a rocket up the schedules with the introduction of The Tube. Irrevocable, indolent and interesting, it set out its pop manifesto right from the start, although the original presenters were to be Boy George and a pre-Big Breakfast Paula Yates, but when Boy George found chart success, a newly freed from Squeeze Jools Holland filled the gap left.

With it being broadcast live on early Friday evenings, the programme had a fresh edge over any other music show at the time which lead to many one-liners being made by both presenters which was all part of its appeal and leading to new acts and even comedians coming up to its Newcastle studios to play and get exposure to youth at home.

Part of the appeal of the programme was to see what they could get away with that week, not only pushing the boundaries but giving them a kick up the charts in the process, later on they helped Frankie Goes to Hollywood with early television exposure.

But as time went on and the one-liners became more obvious, Jools Holland's throw-away line too rude to print in a family paper led the show to be suspended for three weeks as it was rather unwisely broadcast during Children's ITV. Sometimes naughty, but always good it gave to television a relevance of music and while it lasted 'The Tube' was one great ride!

Channel Four has set itself out as saying they were born risky, but in at least the past five years when can it has been? Is this channel which wanted to shock, wanted to give something to the youth of Britain, provide a home to programmes fit anywhere? The channel set out programmes for the disabled, not only adults but youngsters. Cecil Korer who came from the BBC was a key part of this, he may have been seen as some what of the old school having been a programme purchaser and a commissioning editor for the Light Entertainment group.

Seemingly for this he purchased Cheers and The Paul Hogan Show for the fledgling channel and even in commissioning Countdown that the first production team christened the number picking computer C.E.C.I.L (standing for Countdown Electronic Computer In Leeds). Where as Countdown had come from Yorkshire Television, another of his successes was Treasure Hunt from the independent producer Chatsworth Television, with the team of ex-newsreader Kenneth Kendall, TV-AM weather presenter Wincey Willis and Anneka Rice at that time who had previous worked in Hong Kong as a newsreader. But these successes set up the channel as an alternative to the BBC and ITV, if Channel Four was conceived as the IBA's second commercial channel then it had done its job.

In setting up his own production company Gambit Enterprises, Korer's company made Hand in Hand, which introduced children both hearing and deaf to each other's worlds but also revivals of 'Where In The World?' and 'The Heritage Game'. 

Plus with the likes of Mike Bolland, bringing new approaches to youth and entertainment programming. They were bold times, stretching the channel to do what it could to be so different. But with Channel Four proclaiming they were born risky, it makes people think what they have become to offer like for like programming. Its true and maybe said to say that Channel Four has come into the 21st century, not as it should be but with a changed personality. It might have matured with age, but the rebellious spirit has gone and for British television it could be a significant move backwards.



Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Step Inside Love - The story of Cilla Black and her 50 years in Showbusiness

In light entertainment, presenters can come from anywhere nowadays but the classic entertainers come from usually from a variety background, though with the advent of pop music in the 1950’s created a whole generation of stars, some whose longevity would mark them out and for others they fell as quickly as they rose.

Many of these pop musicians would go on and forge careers outside the world of Rock and Roll, such as Adam Faith who became a pop music manager himself as well as a very accomplished actor, Cliff Richard who became a favourite with audiences with his variety show. Also Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck, whose weekly shows attracted major stars from both side of the Atlantic and drawing huge audience figures for Lew Grade’s ATV.

However as the 1960’s was drawing to a close and pop music was going off in new directions with albums with greater and greater orchestrations, for some artists who were not involved in such musical motions there was so many choices and routes to take. They were at a crossroads at their careers with their teenage fans now grown up and moving onto new interests, whether they wanted to carry on a purely pop route, go into straight acting or the third route of moving into light entertainment. These performers who had come appeared on variety shows since the 1950’s performing alongside comedians and also other variety artists whilst on tour they had mixed with them on the early rock and roll tours with comedians being the compares. They were already soaking themselves into the world of light entertainment themselves.

Back in the early 1960's young Priscilla White was working in an office at a manufacturing company making insulated cable with dreams of moving into the world of entertainment, so she took a part-time job working in Liverpool's Cavern Club as a cloakroom attending but also doing performances of a impromptu nature when the stage was free and they needed someone to entertain the patrons. However it was these performances which impressed The Beatles and others of the Merseybeat groups.

But it was Liverpool based promoter Sam Leach which encouraged her to go into singing and he gave her first chance to perform properly at a club called 'The Casanova Club' appearing as “Swinging Cilla” in support many of the Merseybeat bands of the time such as Kingsized Taylor and the Dominoes plus also Rory Story and The Hurricanes. Though at this time she was also working as a waitress in coffee lounge The Zodiac where she met her future husband and manager Robert Willis more commonly know as Bobby. Though in appearing the first edition of Mersey Beat, a local music paper did its editor Bill Harry made a mistake by calling Priscilla White, Cilla Black. However when Priscilla saw the name she decided to adopt the mistaken name as her new stage name as it sounded more better and more of a punchy name.

Her first contract was signed with a long time friend of hers, Terry McCann. Though because she was still underage when the contract was signed that the contract was null and void, how this lead to he father deciding this was the best path for young Cilla was to sign with Beatles manager Brian Epstein who at first he didn't show an inkling to sign Cilla. It was John Lennon who had encouraged Epstein to give her an audition, though this audition did not go well owning to her nerves and The Beatles playing songs which were suited to their voice ranges rather then hers as she wrote in her autobiography What's It All About?

I'd chosen to do Summertime, but at the very last moment I wished I hadn't.

I adored this song, and had sung it when I came to Birkenhead with The Big Three, but I hadn't rehearsed it with The Beatles and it had just occurred to me that they would play it in the wrong key.

It was too late for second thoughts, though. With one last wicked wink at me, John set the group off playing.

I'd been right to worry.

The music was not in my key and any adjustments that the boys were trying to make were now too late to save me. My voice sounded awful. Destroyed – and wanting to die – I struggled on to the end.”

Cilla first concert was with The Beatles at the Odeon in Southport on August 30th 1963 just seven days before Epstein signed her up after seeing her perform at The Blue Angel jazz club as his first female singer.

Though this was a whirlwind time for Cilla, at the end of September she made her first television appearance on TWW's Discs A Go Go presented by Kent Walton who was one of the top DJ's on Radio Luxembourg at that time as well as being ITV's wrestling commentator.

Her appearance on the show promoted herself as an artist, meanwhile her first single 'Love of the Loved' written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney premiered on ABC TV's 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' but only reached number 35 on the charts. Though the single was seen as a failure relatively, however Cilla rose her profile by appearing on Juke Box Jury and setting out on a thirty-two date concert tour with Gerry and the Pacemakers. Later appearing on a five date tour with Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas in November and finally on The Beatles Christmas Show at the Astoria, Finsbury Park, London on Christmas Eve.

Cilla had made a small mark on the pop scene by the end of 1963, however it was see 1964 as her breakthrough year as an artiste. On the last day of January, saw the release of the single which was to change her life. 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' written originally by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick was heard by Cilla's manager at the time Brian Epstein when was in New York, believed the song would be right for her.

Though at the time when arriving back in London and whilst in conversation about the matter with George Martin, Martin when he had heard a copy of the song though it would have been ideal for Shirley Bassey presumed it was for Shirley to perform it. But Epstein was steadfast in his view that it would be right for Black to perform as her latest single, though with an orchestration by Johnny Pearson using a string section and powerful rhythm. It was Cilla's powerful vocal performance which helped sell the song, it was George Martin and Johnny Pearson who managed to get the best vocal and make the song seem even bigger.

By late February the song had gone to number one in the charts spending three weeks there and selling 800,000 records in the time it was there. With a 36 date concert tour of England taking place at the same time lead to venues selling out night after night, at the end of March, Cilla was presented with her first silver disc for the single through the sheer number of sales and to extend the single's success an EP of the song was brought out in April. A sign of her success was a week's residency at Manchester's Palace Theater and playing NME's Poll-Winners' show at Wembley.

May was to prove a turning point for Cilla Black's career, on May the 1st her third single 'You're My World' was released which was to prove her second number one. Taken from a popular Italian song 'Il Mio Mondo' the single had a life of its own becoming a hit in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Europe as well. With 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' being the first number one by a solo female artist since Helen Shapiro with 'Walking Back to Happiness' in October 1961 and both singles selling over a million records plus also being awarded gold discs for both. The rise and rise of Cilla Black was seemingly phenomenal having achieved all of this before the age of twenty-one as well.

As success was coming thick and fast, Cilla was being pushed more into the world of variety appearing at the London Palladium in a show featuring Frankie Vaughan and Tommy Cooper. Her first show took place on May 13th 1964 and what was meant to be a short running show was extended into December. Though her focus at this time was still being a singer, but with her vocal style had been recognized in the United States and with the promotion of her to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and to launch her career over the Atlantic, 'You're My World' was released reaching number 26 on the Billboard Top 100, though Elvis Prestley though enough of of the single that he had a copy of it on his personal jukebox at Graceland.


However if Cilla wanted to make it properly like The Beatles had broken America, she would have to spend more time there and tour across the whole country. But homesickness made her miss her Liverpool roots just as she was getting popular in the US. But in 1966, a song once again written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David was to come calling, 'Alfie' the title song used by the film of the same was recorded by Cher. Brian Epstein made a conscious decision to get Cilla to record a version of her own as her latest single. Black's single was arranged and conducted by Burt Bacharach, as he felt she could give the emotion in her voice that the song truly demanded. For Cilla, she thought it was one of the hardest recording sessions she had ever done. In the justification of Bacharach's demands, the single reached No9 and had become more well know than the version that Cher had sung in the film.

Where as being a vocal artiste seemed more of a viable career path at this point, by the end of 1966 Cilla had appeared on Not Only... But Also with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore also in a Ray Galton and Alan Simpson written revue – 'Way Out in Piccadilly' in the West End, on television with Frankie Howerd and on the Eamonn Andrews Show on several occasions as well as her very own television special 'Cilla at The Savoy' of which was the first to be filmed in colour.

Though her short lived career as an actress didn't not pick off like Brian Epstein had hope, with roles in the beat film 'Ferry Across The Mersey' featuring many of the Merseybeat groups in it. But she played a lead role in the 1968 comedy alongside David Warner in 'Work is a Four Letter Word'. But it was later revealed that Cilla Black was offered the role as Michael Caine's girlfriend in The Italian Job, but the negotiations fell through over the fee which was going to be paid to Cilla for playing the role.

As the acting door closed another one opened, with Cilla becoming a more regular face of television apart from music shows, Brian Epstein signed a contract with the BBC to launch Cilla as a singer/entertainer with her very own show. But in all this, the relationship between Cilla and Brian Epstein had broken down over a number of factors including dwindling singles sales as follow up singles had flopped. To try and placate her, Epstein tried to do a deal with the BBC to represent the United Kingdom in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, but having seen Sandy Shaw winning the 1967 contest, she thought that a British female singer couldn't win again in the next year.

This artist/performer relationship was to have a tragic ending, with Epstein dieing of a drugs overdose in August 1967. For Cilla this was a dark time, with her manager now gone she looked to her future husband Bobby Willis who had written songs for the B-side of her first two singles and had been a confident to her over her career so far. Bobby took over as her manager with such a busy period of her career and own life coming up. Cilla herself though that doing her own television was not really a risk for her as if it went wrong she could always go back to her singing and acting careers.

In 1964, she appeared on the 'Around The Beatles' television special, produced by former 'Oh Boy' producer Jack Good, though as Cilla remembers one of first experiences of appearing front of the television cameras.

One of my earliest memories was doing television dates back to 1963 in Southampton. It was only my second time on TV and they told me to dance. I danced right past the camera and there was a blank screen for about ten seconds.”

But significantly in starting her own television programme, Cilla Black had asked for one man to be her producer. Michael Hurll who had worked on Billy Cotton's Band Show was to have a profound influence on Cilla. After turning up late for an edition of the Band Show, Hurll gave her a verbal dressing down in no uncertain terms. However, this did not upset her at all, as when it came to appointing a producer for her fledgling show, it was the way that Hurll dealt with her in that initial meeting that impressed her.

Seemingly firm, but also fair but Hurll own way of believing in each show he produced and its stars within had a effect on her. So she wanted the only the best from Hurll and his creativity in dreaming up new ideas for the programme which had not had been seen on television before such as the way that an outside broadcast was used to drop in on viewers as they watched the show and also conducting interviews with members of the public as they went about their daily business. But as Bill Cotton recalled about Cilla Black and her natural way with the public in opposed to other singers who had their own shows

I had spent a long time telling other performers that it was never always about singing a song, it was talking to your audience, For example, Cilla Black . She cannot sing, however she could talk to the audience and in that type of show that is the most important thing.”

Cilla her herself had a hunger to try new things and with Michael Hurll they had formed the perfect partnership of performer and producer. In an edition of her show from December 1968, her line up of guest can boast folk singer Donovan, a regular chart topper at that time, Frankie Vaughan, one of variety's bigger stars, a young Roy Hudd in which she links up live with the pantomime that he is performing whilst the programme and a up and coming comedian called Les Dawson making on of his first major television appearances. This showed the breath of her own show, combing all the best elements of singing with her musical guests, performing in comedy sketches and interacting with the public. Such was Hurll's professional relationship with Black, that he went over to ITV to work on Surprise Surprise recreating some of the magic they had done on the Cilla show nearly fifteen years earlier.

The song that launched a television career

With plaudits and awards coming regularly Cilla's way for her show and also her performance by 1969, everything seemed to be on the up for her with marriage to her partner and manager Bobby Willis in January of that year, of which they married twice, once in a private ceremony in March and a civil service in London on Bobby's twenty-seventh birthday. By November, appearing on that year's Royal Variety Performance and the broadcast of the third series of her show were to be highlights. However in her musical career, things were not going so well.

Her single 'If I Thought You'd Ever Change Your Mind' was released shortly after Cilla's appearance on the Royal Variety show, earlier that year 'Surround Yourself with Sorrow' had reached number three in the charts and the album of the same name had been a success. However 'If I Though You'd Ever Change Your Mind' had not one as well as everyone had expected as Cilla recalled.

I couldn't hide the fact that when I had a flop record I really got depressed. When a single flopped, I really felt bad. You see one of the things I always prided myself on was the ability to pick hits. It just felt instinctively to me when a song felt right. But then I just lost this touch for picking them for myself. With other people's songs, it was OK but not with my own.”

As the sixties turned into the seventies, a whole period in Cilla's life was launched with the birth of her first son Robert John in July and more concert dates and performances in front of the television cameras with an appearance on a Royal Gala in front of The Queen one of the highlights. However with the birth of hers and Bobby's first child the press speculated that she had lost £100,000 in fees whilst she was pregnant from concerts, appearances and television programmes. Such with the fame that show business brought was also the speculation about the private lives of performers and what they got up to in them.

The tried and tested formula of her shows were working, come the seventh series in 1974, the producer Colin Charman decided to make some changes to the format with a new theme tune 'Something Tell Me' to replace 'Step Inside Love' which had been used from the first series and as he said about the first programme in a nine show run featuring Bernard Cribbins and Twiggy.

We wanted to get away from the regular run of variety guests, instead inviting actors and more unusual people to come onto the show.' On that first show in the series saw Cilla performing comedy sketches with Cribbins and seemed that Cilla would be moving in a more comedic direction, in that series the mixture of guests would range from the usual pop stars to presenters like Frank Bough more better know for Grandstand than performing in front of the camera. But having such a range gave the show new life and depth to freshen it up. With special shows on that year's August Bank Holiday and also a festive edition on Boxing Day proved that Cilla Black was now one of the BBC's biggest stars ranking up with Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and also Mike Yarwood.

However in July of that year, Cilla had announced that she would be doing a situation comedy for ITV but quickly reassured that this would not mean the end of her relationship with the BBC as she said at the time.

That would be like a child turning on its mother. But I am keen to give acting another go, though I am an ad-libber, making new lines up on the spot but I'll try to stick to the script as more for their own sake and for mine as well!”


So in January 1975, Cilla's Comedy Six was broadcast by ATV, seeing a sea change in direction for Black and with her performance in the show she won the Writer's Guide of Great Britain's Top Female Comedy Star award for the new show, the shows written by Ronnie Taylor was as much a hit as her shows for the BBC with them being constantly being in the top three most watched programmes every week that Cilla's Comedy Six was on making Cilla Black one of only a few performers to have hit shows both for BBC and ITV in the same year but in two fields of entertainment. This was followed by another series of six comedies for ATV in 1976, however with the eighth series of her BBC programme, television critics decided to go for her in a big way. As such Cilla's programmes were seen as not to their taste, but the viewing figures showed she was still as popular as ever.

But as her television show was seemingly being hammered, her stage show 'Cilla at the Palace' was earning rave reviews. The style was akin to anything that British audiences had seen as close to a Las Vegas style show, with over £200,000 spent on the show's run including the additions of Alan Lee who had cast Hollywood performers for Broadway shows, Jerry Jackson who was one of the best choreographers around having worked with Juliet Prowse and Goldie Hawn in his time. The plaudits came thick and fast, after lasting for six months the intention to take the show to Las Vegas failed to materialize owing to the fact that Black and Tarbuck were not known names in America.

Though in 1977, things were about to change again for Cilla. With concert tours of the Far East and Australasia booked in for that year, an offer came to her which was to set her on a new path. Where as ITV had been competing against her shows, Thames Television decided to make an offer to her to work for them and the ITV network. Key in all this was Light Entertainment controller at Thames, Philip Jones who had worked on ABC's 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' as its producer where Cilla Black had appeared on in 1963. A deal was put together for her to do a one hour special, but as in the BBC shows which had been live, the Thames hour Spectacular took six weeks to make one show allowing more time to spent to make the show just right.

Without the weekly turnaround of a regular series, allowed Cilla to take for her self relaxing and spending more time with her family plus with time for the occasional television or radio appearance that she could pick and choose. But she returned to concerts and summer season to keep performing through 1978, but with the press not knowing what they would expect with Cilla having seen her comedy acting, presenting her weekly show and also producing albums as well. It was clear even without a show, the rapport she had built up with the public over the time her weekly show was broadcast had not left her at all. Her special for Thames TV was shown on May 24th with guests including Frankie Howerd appearing in a sketch with her as a punk rocker and also singing with Ricky May as well. This was meant to the first of a couple of specials for Thames during the year, however industrial action at their Teddington Studios cause them to be canceled. The same was the case in 1979 where two specials and a Christmas Spectacular was planned, but because of the ITV strike of that year they did not go ahead.

Cilla booked a summer season in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth for sixteen weeks, this time of the year became important for both performers and also venues as well as they were certain money spinners for both, plus the chance for holidaymakers to see people they had only seen on the television who were performing on the stage in front of them. These summer season shows were good but television was their bread and butter, Cilla had spent time out of the television limelight between 1979 and 1981 to concentrate on her family life. But however she was tempted to appear on Thames' 'London Night Out' in December as she takes up the story of that recording.

Before my appearance on London Night Out, I'd been away from show business as I wanted to spend more time with the family. So I had made a point of watching the show, which I rarely do. Why? I couldn't believe the the show was actually was going on. At first the recording was canceled because of an industrial dispute at the studios, on the second attempt there was a bomb scare and the studio had to evacuated and at the third time of trying the show was finally recorded. But however during that recording my brother had phoned from Liverpool to say that our mum had fallen and broke her hip, just as I was to go on to sing 'It's a Miracle' – and I reckon it was a miracle the show even went out!”

Following this appearance on London Night Out, things television wise were quite during 1982, but 1983 was to prove a very pivotal for Cilla Black's career. On January 17th her album 'The Very Best of Cilla Black' was released with her going onto Terry Wogan's chat show on the 22nd of January to promote it. However during this appearance, it gave a reminder to viewers the qualities she had extruded during her 'Cilla' programmes more than seven years previous. Appearances in Holland on television and also topping the bill on 'Live From Her Majesty's' with Jimmy Tarbuck as its host, meant that both sides of Cilla was seen as the presenter and the performer. Though the first show that she had tried was for Channel Four and produced by Bryan Izzard called 'The Green Tie on the Tail of the Little Yellow Dog', initially they wanted her to impersonate Gracie Fields, but eventually she performed some of Gracie's song but in her own voice. But May 17th was to see Cilla record the show which would change her life once again.

Alan Boyd, the producer behind 'Game For a Laugh' and now by that time LWT's head of Light Entertainment, decided to make a pilot for a new show called 'Surprise Surprise'. He had been working to refine the format for a long while, but when Cilla was attached to the project, he had molded the format to suit her style of presenting, buy using audience participation and also filmed items outside of the studio confines as well. Though the programme gave Cilla the chance to sing at the end of the programme as well, as LWT thought an hour slot was good for the show. Boyd himself thought that a co-presenter was needed to help Cilla out, so Christopher Biggins was brought in as her roving reporter fresh from his success on TVS' On Safari series for children. Though not everyone could be pleased at this time, as Nina Myskow put Ms Black as her 'Wally of the Week' in her weekly column, stating that she was good at Surprise Surprise but when it came to singing, that she had a lot to be desired.

Even before Surprise Surprise was filmed, ITV decided to make a Christmas Special for Cilla which had guest stars Frankie Howerd, The Bee Gees and Julio Inglesias appearing. Such was the success of the Christmas show, it put her in good stead for the broadcast of the first series of Surprise Surprise in May 1984. Originally the show was going to be broadcast on Saturdays but the decision was taken to move it to Sundays instead to help boost ITV's Sunday night schedule and introducing more light entertainment to Sunday nights where there had been more dramas and serious programming previously. Such was the importance of the show, that whilst England were playing Brazil in a football friendly which overlapped, the second half of the friendly was shown live at the conclusion of the show with Cilla Black handing over to ITV Sport's Jim Rosenthal who was presenting the football to show first half highlights and the second half live. That Surprise Surprise took priority over live football was strange to think now, but this happened and show the power of Cilla's show that she could have an effect on football matches and the showing of them, though this wasn't the first time though as we'll see later.

As Surprise Surprise bedded in as one of ITV's new Sunday night staples, the show built up a loyal audience in 1984 and in 1985. However with Cilla Black's
success with Alan Boyd the controller of Light Entertainment at LWT in 1985. he let the risk aspect to letting the show grow as the series went on as he recalls.

Some of the early shows went out live, we knew there were certain aspects which needed to be changed but with such a quick turnaround on the live shows, it could not be physically done. Where as from it, words were exchanged as to what the show should be and we did not as such have a safety net to protect us from press criticism which was coming forthwith.

But by the start of the second series, Cilla herself understood what the show should be about and the the type of presenter we were look for, she had been the girl next door during the 1970's on her BBC shows, now we were looking for her to be the friendly auntie figure, sharing gifts and surprises with the people participating in the show.”


It was this new auntie figure that LWT was looking for when they needed a host for a format which had been troubling the light entertainment department at LWT for a while. They had different international version of what had been the Chuck Barris format in the United States of America called 'The Dating Game' and in Australia called 'Perfect Match'. For a fair while, they had been trying to pull together all the various aspects of these formats into one pilot programme. However the problem with all the formats from other countries that it was more raunchy than the British viewing audience was used to.

A pilot called at this time 'It's a Hoot' with comedian Duncan Norvelle had been made to show an example what the show would be like. However when the IBA saw it, they had become worried that the sexual connotations would be too much for some viewers to take on a Saturday night. So to try and change the meaning of 'It's a Hoot' they decided to give Cilla and husband Bobby a copy of the Duncan Norvelle pilot to view, though not with a view to get Cilla to present it but just to watch as viewers and see what they thought of it.

When they had both saw it, they had enjoyed it but Cilla herself still was not convinced about the format. However LWT wanted to press ahead with making the pilot into a full series, so they had gone to the IBA with the idea of getting a host who would been seen to tone down the innuendo and almost take it completely away from the programme. So Alan Boyd decided to broach the subject of present the show to Cilla as she called they had said she was the most sexless person on television and she would be good as an auntie figure acting as cupid for the contestants on the show.


So the title was changed from 'Its a Hoot' to 'Blind Date' so that it was clearer what the show was about and it seemed more tame and innocent to viewers, but ITV made the move so that Blind Date was launched on November 30th and the third series of Surprise Surprise started just before Christmas of that year on December the 22nd allowing Blind Date to have a good run of programmes and bed into the schedule before Surprise Surprise came back. Blind Date was a ratings winner allowing ITV to strengthen their Saturday night schedule into the 1990's with viewing figures for the show regularly beating those of the major soap operas, where as contained within Cilla's show was a mini soap opera with viewers wanting to know what had happened on the date itself of the chosen contestants.


Plaudits galore came along for Cilla as she was regularly named Britain's best Female television personality during the late 1980's and into the early 90's as she celebrated her 25th anniversary in show business with a concert organized in association with BBC Radio 2, singing her hits and favourite music as well as welcoming on stage and performing with her some of the best performers as well her conductors who had worked on both her television shows and special plus also on record as well. As in October of that year she also appeared on Desert Island Discs capping her career so far.

With the 90's Cilla's shows went from strength to strength because one of ITV's highest paid stars at that time. However what had been a bit of harmless flirting with Blind Date had become more saucier as culture for both men and women was starting to change, so to reflect that fact the show was slowly changed over time to accommodate new features as letting the audience decided if a contestant should date or dump the person they had chosen. But with ITV's buying of Premier League highlights and putting them at 7pm on a Saturday night at the turn of the new millennium had seen Blind Date shifted by the football and Surprise Surprise now having finished. It looked like Cilla's star was starting to wain, however when the viewers said a resounding 'no' to football taking the place of 'Our Cilla', Blind Date returned to its Saturday spot in the schedules. Though viewing figures were going down somewhat even with the new changes, so for one last attempt ITV decided to do a live edition of Blind Date thinking this could revive the format, but just before Cilla went to greet the audience both in the studio and at home, she had made a decision which was to change the course of the show altogether.

She announced that this was going to her last series of Blind Date, some what taking back the ITV executives that didn't know she was going to make this announcement live on the air on that night. Which meant Blind Date had finished but to keep her, ITV had imported an Japanese TV format which they had reworked into 'Cilla's Moment of Truth' where a family played for prizes for themselves and for their family as a whole in an end game. But the magic had run out for Cilla and the programme itself changed, so Cilla left it and it was reworked for another host to take over.

Apart from the occasional appearance at the Royal Variety Performance and also on other people's television shows, Cilla has not presented a major Saturday night show for nearly a decade and comes back to only make the occasional appearance on television programmes. But with such a long and varied career as she has had plus with ITV looking back on her 50 years in show business presented by her great friend Paul O'Grady who she performed with him and also Barbara Windsor at the Royal Variety Performance 2001. It is certain that she came from the pop scene into television and made certain formats her own. But she has set the bar high for light entertainment presenters pretty high, with no major pop star transferring to light entertainment since Cilla's departure from Saturday nights, some have tried and also rekindled the spirit that Cilla Black had in her shows, but none have quite got close as of yet.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Spies We Loved - The world of Espionage and Spying on Television

For as long as there has been television and radio, there has been a fascination of the world of the spy and espionage plus also the the sometimes murky word which goes behind it. Cinema-goers have followed the likes of James Bond through Harry Palmer and onto Jason Bourne, to get their fix of glamorous locations, beautiful but sassy women and physically demanding action as well.

Those this cannot be said that television has been left behind in this, to a certain extent the ITC series of the sixties and the seventies dealt with lone action heroes going about their duties as citizens to sort out any problems which may occur, but away from the world of Simon Templar and The Saint to Danger Man's John Drake was the grip of the Cold War where all sides were trying to work out what what each other was doing.

In 1963 one of the earliest series, Espionage was made by ATV both broadcast in Britain and in America on NBC. As an anthology of stories allowed for a fluid cast with no leading characters however the series did introduce many famous names some of their earliest acting roles such as a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, David Kossoff along with Patrick Troughton, Patricia Neal and Billie Whitelaw plus also Anthony Quayle who had himself been a member of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two.

The series differed from being based in the Second World War to modern Cold War times with agents operating for peaceful means or as resistance operatives, taking in the tales of
the agents working on the front line and showing the public what life was really like for these operatives rather than fast cars and a fast lifestyle as well. Allowing for reality to be shown in daily operations allowed series to go in one of two directions, either down the fast paced action route or the more in-depth dramatic route more real to situations that agents were facing on a day to day basis.

With the American networks taking the more glamorous action, the British broadcaster wanted to show the real side of spying, leading to more grittier series which did not flinch away from tough, bleak reality. But what happens when you ask too much about about what you do when your job is in the dark and murky world of espionage? The answer is simple, you become a special agent. That is what happened to David Callan over four series and feature length film. Callan played by Edward Woodward as the reluctant professional killer for 'the Section' a shadowy branch of the intelligence services first appeared in an edition of Armchair Theatre on February 4th 1967 featuring in a story called 'A Magnum for Schneider' written by James Mitchell who had written not only Callan, had been a prolific writer of spy thriller but also crime fiction plus writing for shows such as The Troubleshooters for the BBC, Justice for Yorkshire Television and ABC's own The Avengers as well as creating When The Boat Comes In for the BBC.

With such a cast including the likes of Edward Woodward and Peter Bowles, gave the story a almost chilling edge underscored with the music of Robert Farnon at the beginning, though the action takes place in the studio as opposed to the glamorous ITC shows of the time, allowing the scenes to be more realistic than fantasy of which the normal world of the agent was.

David Callan, himself had a steady hand and a cool nerve, but Callan also had a conscious about what he doing, much of the action was about those who were doing wrong, did wrong or about to do wrong at some point in the future. Cold blooded, he may seemed but it was for safety of the public he did it. Long before Spooks hit out screens in the new millennium, Callan focused on the darker side of spying and who to get results. But it was the downtrodden nature of the character which grabbed the public's attention, trading in being in an anti-hero.

With Edward Woodward's memorising performance as Callan, it became a firm favourite with viewers everywhere. But when the stories became more about his struggle then the action which had made it popular. Where as Bond was going to paradise, Callan was doing the dirty work, becoming an anti-hero for the times. The right show had come at the right time, in 1967 where other action series had become luxurious, Callan had paired it right down to the basics. A gritty man for gritty times, where was Britain had been a bright, colourful place by this time it seemed like the party was over and a reality check that these
things had to be done by operatives to keep its citizens safe for the good of the nation it seemed.

Where as Callan ruled the small screen at the end of the sixties and into the early seventies, Harry Palmer was doing much the same for cinema audiences. The anti-Bond in the novels by Len Deighton was deliberately the complete opposite of James Bond, his upbringing and style were said to be working class and for all the glamour Bond encountered Palmer has his hands tied by bureaucracy about what he can and can't do in his position. For the big screen, the production values were almost as big as Bond's with Michael Caine playing eponymous character for the films.

However where it had seen that the movies and television were seeming miles apart apart from the bigger serials made by ABC and ATV in Britain, but with both Callan and Palmer cemented the style of the spy series. The unglamorous world for operatives being shown, more listening than doing meant that one of the greatest tales of espionage, cross and double cross could be the most simple telling of a tale ever.

Though in 1969, when Thames Television already had Callan, they decided to launch a new drama series looking at the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, dealing in anti-espionage and anti-terrorism as well bridging the gap between the police force and MI5. The focus was on showing what was going on in the capital, the black heart which was beating underneath. The series first premièred on the 17th of September 1969 with the first episode called 'Troika' looking at a spy ring based in London with the link between a civil servant, an ice skating champion and a KGB agent based posing as a travel agent, the view of this side of society was a new one for viewers allowing them to see the police which before had been more of the beat officer, though style the production used in the first two series was quite jarring with the scenes within their headquarters recorded on videotape and the outside shots filmed on outside broadcast film cameras, much like the same technique used by Thames' own Van der Valk and other shows. However when Euston Films took on responsibility of making the show in 1973 as one of its first of many productions, the whole of the programme was filmed on 16mm film giving it a gritter appearance later to be used by The Sweeney and Minder as well.

When the characters of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty played by Patrick Mower and Strand, a shadowy civil servant played by Paul Eddington that the series picked up in 1973, but the 1974 series also featured Dennis Waterman as a criminal in the episode “Stand and Deliver”, with later Mower, Eddington, George Sewell who played Chief Inspector Alan Craven in Special Branch as characters in The Sweeney though Waterman was to play George Carter memorably alongside John Thaw's Jack Regan. It is said that Special Branch formed a template for The Sweeney to take on the baton from there. But Patrick Mower was to get his own action role in the BBC's own Target at the end of the 1970's, proving that Special Branch was a good training ground for action stars.

At the same time as Target was on the BBC, Yorkshire Television came up with a new series to look at the men and women who served for the Special Intelligence Service, more commonly know as MI6, though the acronym S.I.S was in the series itself. The operatives working for the department were a special breed usually charged with dealing with highly political sensitive or diplomatically complex missions such as defections, assassinations and rescue missions. But because of the seemingly underfunding of the department led by Neil D. Burnside played by Roy Marsden, the S.I.S has to share information with the C.I.A leading to both coming into conflict at times but with Burnside's job of delicately trying to please both the British and United States governments at the same time.

But this does have an effect on Burnside's well being and health in the end, with him looking out for his operatives and their safety turning into an obsession for him. Though the story of The Sandbaggers and what happened to him could could have been in the plot in the series itself. Scottish writer Iain Mackintosh, a former naval officer who had previously written the BBC's Warship had written all of the first two series scripts, but in 1979 when travelling with his girlfriend, a British Airways stewardess they were lost at sea when the single engine aircraft had disappeared over the Pacific Ocean after they had stopped off at a disused U.S. Air force base and that the plane crashed in an area not covered either U.S. Or Russian radar. Three of the scripts were written by Mackintosh when him and girlfriend had disappeared leading to the last four being written by other writers and the last episode's conclusion to be inconclusive and unresolved because the new writers and the producers though they could not write an ending that would have been up to the standards that Mackintosh had set for the series.

The style itself was to be an antidote to the James Bond films which had been about girls, gadgets and cars. With hardly no action sequences and more dialogue than most shows allowed the series to go in a new direction focussing on the reality of the operatives, their lives in such a risk business with regular characters getting killed, double crossing complex plots and a multi-layered story.

But why does the world of the spy and espionage appeal to viewers when they had more glamorous series and films out there? Does it come from a need to find out what exactly these people do to protect our nation, perhaps it can be explained in the same way as a good murder mystery. The actual suspense of what will happen to characters next and the plots itself had to be followed week to week, as the 1970's went into the eighties people's minds were a world away from the glamour of vodka Martinis and thinking towards the Cold War plus what it actually meant. In safety knowing there was something to trust, though not all the time as it seemed the opposition was internal and external as well.

Though if it wasn't for these earlier series, then the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy could have not been made allowing the public to understand the complex situations that agents could be put into both in their work and their own lives, but the unravelling of these cases shown in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and its sequel Smiley's People meant the web which was weaved by what seemed like a simple situation led to complications for its protagonists. Later on in Spooks, let the action take centre stage just as the Bond series of films were being rebooted from the heyday of the 1970's and 80's with more dramatic licence, showed the working of the inner sanctum of MI5 and its agents. The focus to the new millennium and its challenges, led the series become pure in the workings of the action by almost copying a movie style, with the series becoming cinematic later on. Though as the stories got bigger and bigger, thus the action itself had to be come bigger and bigger. Much with The Sandbaggers in the 1970's the characters were seemingly expendable and there was much risk to the job than had been seen before.

Whether if its MI5, MI6, the KGB or the CIA, the fascination with the secret service continues for viewers and writers alike and as long as there as spies and cases to solve there will be room for the spies we love.