The golden age of television?

Posted on: 06 September 2010 by Gareth Hargreaves

Was TV really better back in the day? Allan McLachlan argues that it was and it wasn't..., so the standard narrative seems to go, is rubbish today. It’s all dumbed-down soaps, derivative cop shows, talent contests and unfunny sitcoms. Television’s golden age, we are wearily assured, was sometime in the 1960s, the 1970s or the 1980s. The glory days of Dennis Potter and Play For TodayThat Was The Week That Was and Brideshead Revisited,The Ascent Of Man and I, ClaudiusSteptoe And Son and The World At War. Insert your own favourites here. They make a great stick with which to beat endless Celebrity Big Brother and Eastendersmarathons.

The idea of a ‘golden age’ is an easy trap to fall into. Memory tends towards kindness. We recreate the past in our minds, all suffused with a cosy golden glow.

It’s called nostalgia and sometimes we just lapse into it without really thinking.

Sure, there has been some excellent TV made over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, talented creative people were still experimenting with what was then still a new medium. The era produced many groundbreaking TV programmes, from innovative single dramas to new ways to cover sport and current affairs.’ll admit to being something of a vintage TV buff: nothing beats a box set of ITV’s bleak 60s cold war drama Callan (pictured), or the edgy science fiction Quatermass and the Pit, which still stands up today.

Unfortunately we remember these highlights and not the hours and hours of drivel that made up the bulk of the schedules on BBC and ITV during this supposed ‘golden age’. For every hour of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, you had two of Hughie Green hosting a ghastly assortment of pub singers, bad magicians and muscle men covered in silver paint flexing in time to music. And does anyone remember Double Your Money,Take Your Pick or The Sky’s The Limit with any genuine affection? The big Saturday night highlight on BBC1 right up until 1978 was The Black & White Minstrel Show. Even if you ignore the horrific racism, the dismal music-hall turns in blackface and woeful comedy, it still made dreadful TV.

There was also no shortage of cheap and nasty sitcoms, mostly as funny as cancer, most mercifully confined to an archive that none shall ever enter. Just watch a few episodes of On The Buses, occasionally repeated on ITV3, and tell me that that was from the high water days of UK TV comedy. Not that On The Buses was as bad as it got – far from it. Remember The Rag Trade,Up The Elephant And Round The Castle,Meet The WifeMind Your Language, Love Thy NeighbourMy Wife Next Door orDoctor At Large? Thought not.

Pad these schedule out with some awful American imports – Peyton PlaceDr KildareCombat! and a thousand tedious westerns – and you had a TV service that truly sapped the soul.

The main difference between TV then and now is that it is no longer a universal experience. Until the 1990s, most people only had one set. They only had three channels to watch until the launch of Channel 4 in the early 80s. Most people, then, tended to watch the same things.

Where today one is not legally obliged to sit through hours of Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother, back in the 60s, when your mum and dad watched Opportunity Knocks, you watched it too. I still wake up screaming after having had a nightmare that I’m round at my granny’s house being forced to watch Stars On Sunday

It isn’t that there is more bad TV these days. It’s just that the good stuff is spread out across the multitude of channels that are available.

Of course, when we talk about the decline of TV standards, we really mean the BBC. Some have argued that the reforms introduced by Director General John Birt in the 90s rendered the BBC unfit for purpose. Preference went to cheap makeover shows and cookery programmes while drama – which is comparatively expensive to produce – was starved of funds.

I’d argue that this is a trend that has started to reverse: recent programmes such as the revived Doctor Who, the brilliant Life On Mars and the surprisingly excellent Sherlock are evidence that there’s still some intelligent life at the Beeb.

The WireSadly, though, we can’t begin to compete with the sheer volume of quality TV comedy and drama coming from the US. The SopranosDeadwoodDexterBattlestar GalacticaMad MenSix Feet Under and The Wire (pictured) leave everything from this side of the pond looking small and lacking in ambition. Recent hits like Justified30 RockUgly AmericansCalifornication and FlashForward crop up on Channel 5. We’ve also got Martin Scorsese’s gangster series Boardwalk Empire and the phenomenal intellectual spy thriller Rubicon to look forward to in the coming months.

What we – still – do well in this country is to produce visually stunning wildlife documentaries. Watching David Attenborough’s recent Life in High Definition, it occurred to me that this is actually something new under the sun. There hasn’t been anything this good on TV before, period.

We also have better children’s television. Away from the rosy glow of nostalgia, programmes like In The Night Garden...Chuggington and the new Bob the Builder are to the talking sock puppets and will-this-do? stuffed cats of yesteryear what a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 is to a clapped out Morris Minor.

Overall, though, what makes today’s TV superior is the sheer plethora of choices available. Whether you have the most basic Freeview channels or a cable/satellite package with a bewildering number of options, you have access to more great TV than has ever existed. Your only problem now is finding it. 

If you remain shackled to the whims of the schedulers, watching TV at the time that it’s broadcast, it’s easy to believe that TV is worse than it ever was. We’ve all been there. A choice of more than 500 channels and nothing to watch.

The trick is to timeshift. Freeview, cable and satellite boxes with hard disc recorders are pretty much the norm. The future, though, is probably in services like the BBC’s iPlayer and Channel 4’s 4OD, where you can watch the programmes you want at a time that suits you. greatest thing about TV today is that if you truly and honestly believe that things were better in the old days, you could very easily never watch a single TV programme made after 1990. Not only are there channels like Yesterday, ITV4 and Vintage out there to cater to your MinderThe Sweeney (pictured) or Lovejoy cravings, but the availability of TV’s ‘back catalogue’ is growing all the time.

You can already find a wealth of vintage TV – much of it out of copyright – online. As demand services grow, so will the amount old TV that’s available.

The golden age of TV is with us, right here and right now.

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