1980s TV Quest


Years ago I saw a UK TV play or TV series about a school in a future world or other planet where the sun doesn’t shine and young pupils have to stand in front of a sun lamp for a certain amount of time every day.

I think there was a female headmistress, and a male teacher – and there was some kind of sinister subtext… I think the planet was about to die and the Head wasn’t facing the truth – or something like that.

For some reason I think it was on the BBC and might have been a single play – and it must have been transmitted sometime between 1982 and 1992.

That’s all I can remember.

If anyone has a clue what it could be – please tell me!!!

Musings on Last Night’s UK TV

Joe Swash, Rob Beckett, Laura Whitmore - presenters of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now!
Joe Swash, Rob Beckett, Laura Whitmore – presenters of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now!

Sunday 7th December 2014

I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here – they ate, tortured, crushed & terrified too many bugs and other critters. It made the trials cruel and boring – other than that it was quite a lively year.

I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Now – it’s more fun than the main show. The high-energy banter is more interesting than polished stunts. One of the reasons that Reality TV has over-taken drama in the public’s affections is that drama is mostly predictable. No one could write some of the truly eccentric people and left-field scandals that have been generated by has-beens and wannabees competing in popularity contests while singing, doing silly tasks or going about their mundane daily routines.

Remember Me – the first episode was a brilliantly creepy (albeit conventional) ghost story… the second episode was less frightening but still held out the hope of there being shocks and twists to come… the last episode was so bad I don’t know how it made it past a producer (who all – apparently – sit around with their 3-Act plot graphs poised to pounce on any script that ventures past their eyeballs)… It was dire… It made no sense… An old man who was trying to get away from a ghost turned out to not be trying to get away from a ghost but there was no adequate reason why he appeared to be trying to get away from a ghost… There was no explanation why the ghost had to travel by objects – or how she got to the man she was haunting… or why she wanted to kill a care worker’s little brother… or why the old man was 110 (unless it was because the writer wanted to shoe-horn the 1st World War into the script and still have the lead alive)… or why her war-related death should lead her to haunt a tiny terraced house in Yorkshire rather than the sea-shore where she washed up, or the ship she sank in, or India where she came from, or the German ship that bombed her… A ghost is usually out for revenge – or wants something desperately – so for her not be killed by the person she’s haunting, a person she was leaving anyway, adds nothing to the story… It might have been better if she had to kill children to keep him alive and he lured people so she could get them. Then the last episode could have gone somewhere new and suitably horrific.

the ghost in Scarborough
the ghost in Scarborough

Not Jimmy Savile!

Jimmy Savile on TOTP.

UPDATE : My mother – who worked for the BBC in the 1960s as a teenager – heard no disgusting rumours and was harrassed by no one. So Auntie wasn’t all bad.

As a personality Jimmy Savile has pretty much past me by. I watched Jim’ll’Fix’It when I was very small and it was as boring as Blue Peter (which was like a Scout Camp) and he also presented ‘Top of the Pops’ – which I only watched for the music and the fashions and because we only had 4 channels at most for my entire childhood – and it was the eighties, so he was rarely on it, and when he was, it was usually in ancient clip form, because he was the first presenter back in 1964.

I didn’t find him weird or creepy – but I did find his endless catchphrases a bit wearing : ‘Now then, now then’, ‘How’s about that then’, the yodel. It was like a man with nothing to say finding ways to fill the dead air time. He became good with people by being bad with people. He was certainly less distressing than Esther Rantzen (I love her despite her glaring flaws) who oozed and slimed over the public, her eyes shining with a desperate, desperate need to be liked, and to be on television. There wasn’t a bit of British low culture in those days that wasn’t grooming us for sexual abuse with its relentless nudge-nudge, wink-wink penis shaped vegetables. It was a relief when the snotty over-educated alternative comedians (Ben Elton, French and Saunders, the Comic Strip, Not the Nine O’Clock News etc) came to rescue us from the pit of smut. But they were mean about it and in the ironic 1990s dreadful things like Jimmy Savile were redeemed and paraded on crappy documentaries nostalgic for the innocent past when life was one long innuendo.

That’s Life in the 1980s.

And in real life it turns out Jimmy was an amazing net-worker with a particular fondness for such halo-bestowing activities as going to Church and raising money for charity. Like a lot of people unable to form intimate human relationships he was good at acquaintances. He was something of a control freak – which explains why most of the victims of his abuse were fourteen year old girls, hospital patients and young offenders – they wouldn’t tell, and if they did they wouldn’t be credible, and anyway – in the 1970s girls were dollies and crumpet and up for it. Within his working-class family he was the one with all the fame, money and power – and he was generous. When you see him drop his persona (which he did occasionally) you either see a very physically fit and threatening angry man, or a very clued up, engaging, intelligent, rather witty man. He had some level of self-awareness, and he was – from the interviews – odd, but nice. He was friends with the Prime Minister, the Royals (wither they liked it or not), he had flats in hospitals and camped in the grounds of Children’s Homes, he was even put in charge of re-structuring Broadmoor, Britain’s hospital for the Criminally Insane – which he probably should’ve been an inmate of, bearing in mind he seems to have had no self-control and couldn’t help cornering and groping any teen he came across.

Jimmy Savile! Naff D.J. and Children’s presenter Jimmy Savile enabled by the entire British Establishment (the BBC, Newspapers – tabloid and broadsheet – left and right – police, the government, the NHS, social workers, the Catholic Church – yes them again) to abuse youths because he ran a lot of marathons.

They all knew!

And it’s true that the press hinted – including the BBC.

But we – most of the public – didn’t. Because the man was wallpaper and words like ‘legend’ and ‘iconic’ are not taken seriously in popular culture. It’s an affectionate joke and we assume that if we’re allowed to see a star often enough to get affectionate about them they can’t be predators or total bastards – regardless of what a biographer will dredge up to sell copies of their dull, dull showbiz books after the poor sod is dead.

At home.

This has been a shock.

If only the BBC had quietly exiled him in the 1970s, he would’ve slowly declined in fame till the police thought he was unloved enough to be nicked. In fact – denied access to a regular quota of girls and boys – he probably would’ve resorted to a laptop and Operation Ore would’ve got him.

But no – we’re going to have a massive – and far too late (for him, but not for others) SCANDAL. Although to be fair, much as we love a moral panic, almost everyone is too stunned at the scale and the absurdity to focus on witch-hunting and hysteria. It’s bloody bizarre. And what else are they hiding if they’ve been hiding this??? Conspiracy theories seem less crackpot by the minute. Sooty could be spying for MI5, Keith and Orville could be serial killers and no one’s been listening to Cuddles.

Benny Hill as a Scout Master.

And somewhere the ghost of Benny Hill – berated for his comedy-style of scantily-clad ladies chasing him in slow-mo – in fact all of the artists ever hounded out of the business for their unrighteous (fictional) acts – must be having a giggle. Because none of them looks as shameful or malign as genial Uncle Jimmy.

Jim’ll’Fix It.

Frozen With Fear

The terrible horrors of being ‘Loved Up’

Update : It’s improving! Personalities are starting to return – maybe, now the BBC has got used to being relentlessly bashed over EVERYTHING, a sense of ‘may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’ is setting in.  

There used to be a BBC Common – either a cheerful Cockney forever on the verge of a Tommy Steele impression even when required to look sad and/or peeved by burning issues typical of his lot like drugs or abortion; or a dewy, lovely stage school ‘gel’ doing her Cockney, who would soon move on to a corset role in the millionth adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

There was also a BBC Ethnic. In comedies he (in all genres it was mostly a he unless an arranged marriage was in the offing – although nowadays girls are essential for the wearing of headscarves) was silly in line with the clichés of his ethnic origin, or simply stood there silently his skin colour being the punchline. In dramas they would get angry and anguished about racism (God knows they weren’t going to discuss anything Mr and Mrs Average Briton hadn’t heard of) or they would mug a pensioner before dealing drugs to his grandson. These actors had to perfect the highly tricky skill of entirely eviscerating any signs of an internal life while maintaining intense eye-contact. Much like all modern T.V. acting.

The BBC Gay had the same comedy/drama divide. The comedy version was sardonic and camp and sneaked in from the pier end of the Music Halls. The drama version was a repressed, almost fully human, Establishment figure, his wife was a fragrant semi-shrew who didn’t understand him and would go nuclear when she found out (probably played by Jane Asher) and the torment of his life was a monosyllabic piece of rough trade who dressed like one of the twins from the 80s band ‘Bros’.

There was BBC Regional : och aye, eee bye gum, ooh arr, it’s grim up North, it’s warm and funny up North, the peasants will burn you in a giant Wicker Man if you don’t repeal the Corn Laws… Up North.

And while actresses everywhere in British culture tend to be Dames, Totty, Char ladies or Totty Char ladies, or Totty Dames, or Dame Char ladies, recently the BBC has given us a new  – and unexpected – female type, the BBC Bimbo.

She’s a presenter. She probably went to University or trained extensively in Z-list public appearances. She sits or stands next to a grumpy male presenter (or Bruce Forsyth) reacting to his every witticism. She has almost no thoughts, interests or opinions of her own. Sometimes her voice gets so shrill you can’t even hear the inane comment she’s tried to interject and it makes no difference to the show. She’s anything from 20 to 50 but the strain of trying to look young (even while young) leaves all of them with the same crow’s-feet covered up by the same light-reflecting foundations. They have sleek or spiky hairdos sprayed on like Helmets and their clothes are expensive versions of the polyester darted bedazzled monstrosities Human Resource Managers buy from Next.

No amount of sparkle can hide the anxiety in their eyes. They’re interchangeable and disposable and they know it.

The question is why?

Drama is a complex thing to produce. Clichés and stereotypes become landmarks in potentially hostile unexplored territory. But presenting should be a matter of charisma, intelligence and sensitivity. Qualities female presenters managed to possess in all past eras. So what terrors are stalking the backrooms of the BBC leading to this near extinction of smart – ageing – women?  Because even 70s Totty had more depth than the blank spaces they’ve gazelled onto the ‘The One Show’ sofa.

BBC Breakfast needs Hammer Glamour

Bright Smiler & Studio Bound Dramas

Jane Asher risks killing Janet Suzman in ITV's 'Bright Smiler'

In the olden days most British tv shows were shot in studios and roughly looked like theatre plays. The camera would stay in one place – usually as the fourth wall, where the audience should be or was. Hundreds of dramas were produced that way from the 1930s, when television began, until the 1990s, when television finally – belatedly –  moved on.

Because I’m old and it’s so inextricably intertwined with childhood memories – studio bound dramas are the type I prefer. I wish they would come back, boring beige walls’n’all.

Some of those dramas were seen once, and apart from vague notions – would never be remembered. Some of them were seen, stuck in my mind, and were easily remembered – like Juliet Bravo or early Casualty or Dramarama. Some stuck in my mind – but after the fact were hard or impossible to track down. Of those – my favourites – the four that struck the hardest were three Open University set plays and one Jane Asher play whose name escaped me.  

The second earliest was ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett, made in 1989.  I was only watching it because I was very ill, and couldn’t sleep. Everyone else in the house, even my rabbit, was in bed. It was an oddball of a play – with Stephen Rhea as the servant Clov, Norman Beaton as the master Hamm and Charlie Drake (the comedian – but I’d never heard of him) and Kate Binchly (I’ve still never heard of her) as the parents in bins, Nagg and Nell. To my 12-year-old self – it was all very mysterious. Nothing happened, nothing made sense and everything seemed to matter. On the other side was always the James Whale Radio Show – a tv magazine with lots of bands, drunks and controversy. Both symbolised the adult world to me – a load of old balls that was quite fascinating because I was doomed to end up there.

The next – although I only saw it twice, much later – was ‘Prometheus Unbound’, adapted by the poet Tom Paulin, in 1985,  from the greek original. This play I liked because it was on late, I was alone, and it had a cosy yet frantic atmosphere. I saw it in 88 and 90, and the Duran Duran jacket worn by the hero and the Marilyn Monroe get-up sported by some actress (I think she was famous at the time) who came on to be distraught and then buggered off – were already deeply unfashionable. I couldn’t tell you what it was about – but I knew it was somehow profound (or posh).

The last of the Open University plays was ‘Madmen and Specialists’  by Wole Soyinka in 1993. I was still ill, still couldn’t sleep at night – but I was older, a bit wiser (in that not remotely wise, far too arrogant, but completely miserable, teenage way), and considered all this sort of thing to be a ruse that the ruling class used to keep the rest of us feeling dim, but I was fond of it because I was still alone, and it felt as if it belonged to me, as if I was the only person watching. It was set in Africa apparently – although it starred that guy from Red Dwarf – a cult hit at the time – and it seemed very British. I think it lasted days. I certainly can’t pin-point an ending. They were in a war, angry and despairing. They sat around a lot. Someone might have been shot.

The last play turns out to have been the first or maybe second. It was shown in 1985. I thought it was a BBC ‘Play for Today’ type thing. I thought it lasted for two hours at least and was a serious examination of the effects of giving up a career for a man, only to be shunted aside for a younger woman. I can remember Jane Asher – looking older and exhausted – screaming at the man and his new girlfriend that she would never forgive them. I can’t guarantee that this scene ever took place – but just three days ago I discovered the name of this gem – ‘Bright Smiler’ by Fay Weldon in ITV’s ‘Time For Murder’ series. It only lasted an hour. Most of that hour consisted of an aged Jane Asher massaging an oblivious Janet Suzman, while telling her the story of her ill-fated love-affair and playing Russian Roulette with a gun pointed in Janet’s face. The punch line was that Janet – unthinkingly – convinced Jane that she was to blame for throwing her life away, and Jane trotted off to kill herself while Janet mused on what bastards writers are. All I remembered were the flash-backs of the young Jane slaving to repair a dilapidated home that would be sold as a spa without her making a penny. It obsessed me for years. I’ve rewritten it half asleep in the middle of the night. It was Proust and Shakespeare and Kubrick to me. And yet, of all the plays I’ve remembered, it’s the only one that realistically could be described as mainstream, or naff, or trash or pure entertainment.

Still, they were all fabulous things. Modern stuff just isn’t as weird.