On the awfulness of 1970s television


Continuing our 1970s theme, Steerforth recalls that decade’s obsession with bizarre dance shows and other strange telly…

The above picture shows the Easter story, expressed through the medium of dance.

How anyone thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the crucifixion of Jesus through dance and mime, performed by the cast of Space 1999, is beyond me. But it seems that this sort of thing wasn’t unusual in the 1970s.

I found this 1975 ITV handbook recently:


Published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, it’s a wonderful snapshot of commercial broadcasting in Britain during 1974, packed full of articles and photos (with a nerdtastic section on IBA transmitter stations).

It also clearly shows that television execs in the 1970s had an unhealthy obsession with dance…











What was going on? Did they think that people really wanted to see this, or was it just cheap television?

In 1974, I was in bed by eight o’clock, so I missed the worst excesses of this obsession with dancing. However, I do have vague memories of men in trouser suits poncing around to Up, Up and Away, along with the occasional ‘rock opera’ (which my parents always turned off in disgust because the cast looked as if they were on drugs).

The BBC’s hands weren’t entirely clean either: Seaside Special, The Rolf Harris Show and just about any other live entertainment show had some awful dance group (naturally I exclude the gorgeous Pan’s People from this diatribe).

At least today, dancing is restricted to a small core of programmes, for those who like that sort of thing. Also, those grim, po-faced contemporary dance groups, who did things like depict the Jarrow Crusade through the medium of movement, have now been replaced by streetdance and hip hop.

So next time you find yourself complaining that television isn’t what it used to be, buy a boxed set of Homeland and look at this listing for BBC1 on April 16th, 1975.

1230 – Day and Night, including Crime Line.

1255 – News

1300 – Pebble Mill, including Family Advice with Claire Rayner.

1345 – Fingerbobs

1400 – Closedown

1558 – Regional News (Except London/SE)

1600 – Play School

1625 – Boris the Bold

1635 – Jackanory, with Judy Dench

1650 – The Monkees

1715 – If You Were Me (new series). People find out about each other’s lives. Today: David from Plymouth and Julie from Puerto Rico.

1740 – Magic Roundabout

1745 – News

1800 – Nationwide

1850 – Film: The Lion and the Horse (1952). Starring Steve Cochrane and Wildfire, the wonder horse. Wholesome family film about a man and his horse.

2010 – Survivors, starring Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, Talfryn Thomas in The Fourth Horseman.

2100 – News

2125 – The Budget, with Sir Geoffrey Howe, Shadow Chancellor.

2135 – Last of the Summer Wine, starring Michael Bates, Bill Owen and Peter Sallis.

2205 – Sportsnight. European championship soccer, England v Cyprus from Wembley Stadium, highlights and action analysis; Amateur Boxing Association Championship.

2315 – Midweek, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy.

2328 – Weatherman

I rest my case.

However, there was one exception which, 38 years on, still stands up as a first-rate piece of drama:

Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.
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Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

15 thoughts on “On the awfulness of 1970s television

  1. backwatersman@live.co.uk'
    April 8, 2014 at 07:59

    Hang on.

    Judi Dench, the Monkees, Socialist propaganda in cartoon form (BtB), the Magic Roundabout, a wonder horse (albeit not Champion), Last of the Summer Wine when it was still fresh (you’ll have to trust me on that), 5 goals for Malcolm Macdonald and Ludovic Kennedy! I’d take that.

    I think the obsession with dancing was a hangover from the days of variety, when folk didn’t feel they’d had their money’s worth unless the stage was filled with dancing girls at regular intervals. Also gave the compere the chance to nip off for a fag.

    • Brit
      April 8, 2014 at 13:14

      I’m inclined to agree. A notably better line-up than a typical BBC1 day now, I’d say – I’d actually prefer a Closedown to ‘Looking for a Nice House while Selling my Antiques’ or whatever fills up daytime. But I suppose you’ve got to remember that in 1974 it was this, ITV or nothing. No Game of Thrones on demand.

      The movie sounds thrilling too: “Wholesome family film about a man and his horse.” Pass the popcorn!

      • backwatersman@live.co.uk'
        April 8, 2014 at 20:33

        Mind you, this was the year Fawlty Towers and Rutland Weekend Television first appeared on BBC2. Assuming you could get reception in your area.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    April 8, 2014 at 09:50

    The Magic Roundabout was pure unadulterated existentialism, Dadist even, the writers took their inspiration from the blatherings of JP Satre and the art director used as his role model La Gare de Perpignan, less the train. The show reeked of hidden agenda, exactly where, I frequently used to muse, did Zebedee’s strange obsession with Ermintrude come from, that udder place, obviously.

    The original French version had, in it’s cast, the precursor of Officer Crabtree and ranks alongside Concord as one of those few occasions when the French could be trusted.

    Well, sort of could be trusted.

    Met a dancer once, 1960, Tiller girl, parent’s next door neighbour’s cousin, six feet high she was, I was five ten at the time and at that age, the gullible one, nothing in that grey northern wilderness had prepared me for this happening, the tongue was totally tied.

  3. Worm
    April 8, 2014 at 10:58

    It has always been a source of regret in my life that I am too young to remember either Pan’s People or Legs & Co,

    although now I think of it, I do remember Hot Gossip from the Kenny Everett Show. Happy days!

  4. hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
    April 8, 2014 at 18:34

    The original “Survivors” was indeed vastly superior to the remake of a few years ago, a textbook example of right-on BBC diversity awareness workshop casting. Only one of the characters was a white male, and naturally he was a wrong ‘un – not just working class but fresh out of prison.

  5. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    April 8, 2014 at 20:19

    How the blue string pudding can one discuss the seventies with nary a word praising the Clangers, another broadcasting gem veering towards the existential, gripping space drama with a cast of universal fame and a soundtrack rivalling that of Lawrence of Arabia, sans sand.

  6. mail@danielkalder.com'
    April 8, 2014 at 20:26

    The dance obsession definitely bled into the 1980s, at least on shows that dabbled in “variety”. I especially remember women pretending to be Charlie Chaplin a lot. Usually in tights. With a painted on moustache. Terrible stuff.

  7. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    April 9, 2014 at 02:41

    It can hardly have been as bad as the American experience, some of which has since been recycled into movies (Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch) to remind us just how bad it was. With a bit of concentration, I could give you a list of a dozen awful shows, but then I’d have to remember them. There was also the brief flourishing of what was called “trashsports”, the sort of thing where NFL linemen would compete in a 40-yard sprint towing a refrigerator. (I’m pretty sure I saw that one.)

  8. Gaw
    April 9, 2014 at 18:45

    Worm, Superstars does though have the most stirring tv theme tune. Makes me want to do a squat thrust whenever I hear it.

  9. April 9, 2014 at 21:46

    I agree with George about American televsion (although at 12 I rather enjoyed Charlie’s Angels and the Six Million Dollar Man during the 70s. It was generally awful and didn’t redeem itself by producing the quality dramas that appeared on the BBC and ITV. How times have changed since then, thanks to companies like HBO.

    I also agree with Frank about the modern Survivors, which felt as if it had been written by a New Labour focus group. Of course, you could argue that the original version portrayed a world populated almost entirely by middle class people (if only…), but the characters felt like real people. Also, the remake featured that very annoying Scottish actress who seemed to be on everything for a brief period.

    As far as mad sports go, what could be better than It’s a Knockout – a contest in which rather plain junior clerks and secretaries tried to walk across greasy poles and throw balls into a moving hole.

  10. meehanmiddlemarch@googlemail.com'
    April 10, 2014 at 00:34

    I was 14-15 at the time. And ‘Survivors’ was really scary. I don’t think all that dancing (which was difficult to avoid seeing, there was so much of it) did me any long-term damage (now, where did I put my leotard?). I saw a lot of great drama, although my memory may have pushed into the early eighties, but seriously, The Pallisers, Clayhanger etc. It was all we had to keep us warm apart from the naked candle flames etc. If you really want to know what popular culture was like in them there days, watch Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Terry Jacks (oh and wasn’t that a song! Almost as mawkish as ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      April 10, 2014 at 17:38

      The only song more mawkish than ‘Honey’ by Bobby Goldsboro was ‘Watching Scotty Grow’ by Bobby Goldsboro. It was like drinking a pint of molasses.

  11. meehanmiddlemarch@googlemail.com'
    April 10, 2014 at 00:43

    p.s. I have a BBC Handbook from 1970 which outlines a different set of aspirations. (and the autobiography of Jack de Manio 1967, just thought I’d mention).

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