Culture House Daily

Did we know TV was crap in the old days?

4 June 2014

Here’s a question for those of you old enough to remember 1980s television: did we realise at the time how crap it was, or did we simply not know any better?

I’ve been struggling with my own answer to this, ever since watching Danny Baker’s World Cup Brush Up on BBC4 the other night. Yet again the fabulous Baker boy proved that the ‘clip show’ doesn’t have to be an insult. Among the many choice morsels was an early-80s side-splitter from Blue Peter, in which Kevin Keegan was shown a 3D model of himself made by artist Silvia Gardner. (That’s a guessed spelling by the way – inexplicably Google doesn’t seem to have heard of her.) The presenter Simon Groom explains that Gardner has constructed Keegan by ‘working out things from old tights and bits of foam rubber’. If that sounds alarming, wait till you see the result (see above).


Had the props guy on The Exorcist gone to William Friedkin with this creation for the scene in which Regan’s head spins round, the director would have rejected it as too frightening. Either that or flooded the set with tears of hilarity. Quite how Keegan managed to get through the item without doing one or the other remains a mystery. Groom, on the other hand, was either the best TV presenter (ie, liar) in the world, or genuinely believed that the monstrosity in front of him merited several minutes’ worth of live broadcasting.

The very reason Baker chose the clip is that it’s laughably bad. But looking back on the era now – these were my prime Blue Peter-watching years – I have absolutely no idea whether or not I recognised that at the time. Was I sitting there saying ‘Simon’s right, that really is an artistically impressive likeness of Kevin Keegan, how lucky I am to have been given the chance to gaze on it’, or was I thinking ‘this is rubbish. When will Channel 4 get invented so the three exisiting channels can have the boot of competition applied to their complacent backsides?’ Did we know no better because there was no better? Or were we taking 1980s television the same way we take it 30 years on, smothered in several layers of irony, garnished with a sprig of so-bad-it’s-good? My memory is a blank.

It’s the same with Dennis Waterman. He co-anchored two of the greatest shows of that era, The Sweeney and Minder. Watch a re-run of either programme now and you’re confronted with one inescapable truth: Waterman can’t act his way out of a paper bag. But did I notice that then? I honestly can’t tell you. Perhaps I was so distracted by Waterman’s supremely talented co-stars (John Thaw and George Cole respectively) that I failed to notice the absurd mockney shenanigans occurring stage-right. Or maybe standards were just that much lower then. ‘We’ve given them one proper actor,’ the producers would say, ‘who cares if we pad it out with a bit of plywood from Dennis?’

It’s curious that your cultural memory can be wiped so effectively. Either way, though, I feel sad. If I knew at the time that TV was crap then my childhood was one long string of disappointments. If I believed in what was being served up then it was an age of innocence that can never be recaptured.

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  • Puss in Plimsolls

    My impression: you were living in idyllic (really), pre-jihad-against-the-West, pre-mass-immigration Britain. It was, in a word, expensive Heaven — if rather too socialist from an Edenic point of view. Everything was the production of nice, well-meaning, essentially wholesome people, and you instinctively absorbed it in that spirit. Art criticism didn’t enter into it. You were a lucky generation and you knew it.

    R. I. P.

  • timinsingapore

    Much TV in the 80s was crap, as it was in the 70s and the 60s. Just think of Cannon and Ball. Little and Large. Most of Crossroads. Mind Your Language. For extreme direness, think of the BBC’s attempts to rival ‘Oh Boy!’. Wasn’t there something toe-curling called DIgbeat? Even ‘classics’ like ‘Tonight’ could be pretty lame much of the time. But there was less of it, and we all watched it at the same time. We all paid attention. Often there was a sense of occasion.

    Today TV programmes come in great floods, and there’s so much choice I often watch nothing at all. In absolute terms there are probably more good programmes around than ever before, and they are far more accessible. But the crap percentage is probably just as great, if not greater. The BBC would benefit from simply closing down a channel or two, and being a bit more selective for the rest.

    And telling comedians that rude words do not a true comic make. That includes you, Norton.

  • Robertus Maximus

    All I know is that in the 60s and 70s, at the end of each evening, I would be the richer for having actually learned something from the TV. BBC2 was a prime example with an extraordinary array of diverse subjects. These days, with the occasional exception of BBC4, the output is beyond belief. The word moronic doesn’t due it justice. To dub that period “crap” is to have no experience of those times whatever. There was indeed some “crap” then, whereas nowadays it is nothing but “crap”.

  • La Fold

    So I finally saw an episode of something called The Kardashians. After about 30 seconds of this mindless soul sapping tripe I couldnt help but think to myself
    Sure we all like a girl with a big backside but surely we dont hand her a multi million pound franchise over it. Western civilisation si doomed.

    • girondas

      Maybe it was post-ironic satire, not that i have the faintest idea what that might be.

  • Darnell Jackson

    Danger Mouse was great, full of double entendres.

    • La Fold

      Dangermouse is great! Also the other Cosgrove Hall classic count duckula, made far more for the adults making them than for the kids watching them.

      • Darnell Jackson

        Happy days.

  • Cymrugel

    My all time favourite for bum-numbing boredom was Noggin the Nog.
    It as one of those animations where only a single figure moves a bit – like captain pugwash.
    Our hero was supposed to be a Viking king and I was hooked on Vikings, but nothing happened. The story was narrated by some smug sounding drone who sounded incredibly bored with the whole business – he would take about 2 out of the 5 minutes of the thing just to say “this is the story of Noggin the Nog” or something. Nothing ever happened, then suddenly that was it over till next week.
    I read the series of books the animation were based on some years later and they are actually really clever stories for young kids.
    you’d never have guessed.

  • ProperDave

    Anyone remember Summertime Special?

    Even as a kid, I used to think: ‘Who thought this drivel was a good idea?’

    • La Fold

      To be fair it looks like an episode of the x factor which has travelled back in time to kill the mother of the person who came up with the idea of The Voice.

  • Gwangi

    TV was in general much better back in the 70s – especially comedies and sitcoms. Yep, some were awful but there were jewels sparkling in there too.
    Good, simple, old-fashioned, musical-hall-inspired comedies (some of which are now banned by the BBC for being ‘racist’ even though they clearly are not – IAHHM) that actually made people laugh. Not leftfield pretentious unfunny issue-laden ‘comedy’ we usually get now (I make an exception with Father Ted and 2012).

    • Puss in Plimsolls

      Father Ted as presented to Americans is visually repulsive, off-putting stuff. Certainly nothing I’d watch while having my dinner!

  • Liz

    TV has always been and always will be crap. Turn it off.

    • girondas

      I did, many years ago.
      Problem is I don’t know what I’m missing

  • edlancey

    That’s like saying Dennis Waterman is a bit baldy and not particularly handsome, he’s still had his share of attractive women.

    His acting appeal is his authenticity.

  • DrWatt

    Oh yes, those crap TV shows of the eighties like –

    Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Parkinson, Two Ronnies, World
    In Action, Tiswas, Londons Burning, The Generation Game, Comic Strip,
    Top of The Pops, Allo Allo, Butterflies, ITV playhouse, Catchphrase, The
    New Statesman, Dame Edna Experience, Krypton Factor, Open All Hours,
    Tomorrows World, World of Sport, Yes Minister, Take Hart, Alas Smith and
    Jones, Minder, Mastermind, Whickers World, The Young Ones .

    .. and who can forget the great satirical puppet show Spitting Image (my family of Maragret Thatcher voters laughed watching this show even though the program mocked Maggie relentlessly … why? Because it was genuinely a very funny entertaining program thats why and it didn’t stop them voting for Maggie either).

    TV today: Endless reality TV shows – the same format over and over and over – celebrity this celebrity that … just cheap trash TV. There are the occassional good programs out there – I grant you that – but they are so very few and far between considering that we have many more TV channels to choose from than we did in the eighties. Most TV programs offered today neither interest me or entertain me as much as programs did in the eighties or even the nineties for that matter – I end up trawling YouTube for old clips from some fantastic shows of the seventies/eighties/nineties – because sadly most of what is out there today on TV is just utter garbage.

    As the great Steven Berkoff once said when he was bemoaning the number of reality shows on TV: “if you keep eating garbage, they’ll carry on feeding you garbage”

    Well said Steven Berkoff

  • Damon

    Oh, pshaw. Rising Damp, Reggie Perrin, Dennis Potter, BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, Play for Today, Rainbow, Pipkins, Magic Roundabout, Jackanory, Only Fools and Horses, Steptoe and Son, Fawlty Towers, Python, Open All Hours, Upstairs Downstairs, I Claudius, The Onedin Line, Poldark, World in Action, Horizon, World at War, David Attenborough, Morecambe and Wise. The 70s and 80s were bloody brilliant – at least from a televisual perspective.

    • Puss in Plimsolls

      Some of those we could have done without. And your list omits much better shows.

  • dms0001

    Yes, we did, regrettably, TV has not improved much with age.

  • JoeDM

    BBC 2 have been showing The Pallisers from the mid 1970s. Now that was the way to do a classic serial – 26 one hour episodes containing a who’s who of British acting tallent !!!

    Not as good as I Caudius though.

    These days only the imported series like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, etc. are in the same league.

    The BBC seems to have lost its way 20 years ago and never found it again.

    • stearl33

      The Harry Enfield/Paul Whitehouse lampoon of BBC2, showed just how crappy I Claudius was. But actually you don’t need a parody to demonstrate this; just find an old episode and watch it. You will never see ham sliced so thick.

    • Kennybhoy

      “These days only the imported series like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, etc. are in the same league.”

      I take it that you missed “”Line of Duty” and “Happy Valley” then…?

      • La Fold

        I saw a substantial part of both of them and wasnt overly impressed with either.

  • laurence

    Scooby Doo, without Scrappy obviously, or was that the 1970s?. The Granada Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett?

  • Ted Cunterblast

    I thought ‘Porterhouse Blue’ and ‘Ffizz’ (with the late Richard Griffiths) were quite good.

    And I do miss Gordon the Gopher.

    • Kennybhoy

      “Edge of Darkness”, “The One Game”…

  • GUBU

    I beg to differ.

    Compared to ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ an episode of Blue Peter featuring a model of Mr Kevin Keegan fashioned from used pantyhose seems like a towering intellectual achievement to rank with Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilization’.

  • Annephi

    This article is crappier than the 80s TV it ridicules. I expect higher standards from the Spectator.

  • Grey Wolf

    So TV is much better now with all the multi-culti…hmmm and that Lenny Henry is still complaining! Sort that out progressives!!!!

  • UniteAgainstSocialism

    Tiswas was great. Today, kids have to watch politically correct rubbish, with a dollop of multiculturalism and extra helpings of environmentalism

    • Adam Carter

      Sally James was great.
      Chris Tarrant was an irritating prat. With his simultaneously smarmy and sneering tone and expression I don’t know how he avoided a right hook to the chin most weeks.
      And there was no change in any of his later career.

      • UniteAgainstSocialism

        the phantom flan flinger smashed a few in his face though

  • Jonathan Sidaway

    90 % of everything is crap. Too much of this media-bore stuff in the Speccie recently; it is only part of our culture. And, at the risk of media-comment, too much like The Guardian.

    • tjamesjones

      it’s just a blog jonathan

      • GraveDave

        It’s only a puppet!.

  • starfish


    Lucky we modern audiences have been blessed with the whole output of BBC3

    plus simon cowell, ant and dec, big brother endless reality shows about ‘celebrity familes’, and all their derivatives

    Suddenly the 80s weren’t so bad….

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      Oh yes, Ant and Dec, recently voted the ‘best ever British television double act, better than Morecambe and Wise, and Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. I despair.

    • Kaine

      We have more tv now. We have both the best television ever (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Archer, Borgen) and the worst.

      The diversification is positive in my view. Most of the crap shows are cheap to make and fund/justify the good stuff.

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