Friday, August 16, 2019

A Golden Age?

People talk about how we are in a 'Golden Age' of TV, as if everything that went before was rubbish and unworthy of viewing.  I'd beg to differ.  For one thing, most of the supposedly wonderful programming on offer nowadays is either inaccessible to me (I don't have streaming subscriptions) and, in the main, simply doesn't appeal to me.  Much of what I have seen falls into the category of middle class wank - it looks good and thinks it is terrible original, witty and clever but is, in fact, derivative and empty.  The problem is that the people who think such stuff is brilliant and original have never bothered to watch TV from previous eras.  Indeed, the people who make them probably haven't seen TV of any vintage.  Anyway, of late I have been watching quite a bit of TV programming from the sixties, seventies and eighties and have been struck by just how good a lot of it is.  To be sure, in terms of production values, much of it is very much of its era: wonky sets made to look even more artificial by the use of videotape for recording and the too bright lighting this technique required.  The TV camera equipment of time also results in some awkward looking transitions and shaky cutting between characters during dialogue scenes.  But when it comes to acting and scripting, a lot of these programmes are second to none.  Public Eye, (1965  - 1975), for instance, which I've written about before not only features an outstanding central performance from Alfred Burke, but is probably also one of the most realistic portrayals of the business of a British enquiry agent seen on TV.  Its real triumph lies in the way in which it transforms the utterly ordinary and mundane into compelling drama.

Likewise Callan, from the same era remains an incredibly gritty espionage series featuring levels of cynicism rarely seen on UK TV up to that time, not to mention some brutal violence.  Again, the acting and the scripts are the thing, with Edward Woodward's titular character being a true anti-hero: a ruthlessly efficient, cynical assassin with a conscience, who is constantly conflicted by his work.  Distrustful of his masters, always questioning the necessity of his missions, not to mention their morality and constantly yearning for a 'cleaner' profession, he remains painfully aware that being a state sanctioned killer is all that he is qualified to do.  The series remains streets ahead of much current output in terms of script and acting quality.  A series which surprised me by its quality when I rewatched it was The Gentle Touch from the 1980s.  I always vaguely temembered it as a stodgy cop drama whose only outstanding feature was in having a female lead.  Seeing it again, I was struck, not only by Jill Gascoigne's superb performance in the lead, but also the strength of the scripts, which tackled issues like racism, sexism and extremism on a weekly basis.  It also featured good dialogue delivered by a great supporting cast, with William Marlowe (a hugely underrated actor) outstanding as Gascoigne's boss). 

Then there are the sitcoms of the era.  While quite a lot of these now seem unwatchable, not only because of some of the contemporary attitudes they display, but also because of their terrible scripts, some remain surprisingly entertaining.  Father, Dear, Father, for instance, presents a fascinating portrayal of the late sixties and early seventies, with Patrick Cargill's titular father bemoaning his daughters' sexual attitudes and the permissive society n general, while himself taking advantage of the mores of the time to get his own end away.  Lately, I've been watching the first three series of Shelley, with Hywel Bennett. I'd forgotten just how much I'd enjoyed the various adventures of the self-styled 'freelance layabout'.  Frankly, I can't think of any recent sitcom which has featured dialogue as witty as that in Shelley, let alone the level of political and social commentary that featured prominently in the scripts.  Moreover, I doubt anybody nowadays would dare commission a sitcom which featured as its hero an habitual benefits claimant, proud of the fact that, despite his education and intelligence, he has succeeded in avoiding paid employment for four years at the start of the series.  He is utterly unrepentant that he is, in his own words, 'incredibly lazy'.   (I feel great empathy with Shelley, being bone idle and hating work myself).  The irony, of course, being that when he does work, he is generally good at whatever he does.  He just gets no satisfaction from it.  The background of its era - the Thatcher government's economic policies and the resultant mass employment - present a fascinating time capsule.  (The relative ease with which you could claim unemployment and supplementary benefits back then seems unbelievable now).  So, there you are - in my opinion we've already had a 'Golden Age' of TV, back in an era that today's critics like to dismiss as 'kitsch' and 'naff'.  Perhaps they should actually watch some of these programmes.

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