Thursday 3 March 2016

Ten Great Episodes from (British) TV History

I’ve never had a television in all my grown life, and I’m 57 years old. I say this not to gain sympathy but to gloat a wee bit, and with a huge sense of relief. My only exposure to mass culture comes from my trips to the gym, thanks to running machines equipped with a screen and a choice of channels. That’s plenty for me. And who needs a TV when you have BBC iPlayer (even here, the only TV I consistently watch is University Challenge, where it’s always humbling to realise that the pampered products of our elitist society know more than me)? And, of course, youtube is a vital storehouse of collective memory. With youtube I’ve caught up with TV landmarks that I a) missed first time around b) fondly, if hazily, remember, and c) wanted badly to see but was prevented by a rigorously enforced bedtime. The following choice of Great Episodes is subjective and hastily compiled, and confines itself to the British product rather than USA imports. Youtube co-ordinates are supplied where available. 

1. Minder, ‘Another Bride, Another Groom’
The one where Arthur Daley, desperately pressed for time, fatally mixes delivery of a consignment of pornography with the wedding of his niece. Escalating insanity unfolds, with, as ever, brilliant dialogue and rich social observation. It’s a bit like the scene in Goodfellas (sweaty Ray Liotta, pursued by helicopter) but with more laughs. Actually, acute pressure brings out Arthur’s inner resources. The scene where he bribes the bent policeman in the church is priceless (ah, George Cole!), and there’s a very satisfying twist when the identity of the heavies is revealed. Joy! 

2. The Naked Civil Servant 
This 1975 TV film marked a sea change in public attitudes towards homosexuality. Before The Naked Civil Servant, everyone was homophobic. After The Naked Civil Servant, everyone thought homosexuality was a great giggle. That’s if the boys in my class at school are representative. All this, and a cameo from my later friend Duncan (prominent in the Portsmouth idyll: that's him on the left). There’s also a life-size portrait of Quentin Crisp in the Gent’s in The Kings Arms, Salford, I noticed last night: further evidence of the film’s impact on society. 

3. Edna the Inebriate Woman
I’ve blogged about this before – It’s still the most humane and poignant study of the lower depths ever. 

4. Dr Who, ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’ 
This two-parter from the regenerate classic turns an archetypal image of WWII – a child in a gas mask – into unforgettable horror, whilst weaving such issues as teenage pregnancy, national identity, survival and guilt into an elaborate sci-fi yarn. There was never a Dr Who of such ferocious integrity as Christopher Eccleston.   

5. Song of Summer
Eric Fenby offers his services as amanuensis for an ailing Delius. This touches youth and age, Yorkshire and the Riviera, regret, recrimination and the healing power of music. Nothing Ken Russell did afterwards – it was made for the BBC in 1969 – even hinted at this elegiac sensibility. It’s very restrained and deeply touching. 

6. South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg interviews Dennis Potter 
Viewing a play by Dennis Potter is a bit like watching a film by Alfred Hitchcock film. In that the pleasure is tarnished by the knowledge that your emotions are being manipulated by a pervert. So I’ve chosen his interview with Melvyn Bragg rather than any of his dramas (of which The Singing Detective is the one; and Mary Whitehouse was right: Brimstone and Treacle is indefensible). There’s nothing like a great artist confronting his own mortality to inspire awe in the rest of us. 

7. Ready When You Are, Mr McGill 
Tantalising snippet here:  
A hapless extra holds up the filming of a period costume TV drama. And that’s all there is by way of action. Actually it’s an anti-action, anti-pomposity film, and asks why modesty and simplicity are always judged small and insignificant in the world’s account. Two Jacks – Rosenthal and Shepherd – emerge as national treasures.  

8. The Owl Service
I didn’t know the meaning of ‘psycho-sexual’ until I watched this, a children’s TV series made by Granada in the revolutionary year of 1968. 

9. A Warning to the Curious 
The best and most genuinely disturbing of all M.R. James adaptions for TV. It’s a variation on James’ archetypal plot idea – how the quest for knowledge unwittingly unleashes dark forces – but this time the victim is not some tweedy don who deserves all he gets (à la O Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad) but a decent, lower middle-class man moved to pursue archaeology by recent unemployment. As played by Peter Vaughan, a character actor who was superb in everything he did, the characterisation, a tender mix of tenacity and insecurity, is rather more subtle than anything in M.R. James. Whilst the mundanity of an off-season Norfolk resort is depicted with realistic precision. It makes the supernatural element all the more frightening: the thing stooped and malevolent in a corner of the room, visible only with a flickering torch. 
10. Horace 
Ostensibly, a sentimental period drama set in a northern town about the title character, a man with learning difficulties. But this fragment, all that survives of Horace, has deep and disturbing resonance. The depiction of bullying is pitiless, and the contrast between the kids’ hard-bitten cruelty and the grown-up’s innocent fragility is grotesque and moving. Horace is clearly a holy idiot, and the implicit message – that a rich inner life is no protection against the harsh everyday world – was so problematic that Yorkshire TV pulled it after one series. 

Do you detect a pattern? All my Great Episodes, in some form or another, are pleas for decency and tolerance. So has my willed exclusion from TV made me a grumpier person? I don’t think so. From the admittedly scanty evidence of my running machine, condescension and meanness seem to be the norm of the medium these days.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Having been without a television for forty years you will have missed 1977's Testing of Eric Olthwaite ( from the outstanding Ripping Yarns series. An Action Adventure classic with scenes of uninhibited sex and blood-curdling violence. As a satire on municipal politics it is without peer and might just be the most perfect half hour of comedy that the medium of television has yet produced...

  3. I did see Eric Olthwaite in Ripping Yarns and thought it was definitely OK. But you know I'm setting the bar pretty high with 10 Great Episodes, and if we're talking comedy that is socially transformative and world-changing as well as gut-bustingly funny, then it can only be Father Ted. What was the comment you removed? You can tell me in a private email if you like.

  4. "The Singing Detective is the one; and Mary Whitehouse was right: Brimstone and Treacle is indefensible"

    Presumably we would be preferred to watch wholesome family entertainment like "Jim'll Fix It", "Jeux Sans Frontiers" and "The Rolf Harris Show" instead. Can TV get any lamer or tamer: I fear it can?


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