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THE GLORY GAME - THE RISE AND RISE OF SATURDAY NIGHT TELLY
Part Fifteen: Things Look Very Precarious by Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams
August 2003

 

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If 1985 had been characterised by new talent, new programmes and - for ITV - a new optimism (thanks to hit series such as Blind Date and Saturday Live), then 1986 would be remembered by many in the entertainment firmament, and particularly those who worked at the BBC, as an altogether more traumatic year in which real life events would have an irrevocable affect on Saturday evening programming. Such events would bring morale in the Corporation to an all time low as well as spell the demise for one of its most senior figures. Meanwhile, over at ITV things seemed to be just the same as ever.

As per usual ITV (now operating with the strap-line "It's worth coming home to ...") played host to the TV Times Top 10 Awards, and just to reinforce the sense of tradition that now surrounded the ceremony there was to be at least one familiar winner, as for the eighth year running Terry Wogan found himself receiving the award for the Favourite Male TV Personality. "I don't get blasé because they are the only television awards that mean anything, as they are made by the public itself," he commented. "The fact that Wogan is on BBC and TV Times viewers have voted for me means that those who watch television are not bothered by barriers. I've found this reward quite gratifying this year because over the last few months, I've been the target of a fair amount of abuse in print". At the time his profile could have hardly been higher. His thrice-weekly chat show was at the heart of BBC1's weekday schedules and crucial to controller Michael Grade's plans to wrest viewers away from ITV.

One of the other artistes in the running for an accolade at the awards was comedian Russ Abbot. "He has been one of the great emerging forces in comedy in the last five years" remarked Wogan. The comedian (billed as the "hottest comedy property since Peter Sellers") had recently departed LWT and in May 1986 appeared in a well-received one-off special for the BBC. Claiming that the move to the Corporation had given him a "whole new lease of life", this one-off was followed in September by his first BBC series proper. Emboldened by an increased budget, Abbot mixed a number of new characters with the old favourites that had served him so well at LWT. Again he received some acclaim. Unlike The Goodies and Morecambe and Wise before him, Abbot's act did not seem to suffer as a result of the switch from one channel to another. Indeed his 1986 series reached up to 13 million viewers (his best performance in three years). Yet to some viewers there was something missing. The lower budget of the LWT years had imbued Russ Abbot's Madhouse with a kind of anarchic sheen that now seemed lacking. Nevertheless, the transition was deemed a success, and Abbot pleased with his move started making noises about plans for a TV sitcom.

Wogan and The Russ Abbot Show were but two of a raft of new, fiercely competitive programmes produced by the BBC. In the wake of Grade's arrival the Corporation's audience share had risen from 40% in 1984 to 47.5% the following year. This success seemed attributable to a number of factors, but perhaps most critical of all was the launch of twice weekly soap opera EastEnders which began in February 1985. In the space of 10 months it had attracted audiences of up to 23.5 million viewers. Unsurprisingly there were moves afoot to find a drama of similar grit, earthiness and (it was hoped) popular appeal to broadcast on Saturday evenings. Given that this new series was to premiere in the same week that Granada Television's own gritty weekend series Albion Market (which was broadcast on Fridays and Sundays) was in its death throes, the notion to schedule a realist drama at the weekends was something that had been in the air for some time.

As such BBC1's Casualty seemed a bold, but calculated move. Mindful of the popularity of the BBC series Angels (which had run successfully from 1975 and 1983) Michael Grade had apparently issued an edict that the BBC should produce another hospital drama. In addition, BBC1 had been running the occasional realist drama during Saturday evenings for the last few years with series such as Paula Milne's Driving Ambition (1984), and The Odd Job Man (1984) establishing that there was a relatively sizeable audience for such fare. During 1986 itself the BBC produced Strike it Rich (a drama from the pens of Eric Paice and NJ Crisp that dealt with the entangled lives of a group of shareholders) and The Collectors. The latter series in particular appeared to all intents and purposes an attempt to establish a popular long-running ensemble series in the Angels mould.

Centred around the activities of a group of Custom Officials based in the fictional south-coast port of Wrelling, the series promised "tales of intrigue, fraud and skulduggery" and featured plots concerning meat-shipping fraud, crooked ice-cream companies, a rabies scare and the illegal importing of drugs. Given that the future success of series such as London's Burning and - indeed - Casualty had much to do with the degree to which audiences could recognize aspects of their own lives within the plots, perhaps The Collectors subject matter was a touch too prosaic for mainstream success. Certainly it is in retrospect unsurprising that the series met with a lukewarm reception.

Actor Michael Billington played Tom Gibbons in The Collectors and seemed to have his doubts about the series from the off: "I met with Producer Geraint Morris who had produced The Onedin Line after I had left, and who I had subsequently met socially, who suggested that Gibbons might be the better role" he recalls. "I read it and thought that Gibbons was a bit 'isolated' but I thought it could be fixed ... It was set in a Customs Office, which was closer to 'Royston Vasey' than Dover and had all the 'soap' usuals. Snobby in-laws, old codgers, Italian ice cream vendors, horses, kids, and a sub plot concerning a pre-pubescent adultery ... it was I think the first independent production to be taken 'in house' by the BBC and I don't think anyone knew who was really in control. Unfortunately it came out as a 'hangover' from the kind of stuffy product both the BBC and Yorkshire had had a lot of success with in the 70's.

"The Customs Officers were obsessed with procedure and triviality - like keeping a 'samples cupboard' tidy, which had about as much excitement as the food purchasing department at Tescos! All done with acting at the level of a 'sitcom' with the exception of Peter McEnery who played Caines ('Oven Chips' to his friends) who was, in my view magnificent and a joy to work with ... The show was axed because it wasn't very good. There was casual talk of a second series but I don't think anyone really believed it. A bit like the radio operator on The Titanic!"

As such the way seemed clear for Casualty to make its mark as BBC1's Saturday night drama series of choice. Given the success of EastEnders' issue led agenda it came as little surprise to learn that the BBC had something equally didactic in mind for their new Saturday night drama. Jeremy Brock - then script editing Juliet Bravo was well aware of Grade's desire for a new medical drama and teamed up with fellow script editor Paul Unwin to start pulling together ideas for a drama series set at night in a busy casualty department. "We wanted it to be about a night shift because that's when a city chucks up its worst oddities," commented Brock back in 1986. Both writers had recent personal experience to draw upon (Brock had suffered from colitis and Unwin had been involved in a car accident) and were keen to provide a realistic representation of the subject matter. "We wanted to deal as grittily as possible with reality because in the past hospital series have been too smooth and silky" explained Brock. "There's no routine and nothing's predictable. You just deal as calmly and efficiently as possible with whatever comes through the door."

Although Brock and Unwin carried out some research prior to scripting the initial episodes of Casualty (including spending considerable time in Bristol's Royal Infirmary observing the night-shift at work), in many ways they were unprepared for the rigours of episodic television drama. "We were incredibly young, incredibly green, but it was very fortunate that the whole set of circumstances fell together," reminisces Brock. "We had a series bible eventually, but initially, what we wrote was a slightly pretentious manifesto because, of course, we were terribly anti-Maggie Thatcher. Our enthusiasm and energy swept us through a lack of research and a lack of maturity when it came to story structure for example. I can remember sitting down with a writer during the first series who worked on Cheers and she knew about acts and I said, 'What do you mean acts?' She actually sat me down and explained that Cheers was three-act structure and I swear I had no idea that it was the best way to do it. I thought that acts were things you did in the theatre, not television, and that was the degree of learning we had to do."

Casualty's first episode aired on 6 September 1986 and immediately set about addressing issues of contemporary interest. In its first year, the series would touch upon alcoholism, drug abuse, AIDS and football violence. Its grittiness and ultra realistic style drew comparisons not only with the aforementioned EastEnders but also ITV's The Bill and Channel 4's Brookside. Somehow these four series seemed to co-exist in the same fictional universe and there was a sense that with this association Casualty was part of the modern television drama landscape. However, unlike these other series, Casualty had one social issue that above all, informed the series; namely the management of the NHS.

This theme was predominantly explored through the character of Ewart Plimmer the manager of the nightshift, who was shown to be forever at loggerheads with the upper tiers of management. It was evident that the issue was something that Brock and Unwin felt extremely passionate about, and it is probably to their immense pride that the series provoked the ire of the Conservative Party who lambasted it for being biased and distorted.

Although well regarded and much talked about straight from the off, Casualty took some time to reach the point where it became regarded as one of the BBC's ratings mainstays. Given its current pivotal position within the Saturday evening schedules it is perhaps surprising to learn that after the conclusion of series two, the decision was made to move Casualty from its early Saturday night slot of 7.50pm (where at its peak it had attracted 10.9 million viewers) to 9.30 pm on Fridays. Here the series began to steadily grow in popularity, culminating in 16.1 million viewers tuning in to the last Friday night series, before Casualty was returned to (what we now regard as) its rightful place on Saturday evenings.

Casualty evolved over time, and just as EastEnders, The Bill and Brookside began to move away from authentic realism and focus more on viewer-grabbing storylines, Casualty too had to change. Perhaps the most pivotal moment in its history occurred in 1994 when Corinne Hollingworth was appointed producer. Upon her say so, character-based drama was accentuated at the expense of the overt politicising of earlier years, and more time was set aside to explore the personal lives of the series' regulars. Now scenes of conflict with NHS management were simply excuses for the programme makers to portray managers - any managers - as universally incompetent (a perception sure to be shared and supported by the vast majority of the programme's audience), whereas before such clashes had provided opportunities to highlight managerial or structural weaknesses within the NHS itself.

The various accidents that befell the unfortunate citizens of Holby also took on a different resonance as regular characters were routinely asked to deal with medical conditions that in someway reflected or commented on their own personal situation. As such we became less and less interested in the patients' plight except for what their condition might symbolize for the doctors and nurses treating them. Such formulaic plotting and strong focus on the developing plot arcs throughout each series may seem in some ways a betrayal of Casualty's original, politicised zeal, but given the depoliticising of television drama in general in the last 10 or so years and the sustained performance of the series, it is an evolution that was perhaps necessary in order to survive.

At the time of writing, Casualty still remains an important part of the BBC's weekly (let alone just Saturday evening) schedule, and with the arrival in 1999 of spin-off series Holby City, it is a franchise that has served the BBC well over the last couple of decades.

With the arrival of Casualty, Saturday evenings had taken on a surprisingly grim aspect, yet the real world conspired to produce a couple of events at either end of 1986 that shocked all lovers of the BBC's Saturday evening output. First of all in January came the shock news of the death of Dustin Gee. Along with partner Les Dennis, Gee had positioned himself at the forefront of a new wave of mainstream comedians then currently finding popularity on television. The duo's The Laughter Show had attracted up to 15 million viewers during its second series and had brought them widespread enough appeal to ensure their third series was billed as Les and Dustin's Laughter Show. However, just after the first episode of the third series had been broadcast, Gee - performing on stage in Southport with Les Dennis as an Ugly Sister in the pantomime Cinderella - suffered a heart attack. He died three days later. "Things looked very precarious for me" admitted Dennis later in the year, "I'd lost not only a partner, but a very good friend. I went back on stage the next day and marvellous Jim Bowen stepped into Dustin's role.

"I felt people might think I was being callous to go straight back. Then I thought of the cast and the audience who wanted to see a show and, although I was too stunned and shocked to decide myself, I'm glad I was made to go straight on. If I'd left it a few days, it would have been harder and harder". Later that year Dennis would find himself presenting ITV's Summertime Special as well as appearing in The All Laughter Shows at Great Yarmouth. "I'm not looking for another partner" he explained, "but Dustin's legacy to me is that, because of our success as a double act, I'm now well known enough to be confident as a solo performer."

Dennis also found work back with his old friend Russ Abbot. Dennis and Gee had both been booked to guest star in Abbot's first BBC series, and Dennis chose to honour the commitment. "Les worked with me long before teaming up with Dustin" explained Abbot "and he's a great performer in his own right. So I'm certainly not doing him any favours." After a two-week break, the BBC recommenced the screening of the final series of Les and Dustin's Laughter Show, and 18 months later Dennis returned with The Les Dennis Laughter Show. The series performed adequately, but peaking at 10.5 million viewers in 1987, it was clear that the audience's appetite for Dennis' impressions was no longer as great as it once was.

Surprisingly, given the comparatively brief period in which they worked together and Dennis' subsequent success as - among other things - host of Family Fortunes, the name of "Dustin Gee" is still, some 17 years on, invoked almost as often as that of "Amanda Holden" whenever Dennis is mentioned. In fact the entertainer chose to talk about witnessing his partner's death (as well as that of Tommy Cooper) as part of his recent one-man show. Dennis and Gee's Coronation Street spoof ("I don't really know") seems to be a shared formative experience for an entire generation and it is quite a tribute that the partnership that lasted for just three or so years is still remembered (no matter with how little affection) to this day.

Whilst Gee's untimely death was shocking and distressing, nothing could have prepared the British public for what happened in November. After its somewhat shaky start The Late Late Breakfast Show had for the last few years been carving itself something of a niche in early Saturday evenings. "I think we've found the right balance," commented Edmonds in October 1986. "We use to have satellite links with America, but we found that nobody wanted chats with famous people so we dumped all that. We cut down on the music because our research had shown that people weren't interested in that either. Only in the case of somebody like Paul McCartney coming on would we ever show a video."

Resultantly the ratings had enjoyed a year-on-year rise. A programme in the 1983 series featuring Peter Davison, Sandra Dickinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys-Jones and Rod Stewart had attracted 12.1 million viewers, whilst an edition in 1984 featuring the Krankies, had drawn in 13 million viewers. The upward curve was further buoyed in 1984 by the arrival of Mike Smith as co-host. His involvement added a much need human element to counterbalance the glitz and high tech nature of many of the show's items. Almost immediately Edmonds adopted a kind of elder brother attitude to his new foil, teasing him in a manner not far removed from the kind of treatment he used to dish out to Keith Chegwin back in the days of The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. The audience seemed to love it, and ratings continued to increase. The edition broadcast on 16 November 1985 featuring Eddie Kidd and Paul McCartney pulled in 14.4 million viewers, whilst in 1986, an appearance by Boy George made The Late Late Breakfast Show the third most watched programme of the week with 16.8 million viewers.

In 1985, a spin-off programme honouring out-takes and bloopers called The Golden Egg Awards was produced (in which Murray Walker earned the dubious honour of Fellowship of the Golden Egg for "lifelong devotion to the glorious cock-up") and was re-staged the following year as Golden Egg Awards '86. Although broadcast on Good Friday (when audiences are usually high) it managed to attract a still impressive 16.6 million viewers.

Mike Smith's main function on The Late Late Breakfast Show was to present the weekly outside broadcast element. This was usually the acclaimed Whirly Wheel challenge, a recurring item in which members of the public were invited to partake in a particularly death-defying stunt. Perhaps partly inspired by the increasingly outrageous "hidden camera" stunts perpetrated by Jeremy Beadle on Game for a Laugh, the notion of placing a member of the public right at the heart of the action seemed - at the time - to be a very "Saturday night" idea. "We have analysed our success carefully and, more than anything else, it is due to the involvement of the audience," explained Edmonds. "It is the only show on TV where it is open to anybody to take part - all you need is a wacky idea, a bizarre photograph or video." Whilst any number of audience participation items came and went (including wacky challenges in which members of the public were invited to attempt to break the world record for the number of faces on a standard-sized passport photo, as well as an open invitation for viewers to phone in ideas for the following week's programme), the Whirly Wheel challenge remained one of the series' most consistently popular elements.

"You wouldn't catch me doing half the things we get our Whirly Wheelers to have a go at" Edmonds confided. Whilst the weekly challenges had resulted in some minor casualties before (most noticeably Barbara Sleeman who in 1983 had suffered a broken shoulder as the result of a stunt in which she was fired from a cannon), the death of Michael Lush on 13 November 1986 whilst rehearsing a Whirly Wheel stunt in which he was to fall from an exploding crate left all involved in a visible state of shock, and had a significant and palpable affect on all at the BBC. "I was in my office preparing to do another news interview about violence when the phone rang for the reporter" recalls Will Wyatt (then Head of Documentaries and Features at the BBC). "He put the phone down and said, 'Sorry chum, this is cancelled. Bigger story. Someone's been killed in a stunt for The Late Late Breakfast Show.' He and his cameraman dashed off to cover the death." The eventual inquest conclusion in January 1987, that of death by misadventure, confirmed that the BBC was at fault. For Edmonds the whole affair seemed to be not only a major personal tragedy, but also a curtailment of his own career. Given his association (however tenuous) with the events that had led up to the accident, it seemed that there was little way he could continue as the BBC's "Mr Saturday Night".

For others though in the BBC, the professional toll was even greater. For the then Director General of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, the Michael Lush affair and in particular the commencement of the inquest contributed strongly in the Board of Governors decision to sack him. It was a decision that some felt had been a long time coming, yet others proclaimed as an act that would "stand high in the annals of broadcasting infamy". Despite healthy ratings, a hit soap opera and a buoyant controller of BBC1 these were troubled times indeed for the BBC.