An obituary to a once-great station

The eclectic mix of re-runs on ITV4 remind us that mainstream, commercial television could be great.

Patrick West
Columnist

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British science-fiction television is rubbish and ITV aren’t showing enough of their decent back-catalogue. I have made these two accusations in recent weeks, and I’ve come to realise that I have been terribly wrong on both counts (1). This has come not through idling away my weekends watching the Dave and Yesterday channels, as usual. Instead, I’ve discovered ITV4.

‘ITV’ is an abbreviation that invariably leaves me scrambling for my remote control, which is probably why I have neglected ITV4. ITV, in the familiar guise of ITV1, makes uniquely awful television these days. Or, should I say, ‘broadcasts’ uniquely awful television, because it doesn’t seem to ‘make’ anything original these days.

If you are reading this article on Friday 14 August, then just peruse the TV guide if you don’t believe me about how appalling and bereft of ideas the network’s flagship station has become. And if you follow English football and watched on Wednesday the mixture of crass hyperbole and ineptitude that was the all-too-familiar mainstay of ITV1’s coverage of the Holland v England game, you will know what I mean.

But ITV4, which I came across by accident owing to its proximity to Film4 on Freeview? It’s wonderful. But sadly wonderful at that.

ITV4 is basically fairly similar to Dave and Yesterday, except that those two seem to harvest all the BBC re-runs. And whereas Dave and Yesterday can be easily categorised, ITV4 is decidedly idiosyncratic. Put it this way: were Yesterday to be a national newspaper it would be the Sunday Telegraph – concerned with war and antiquity. If Dave were a magazine it would be FHM: basically cars and comedy. But ITV4 is like a weird combination of Autotrader, the Daily Star and Fortean Times.

And this is a good thing, because ITV4 reminds you that ITV used to have an identity and a reputation – much like Channel 4 once also had – for being off-beat and risky. Okay, I may not have much time for UFO or Space 1999, but I had never seen the engaging 1960s series The Champions, and didn’t realise that before he played the bullied father in the terrible 1980s comedy No Place Like Home, William Gaunt was actually once a serious actor – just as my generation found it a bit of a shock to discover that George Peppard and Leslie Nielsen were similarly promising straight actors of the 1960s. The Prisoner also serves as a reminder as to how British TV sci-fi could be enchanting, even if, like the 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, it is simultaneously stylish and completely baffling.

Minder, featuring Dennis Waterman and George Cole, outshone any light- hearted crime drama the BBC produced in the 1980s, and tells us as much about the current recession as the one it was set in.

The Professionals, also now being repeated on ITV4, was a bit ludicrous in its over-the-top violence, not to mention being a blatant rip-off of American TV series such as Starsky and Hutch and the 1971 film The French Connection. Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw (as ‘Bodie’ and ‘Doyle’) were always pouting and pointing pistols and jumping over walls backwards, and were rightly satirised for doing so in the 1984 ‘Comic Strip’ programme The Bullshitters.

But satire, if only sometimes a form of flattery, is nearly always a recognition of cultural influence. The Professionals was popular in the late-1970s not just because that decade was more cynical, but because art in the latter part of that decade was more honest. The police may have become more violent in those years, but at least in the late-1970s it came to be acknowledged that some coppers always broke the rules, that many of them were bent, and that dating back to their inception in the nineteenth century, the British police force has often been resented and even hated by the working classes.

So would you rather have Gordon Jackson playing the mean and cynical bastard George Cowley, Bodie and Doyle’s boss as head of CI5, or Gordon Jackson playing the authoritarian and puritanical butler in the early-1970s homage to ‘the good old days’ Upstairs, Downstairs? No, because the difference is that there is no such thing as ‘the 1970s’ as an era, per se. There is the early-1970s, a time of cultural escapism, manifest in prog-rock, glam-rock, disco, retro-1930s clothes, Dad’s Army, and Dixon of Dock Green. Then there is the late-1970s, which saw punk rock, far-right and far-left extremism, The Sweeney and The Professionals. The late-1970s is when we learnt to grow up and express our feelings with honesty, and however despicable or admirable the form it came in, at least it was with sincerity.

And then there was ITV, which was in its heyday in the late-1970s and early-1980s, bringing us programmes such as World In Action, in a time when people really used to take its News At Ten very seriously indeed. It wasn’t just ITV’s factual output that was so admired in these days, but its daring dramas. Watch ITV1 tonight and you can be treated to one episode of Emmerdale and two episodes of Coronation Street. A glance at your weekly TV guide will reveal the acres of crap that ITV1 is going to transmit in the forthcoming week.

I have no idea what that weird balloon meant or what Number Six was doing in that weird Welsh village, but can you seriously imagine any ITV network producing something as outlandish and iconic as The Prisoner today? Do you think ITV could even be bothered or have the guts to make Spitting Image now?

All the anti-capitalist boobies were wrong back in 1955 to pronounce that only a state-funded and state-approved BBC could make decent telly. For many years, commercial TV matched the Beeb. Alas, no more. ITV is just as incapable as the BBC of making reasonably adequate programmes, which I think must be a metaphor for how neither the state nor the market can guarantee success or quality. In the end, ITV4 is great, because it resembles a great obituary of a once-great station.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

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