Boys from the Blackstuff to Mr Blobby: 100 years of the BBC, part seven

The BBC challenges Thatcher in fiction, loses to her in fact, but begins seriously to court Black, working-class and sexually and gender-diverse audiences for the first time.

1982 – Boys from the Blackstuff

“Gis’ a job. I could do that,” pleaded the jobless “Yosser” Hughes (Bernard Hill), coining an unusually serious catchphrase. Exploring the consequences of redundancy, recession, Westminster neglect and religious division in Liverpool, Alan Bleasdale’s five-parter became one of the greatest achievements of TV fiction. Rich characters drew great acting, led by Hill and Julie Walters. And, as often with cultural hits, it was timely: deprivation and fury at parliamentary indifference caused riots on Merseyside in the early 80s, converting a rightwing politician, Michael Heseltine, to urban renewal.

1983 – The Black Adder

The Black Adder.
Evil schemer … The Black Adder. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

A peculiarity of TV – and an impossibility in theatre and cinema – is that a good show may have time to become great. Originally a spoof-medieval sitcom, The Black Adder was at first seen as too close to the sketch and standup comedy with which co-writers Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, playing the titular evil schemer, were associated. But from series two, Curtis’s pairing with Ben Elton brought into play the Shakespearean expertise on which Elton would later draw for Upstart Crow. As the concept moved through the centuries – in Blackadder II and Blackadder the Third – Curtis and Elton pioneered a sitcom in which the situation changes but cast and style remain. Blackadder Goes Forth, ending with the slow-motion slaughter of the cast in the 1917 trenches, remains one of the bravest and most devastating moments in TV comedy.

1984 – The Lenny Henry Show

The Lenny Henry Show.
Incredibly talented … The Lenny Henry Show. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

Thirty-eight years on, the title star has become Sir Lenny but, dismayingly, is still campaigning for the diversity of which this series was an early example. An incredibly talented impressionist, Henry was restricted by the lack of celebrities of colour but took off singer Michael Jackson and newsreader Trevor McDonald. He also invented fictional characters including mellow Jamaicans and libidinous soul singers who have subsequently been judged stereotypical by some but which, crucially, were not racist.

1985 – EastEnders

Six years into Margaret Thatcher’s eventual 11 in Number 10, the BBC was one of her main targets, accused of leftist content and having too few popular shows to justify a legally enforced licence fee. Responding to this, the BBC directly challenged ITV with EastEnders, a naked attempt to find its own Coronation Street. More recently, the BBC has worried about being too southern but, at that time, went cockney to put clear beer between itself and Salford-set Corrie. Starting with the discovery of a possible murder, EastEnders also extended the grittier brand of soap introduced by Channel 4’s Brookside in 1982. Key EastEnders writer Tony Jordan learned from Corrie that British soap is a matriarchal form, popularising strong women including Dot Cotton (June Brown) and Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard).

1986 – Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV

Victoria Wood As Seen On TV.
Brilliant … Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

Wood learned from Monty Python that humour about TV itself was not “in-jokes” (as the industry feared) but gags that the mainstream audience were likely to be in on. Reuniting with Julie Walters (with whom she had first appeared in a 1978 play) and Celia Imrie, she brilliantly skewered low-budget TV soap in the recurring sketch Acorn Antiques. This eventually became a musical, and stands as one of Wood’s two most-mentioned achievements – the other being the middle-age marital sexual tension epic song, The Ballad of Freda and Barry – when she died in 2016, at the horrifyingly young age of 62. There is a case that, following Gracie Fields, the two most important broadcast female comedians were Lancastrian.

1987 – French and Saunders

In the BBC’s relations with the government, 1987 was a tragic year: re-elected for the second time, Thatcher sent the security services into BBC Scotland to seize tapes of an investigative series called Secret Society and Alasdair Milne was sacked as director general by the Thatcherite BBC chair, Marmaduke Hussey. But it was a landmark year for comedy. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders followed Wood in writing their own material and cannibalising the schedules for satire and pastiche. In their first show, Grandstand presenter Steve Rider introduced a spoof Sports Report and they did a send-up of dance troupe Pan’s People called the Hot Hoofers.

1988 – Talking Heads/Countryfile

Cowed by the government – Milne’s replacement, the accountant Michael Checkland, was the first non-journalist director general since Lord Reith – the BBC was creatively quiet, the end-of-year newspaper round-ups unusually triumphant for their rivals. However, showing the organisation’s Darwinian survival wits, the two standout new series looked much more cosy and conservative than they really were. Alan Bennett reclaimed an insider insult for the dullest type of content (expert interviewees) in the title of Talking Heads, six 30- to 40-minute monologues. There were doubts about whether a single voice could “hold” for that long, but they were quickly dispelled by Bennett’s writing and actors including Maggie Smith, Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird and Julie Walters. The characters included an alcoholic, a victim of sexual abuse and (by 1998’s second run), a paedophile, a fetishist and the wife of a serial killer, proving Bennett to be about as cosy as Euripides.

After largely leaving rural matters to The Archers on radio, this was the year the BBC launched Countryfile, giving critics many “TV cereal” puns but, after John Craven, who had pioneered junior journalism in Newsround, became a presenter in series two, proved almost as perennial as events in Ambridge. Initially dismissed as soft content, it’s still in the schedules now, hugely popular and became increasingly controversial as farming was a central issue in Brexit.

1989 – Around the World in 80 Days

Although the broadcaster most associated with the BBC centenary is Sir David Attenborough, a strong second finisher is Michael Palin for a portfolio holding Monty Python and the schoolboy yarn spoof Ripping Yarns (with Terry Jones, 1976-79) and as the Attenborough of travel documentaries, starting with this recreation of Phileas Fogg’s fictional circumnavigation in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel. Palin’s natural intelligence and empathy avoided any risk of the parodic Englishman abroad during remarkable sequences, including buffeting through the Strait of Hormuz on a fragile shipping boat.

1990 – Have I Got News For You?/House of Cards/Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
Changing of the guard … Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The sense of Thatcherism ending (she fell on 22 November) was reflected with the launch of Have I Got News For You?, a vicious political quiz. November also saw the spookily timed launch of the adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ post-Thatcherite Westminster thriller, House of Cards. But a more lastingly significant changing of the guard was the primacy of gay experience in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson’s adaptation of her marvellous 1985 autobiographical novel about an adopted child whose sexuality appalls her evangelical religious family. It was directed by Beeban Kidron and produced by Phillippa Giles; drama about women was finally being made by them.

1991 – Noel’s House Party

At this time, Friday and Sunday nights were a bigger deal to ITV than Saturdays, because shops were open the next day, attracting more advertising. The BBC took advantage of this opportunity to poach Saturday-night audiences by following Bruce Forsyth’s The Generation Game with a live format for Noel Edmonds. Many of the elements in Noel’s House Party – the fictional Crinkley Bottom setting, prank ambushes, celebrity walk-ons – had been developed on his Radio 1 or BBC One Multi-Coloured Swap Shop shows. By attracting a mass audience that had proved elusive to the BBC, House Party appeased some Westminster critics in its nine years, although the presence of Mr Blobby, a pink, yellow-spotted inflatable co-host who could only speak his surname, concerned many of the corporation’s defenders.

Coming up tomorrow (1992-2001) – TV’s sleaziest show, and radio’s brainiest.

The Guardian