Gail Walker: The golden age of TV broke new ground ... what a shame we’re unlikely to see a repeat
Sitcom writers like the recently deceased Ray Galton reached for the highest common factor, writes Gail Walker
It seems we are reading the obituaries more frequently now of familiar entertainment stalwarts. Cilla Black, Ronnie Corbett, Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth, Liz Fraser, Denis Norden ... as the names reel off, they bring with them memories of what must be the golden age of TV. Maybe a 50-year period, when it was all new and all familiar at the same time, and a period which was long enough to have captured several generations in its shiny spell, before the internet came along.
It was an era that Bruce Forsyth came to embody even as he was its last viable star in the true sense, still 'live', still a Saturday night regular, up to a relatively short period before his death.
Apart from him, most of the others had moved on from the intensity of everyday stardom to the annual panto, the odd one-person-show, the 'Where are they now?' features of the Sunday papers.
And it isn't that these comedians and TV presenters and gameshow hosts succeeded each other into stardom over that period of time. Not at all.
They were all at their peak at the same time, more or less.
It's the Seventies we are in mourning for, really. It's the deaths of stars who were famous in that era which prompt the tired old 'golden age' reflections which, tired as they are, are nonetheless true.
Comedy writer Ray Galton and Rainbow presenter Geoffrey Hayes both died last week. Galton - he of Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour fame, was 88.
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Geoffrey Hayes - whom we remember as a gangly, impossibly grinning youngster - was 76.
Only 12 years separated a man who created two characters called Albert Ladysmith and Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (names culled from the Boer War, for heaven's sake) from a florid-sweatered, full-colour, bouncing chap whose best friends and housemates were two hand puppets, the highly strung Zippy and hippo George, and a chap in a bear suit called Bungle.
The two of them epitomised how far TV had developed in just a few years then and also just how wide the reach of TV was. It could entertain everyone, from the very young to the very elderly, within moments.
The more august tributes last week were, of course, for Ray Galton. This would come as a surprise to those who were reared on the 1980s comedy culture epitomised by The Young Ones and Ben Elton. Angry comedy wasn't Galton's game.
Funnily enough, it turns out it wasn't ours either, as (30 years later) it's Dad's Army, Last of the Summer Wine, The Likely Lads, Bread, Butterflies, Porridge and so on that we set our smartboxes to record. Just as we rub our hands in anticipation of the Laurel and Hardy movie upcoming with Steve Coogan - he of Alan Partridge fame - as Stan (the trailer is a delight).
Galton would always have had a glowing obit. But now we understand more about TV. Having endured hit-and-miss garbage for at least 20 years - from Big Brother to assorted reality shows - we now know that there is such a thing as comedy gold.
With co-writer Alan Simpson, Galton was responsible not just for one but two of the most important sitcoms in television history.
Both Hancock's Half-Hour and Steptoe and Son straddled the thin line between the comic and the tragic. And the line was never thinner than in Steptoe and Son. Beneath the comic badinage was the story of a son's inability to break away from his father, his past, to take a taste of the swinging Sixties and sexually liberated Seventies. Each failure showed father and son locked in cycle of sad, rather soul-witheringly bleak co-dependence.
At times, it echoed the rhythms of great drama. In another key, episodes wouldn't have looked out of place in a Beckett or Pinter play. Something the same could be said of Last of the Summer Wine, three old men wandering the countryside. Turn the dial just a little to one side or the other, and you have full-blown tragedy.
And we loved it all. Up to 28 million tuned in to watch Harold and Albert take up the cudgels, alternating between hate and love at the drop of a hat.
Can you think of a similar sitcom today? I don't mean just in viewing figures (but that shouldn't be overlooked) but in reach, insight, artistic ambition?
Don't bother trying.
Most sitcoms are 'narrowcasts' - aimed at some kind of elusive youth (for which read 'ageing') market, all based on common cultural assumptions and attitudes.
Far from being exercises in challenge, they are exercises in self-approval and general smuggery, lashing out at strawmen who no longer exist. Who is really shocked by the 'F' word on TV now? Only Mrs Whitehouse - and she's been dead for nearly 20 years.
Who says more about the human condition? Jimmy Carr? Or Harry H Corbett?
Galton and Simpson produced television that broke the mould - not by going for the lowest common denominator but reaching for the highest common factor. Like Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son was about something - a real relationship - and bears re-watching 50 years later.
The tributes to Geoffrey Hayes of children's TV classic Rainbow were equally well-meant, if tinged with 'star who ended up stacking shelves' sensationalism. Who cared how Hayes earned his living post-Rainbow? All actors sometimes have to take such jobs to keep the wolves from the door. There is nothing sad or pathetic about it.
I was a regular viewer of the show in the Seventies and it seemed to encapsulate happiness. Even now the familiar strains of its jaunty theme music cheer me up - back then in my timeless world, before I could read a clock, that 'paint the whole world with a rainbow' jingle was the signal that soon it would be lunchtime and my mum would arrive in about 20 minutes to collect me from the lady who looked after me while she was at work. I loved the lady who looked after me and her two dogs, but I loved my mum more.
Incidentally, the televisual signal that she was indeed now imminent came straight after Rainbow ended when the opening credits to ITV's News at One began, with the images showing someone typing frantically to deadline. That registered strongly with me, too...
All the iconic children's presenters are the same vintage - Johnny Ball (80), Toni Arthur (77), Derek Griffiths (72), Valerie Singleton (81), Chloe Ashcroft (76). It's not that each generation has their own Geoffrey and Floella. They don't. It's the same one and then it stopped.
That was the Golden Age. It started around 1965 and ended with Big Brother in 2000.
That's not a bad run for a Golden Age.
It's just a pity that, 20 years later, we're nearly all out of the gold.