Saturday, November 07, 2015

Review: A History of Television in 100 Programmes by Phil Norman

Phil Norman does not set out to choose his 100 greatest television programmes. Rather, in this collection of short essays, he seeks to reproduce the strange juxtapositions and serendipitous discoveries that characterised the medium in the days before the proliferation of channels.

So World in Action sits next to Playschool, Blankety Blank next to Life on Earth, and Twin Peaks next to Jonathan Meades.

Forgotten programmes that were important, or seemed important, in their day are brought back into the daylight. There are essays on Roots, Max Headroom and The Strange World of Gurney Slade. And it is good to see Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? given its due as both comedy and social history.

Phil Norman agrees with Meades in identifying Double Dare as a key play in Dennis Potter’s work, and he writes well on the appeal of I, Claudius:
Patrick Stewart commanded the Praetorian Guard. Bernard Hill identified Jacobi as the new emperor. Ian Oglivy fell off his horse. Peter Bowles was an unusual choice for an ancient British chieftain; Christopher Biggins – soon to appear as Mother Goose at Darlington’s Civic Theatre – a surprisingly appropriate Nero.  
There was even a mini Z-Cars reunion as Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns, aka Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso) was put on trial for treason against the stepson of PC Fancy Smith (Brian Blessed, the Emperor Augustus). Quentin Crisp was assassinated by George and Mildred’s uppity next-door neighbour, who in turn was grandson of the Emperor Inspector Wexford. 
It was also good to be reminded that David Dimbleby’s pomposity did for Nationwide and that Gillian Hills came to The Owl Service right after cavorting with David Hemmings in Blow-Up.

The essay on The Magic Roundabout called to mind the family legend that my father was a school friend of Eric Thompson. My mother says he would occasionally smile at the airs Thompson later gave himself, given the humble home he came from. Goodness knows what he made of Emma.

If you are looking for a Christmas present for a lover of television – particularly one, like me, old enough to have hazy memories of some of the earlier programmes discussed – do not look further than this book.

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