100 Years of the BBC: #80-71


80. Star Cops (1987)
In 1987 writer Chris Boucher – who had created Leela for Doctor Who and script-edited all four seasons of popular classic Blake’s 7 – created his own science fiction series Star Cops. It had a terrible title, and it wasn’t helped by a very limited budget, a producer with whom Boucher had a fairly contentious relationship, a cringe-worthy title theme by the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, and an internal BBC strike that took out an entire episode (“Death on the Moon”).

The scripts, though. For any science fiction fan pining for the sort of superb snark and wit of Blake’s 7, this was an unexpected gift of nine more episodes. It boasted great characters – Colin Devis was a particular highlight – and made a properly laudable attempt to at least respect real-world science, through things like explosions in space not generating any sound.


79. The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007)
Oh Gary Numan. Come with us now on a journey through time and space, to the world of the Mighty Boosh: an absolutely joyous confection of silly characters, nonsense storylines, and rapid-fire comedy dialogue. Like many BBC TV comedies, it started on the radio before graduating to the telly. The series was a wonderful showcase for comic performers Noel Fielding (as Vince Noir) and Julian Barratt (as Howard Moon).

If there is an obvious predecessor to The Mighty Boosh, it’s The Goodies, but Fielding and Barratt pushed into much weirder and nonsensical territory that Tim, Bill, and Graeme ever did. Whether it’s the ridiculous songs, or Old Gregg, or the power of Milky Joe, or even Fielding’s iconic evil cockney, the series was like a comedic blast of candy from a shotgun. The stars moved on after three seasons to other projects; director Paul King went on to direct two outstanding Paddington movies.

The thing about Gary Numan. Not only is he a pop star right, he’s got a pilot’s licence.


78. Blue Peter (1958-?)
Here’s a listing I prepared earlier. If you have never seen or heard of Blue Peter, the fondness a generation or two have for this magazine-format entertainment program might seem a bit extreme. It is, however, a BBC institution – running from 1958 right through to the present day. The series combines celebrity interviews and audience challenges with arts and crafts segments teaching children how to build their own models, puppet theatres and, in one case, their own Blake’s 7 Liberator bracelets.

Young viewers who appeared on the show, or were reported to achieved something significant in their community, would be awarded a much-desired Blue Peter badge – which would grant the wearer free access to a variety of attractions around Britain. So carefully guarded were these badges that when Doctor Who‘s new companion Ace debuted with two Blue Peter badges pinned to her jacket, the Blue Peter production staff demanded to know where the badges had come from (they were actor Sophie Aldred’s; won fair and square on Blue Peter when she was a child).

How’s this for perverse: despite the widespread gaps in the BBC Archive, almost every single one of Blue Peter‘s 5,000-odd episodes were kept for posterity. Indeed, in cases where an episode of Doctor Who was promoted on Blue Peter but later junked, clips have been recovered from the relevant Blue Peter episode that survived.


77. The Onedin Line (1971-1980)
If there is one area of television drama that the BBC has consistently excelled, it is costume drama. Give the Beeb a science fiction series, and you will get wobbly sets and silly outfits. Give them a period drama, and it will be wall-to-wall gorgeous costumes, beautiful historical settings, and a laudable attention to detail. The Onedin Line, created by Cyril Abraham in 1971, followed an ambitious Liverpool merchant James Onedin (Peter Gilmore) as he built his trading empire from the ground up. While the budget began to shrink towards the end, early seasons boasted splendid scenes using genuine 19th century vessels along the British coast.

Gilmore was a perfect lead, and was supported by a brilliant cast including Anne Stallybrass, Howard Lang, Brian Rawlinson, Mary Webster, and Jane Seymour. Aram Khachaturian’s composition “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” provided an iconic and memorable title theme.


76. Jonathan Creek (1997-2016)
In David Renwick’s Jonathan Creek, a creative consultant (Alan Davies) for stage magicians runs a sideline in solving apparent supernatural mysteries. One of the striking things about Jonathan Creek is its longevity: the first three seasons ran from 1997 to 2000, before returning for a Christmas special in 2001, a fourth season in 2003, and a fifth in 2014 – as well as occasional one-off returns in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2016. It has been six years since the last outing, and honestly it feels as if Creek could return to the screen at any time.

The other remarkable thing is that, despite being the purview of the drama department, Jonathan Creek has always been a product of the BBC’s light entertainment division. This has led to a number of notably comedy stars either accompanying Creek on his investigations, or being investigated by him. These include Caroline Quentin, Julia Sawalha, Sheridan Smith, Sarah Alexander, Rik Mayall, and Adrian Edmondson.


75. The Goodies (1970-1980, a further season on ITV in 1982)
A whole pile of comedy talent graduated from Cambridge University after performing in the university’s famed Footlights Revue. They immediately started appearing in a variety of short-lived comedy sketch shows in different combinations: I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, At Last the 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and The Frost Report. By 1969 one group from the Footlights scored their own series with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Three of the others – Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, and Tim Brooke-Taylor – scored a hit of their own a year later with The Goodies.

In Australia, where the decade-long series was run and re-run in the early evenings, there is a profound nostalgia for The Goodies. For those returning to the series today it can be quite a shock: none of us realised as kids how many adult moments the ABC had edited out of episodes, and much of the series has dated quite badly in terms of sexism and racism. At its core, however, the series remains quite wonderful. It boasts some of the BBC’s all-time best comedy bits, despite its flaws.


74. The Fast Show (1994-1997)
This list has already covered the sketch comedy shows Not the Nine O’Clock News (1979-1982) and The Mary Whitehouse Experience (1990-1992), and noted the BBC’s penchant for using such programs to launch whole new generations of talent. In 1994 came The Fast Show, a comedy series packed with repeated characters and a quite groundbreaking method of generating laughs. Take a running joke from the first season, in which a faux-Spanish weather presenter reports the weather as “scorchio, scorchio, scorchio…” When, after weeks of the same routine, the presenter suddenly announces “nimbo cumulus”, it’s indescribable funny in a manner that the viewer either gets or doesn’t. The whole series feels like an act of turning the old-fashioned catchphrase comedy technique on its head.

Talent receiving a boost this time around including Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Arabella Weir, Simon Day, Mark Williams, and Caroline Aherne.


73. Robin Redbreast (1970)
This television play, aired as part of the first season of Play to Today, is a brilliant and unsettling slice of British folk horror. Written by John Griffith Bowen and directed by James McTaggart, it follows a television script editor (Anna Cropper) leaving an unhappy relationship in London and settling in a remote village in the south of England. Suffice to say the village is not quite what it appears to be, and before long events take a disturbing turn. Notably this eerily effective horror pre-dates The Wicker Man by three years.

Play for Today was host to a surprisingly large array of quality genre plays, including Penda’s Fen (1974), Red Shift (1978, adapting novelist Alan Garner), Brimstone and Treacle (1976), and The Flipside of Dominick Hyde (1980).


72. Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009)
The first two seasons of Doctor Who‘s adult spin-off Torchwood were less adult, and more adolescent. While the series certainly had its fans, it also had its fair share of detractors. For its third series, the regular 13 episode season was supplanted by a five-part serialised miniseries – broadcast over one week on BBC1. Russell T Davies, who had created Torchwood but not written for it, wrote all five parts himself.

The end result was something deeply memorable and dramatic, and quite jaw-droppingly bleak, more closely resembling classic fare like Edge of Darkness than anything Torchwood had presented before. Star John Barrowman was never better before or since, while guest star Peter Capaldi delivered a stunning turn as the bland government middle-man Frobisher. Rarely has a series reached its peak three years in, or peaked so much higher than its average.


71. Takin’ Over the Asylum (1994)
In this BBC Scotland drama, Ken Stott plays alcoholic Eddy McKenna: a double-glazing salesman with an ambitious to become a radio DJ. He achieves it by setting up a community radio station inside a Glasgow mental hospital. This six-parter boasted a wonderful combination of light humour and character drama, all thanks to the superb writer Donna Franceschild.

Of course one of the highlights was the supporting cast of patients, including Angus MacFadyen, Ruth McCabe, Katy Murphy, and – in his first major TV role – a skinny 23 year-old actor named David Tennant. We reckon that boy is going to go places.

100 Years of the BBC
(Coupling, The Box of Delights, The Devil’s Crown, Top Gear, Jackanory, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The House of Eliott, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 1990, Roobarb.)
#90-81 (Extras, Steptoe & Son, I’m Alan Partridge, Teletubbies, Adam Adamant Lives, The Trip, The Paradise Club, Doomwatch, Mr Men, The Year of the Sex Olympics.)
#80-71 (Star Cops, The Mighty Boosh, Blue Peter, The Onedin Line, Jonathan Creek, The Goodies, The Fast Show, Robin Redbreast, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Takin’ Over the Asylum.)

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