The Eighties Zone remembers some of the best television from the best decade (with a teensy bit of 70s and 90s). Apart from some amendments, most of the text that appears here was written in the early 2000s - which means that more time has now elapsed since then, then had between the end of the 1980s and when I originally wrote it!
THE ADVENTURE GAME (BBC2 1980-86)
Fantastic series for BBC2 teatimes, this game was set on Arg - a small planet of little consequence - in which C-list celebrities had to work their way through a series of logic games, winning drognas - the planet's currency - as they went. Best remembered for the scary Vortex end game, where the celebs had to cross a hexagon grid to safety, but risk stepping on the ever-moving vortex which would zap the contestant into space. Also there was the ruler of Arg - the Rangdo - who looked like an aspidistra, and his grey-haired butler Gandor. All surviving episodes are now available on DVD!
ASK THE FAMILY (BBC1 1967-84, UK Gold/BBC2 1999)
King of the comb-over, Robert Robinson was our host for this incredibly long-running, unthreatening quiz show for the early evening. Based around two teams of middle-class nuclear families, questions would often be aimed at particular members of each family, eg 'this one's for eldest child and father' etc. Best remembered for the round in which some household object was shown close-up and gradually zoomed out until Mr Brown buzzes in to proclaim that it's an egg whisk.
Ask the Family received a makeover in 1999, with Alan Titchmarsh in the chair, and strange back-to-front scheduling which saw it debut on UK Gold before being repeated on BBC2 teatimes, and in 2005 was exhumed once again for an ill-fated revival on BBC2 - this time with Dick and Dom in charge, no less!
BANANAMAN (BBC1/2 1983-99)
First shown in October 1983 - the same week as SuperTed - Bananaman was one of my faves, because it poked fun at the superhero genre. The Goodies reunited to provide the voices for the characters - Eric, who would turn into Bananaman, his right-hand crow, Crow, Chief O'Reilly and the multitude of baddies, from the Weatherman to Auntie, and the Mole to the Snowman. The entire series is available on DVD.
BEAT THE TEACHER (BBC1 1984-88)
Created by 80s kids show king Clive Doig (who is still producing a weekly Trackword for the Radio Times), this was a surprisingly addictive teacher vs pupil quiz show, one playing noughts, the other crosses. The questions were deliberately pitched to give neither an advantage. Correct answers were awarded a number of moves on a noughts and crosses board - "Middle middle two, top left one please, Bruno!"
The up-and-coming Howard Stableford (see also Puzzle Trail, Jigsaw, Tomorrow's World) presented series one in 1984, followed by ex-Manfred Mann star Paul Jones for the next two series, then Bruno Brookes brought with him a revamp and a dreadful new theme tune. The 'running champion' format used from series two meant that the same contestant could carry on winning for weeks on end, and frequently did; and the teachers usually did better than the pupils - Mr Wallin scored a grand total of 1260 in the second series, while aptly named Mr Champion scored 620, but top pupil Sophie Atkinson only managed 370. Now come on, what other website can bring you the results of Beat the Teacher from 1985?
BELLAMY'S BACKYARD SAFARI (BBC1 1981)
I marvelled at the way David Bellamy was able to shrink down to miniscule size and go wummaging frough the undergrowf in his back garden, coming face to face with giant-sized ants and the like. Unfortunately today, it looks like very cheap CSO (blue screen) effect. Later, in its sequel, Bellamy went wummaging around the beach tiny-sized.
BLANKETY BLANK (BBC1 1979-90, 1997-99, ITV1 2001-02, 2016)
With Terry Wogan and then Les Dawson at the helm, Blankety Blank's original, and funniest, run spanned the eighties, with a little either side. We have more on the game show where the laughs were more important than the game on our Wogan page.
BLUE PETER (BBC1 1958-the end of time)
To gauge a person's age, just ask them who their Blue Peter dream team was. Me? Simon Groom, Peter Duncan and Sarah Greene or Janet Ellis in the early to mid eighties
Possibly the most memorable - and perhaps legendary - moment of our decade was the November Scandal of 1983, when the Blue Peter garden was vandalised; it fell to Ellis to impart the news. After Groom left to become their Countryside Correspondent (i.e. was hardly ever seen again), Mark Curry joined and added a slightly comic touch by driving a steam train into the set, and knocking off the head of a lego man.
The theme tune used for most of the decade was the 1979 Mike Oldfield version before it descended into a mess of synthesisers and banging dustbin lids.
THE BOX OF DELIGHTS (BBC1 1984)
One of the most fondly remembered children's dramas of the decade, this dramatisation of John Masefield's novel first shown leading up to Christmas 1984 was guaranteed to put you in a festive mood, particularly with the rather haunting arrangement of 'The First Noel' used as the theme tune. Set in the 1930s, it featured the late Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, the punch and judy man who lumbers young Kay Harker with the eponymous Box of Delights, which goes on to cause no end of trouble during the six episodes. Unusually, the drama used sequences of animation (which had it been produced today would inevitably have been computerised), and can immediately be dated by the usage of typical BBC mid-80s synthesised incidental music. The series is available on DVD.
BRAINSTORM (BBC1 1988)
The Kenny Everett Television Show having recently come to an end, Kenny's next televisual outing was this so-called 'scientific' quiz, in which contestants were awarded 'watts' rather than points. For losing contestants, Kenny mercilessly activated the 'scrungetron', and they would be evaporated in a puff of smoke. 'Brainy guests' included Queen drummer Roger Taylor, while Kenny was assisted on the show by his long-time cohort Cleo Rocos. It lasted for just one series; Kenny however presented one more game show before his untimely death, 1992's Gibberish.
BRIC-A-BRAC (BBC1 1982-89)
Brian Cant was the sole star of this See-Saw programme, in which he played an old codger rummaging about in his junk shop looking for items beginning with a particular letter.
CAPRICORN GAME (BBC1/2 1981-84)
Does anyone else remember this show? Well you would only if you were at primary school between the above years. This was a BBC schools programme, and was the first instance I can personally remember of the use of cartoon characters on a live-action background, although puppet versions were used in introductory segments.
The series was some sort of mystery - to teach us basic maths - and Mr Capricorn was a short fellow in a pointy hat who carried an umbrella with the handle shaped like a goat's head which would come to life. And that's all I can recall!
CHILDREN'S TELEVISION PRESENTATION (BBC1 pre-1985)
Younger viewers are often surprised to learn that the in-vision children's television presenter is a relatively recent phenomenon. Through the 1970s and early 80s, there was little difference between the presentation of children's and adult television, other than the use of special programme slides. Around 1983/84 BBC Micro computer animations were introduced (later examples were designed by winners to a Blue Peter competition) but still the usual avuncular BBC announcers remained.
My abiding memory of pre-1985 children's presentation was, however, a delight only available to those of us in the South East. Immediately preceding the start of the afternoon's line-up, whilst the regions were whisked off for a local news bulletin, we were treated to five minutes' worth of a caption showing some balloons, overlaid with a menu detailing that day's goodies. Over this was played some standard interval music which, more often than not, would turn out to be the superb Abba medley by the Golden Dream Orchestra. This would allow the young viewer to patiently wait and build up a sense of anticipation in an era when other distractions (other channels, computer games etc) were few and far between.
CHILDREN'S BBC (The broom cupboard days - BBC1/2 1985-94)
The late 1980s was a golden period of Children's BBC presentation. From September 1985 onwards, Phillip Schofield introduced programmes from the Broom Cupboard - in other words the BBC1 continuity suite - and from the end of 1986 was helped by the much-missed Gordon the Gopher (and occasional visits from Glenda and Terry the Gophers), and also Hogan the furry monkey who sat on the back of the chair. When the Schof moved onto Going Live! in September 1987, Andy Crane took over for three years and proved to be as popular as his predecessor, introducing the silent Bobby the Banana and Wilson the Butler, and the very noisy Edd the Duck.
Morning and stand-in Children's BBC presenters during the Schofield/Crane era included Debbie Flint who after finishing her stints in the broom cupboard in 1986 promptly disappeared into obscurity; Simon Parkin who lasted somewhat longer before also disappearing into obscurity; and Simon Potter who, um, later disappeared into obscurity. Andy Crane left in April 1990 to join ITV and then disappear into obscurity, but Edd and Wilson stayed on with his successor Andi Peters; Philippa Forrester was also a regular presenter in the early 90s. The final broom cupboard presenter was Toby Anstis who took over in 1993 - and when the broom cupboard was finally abandoned in the summer of 1994, things would never be the same again...
CHOCK-A-BLOCK (BBC1 1981-89)
Heralding the brave new computerised world of the 1980s, complete with digital-style typeface used on opening and closing titles. Chock-a-Block itself was a large yellow mainframe-style computer, possibly with a mind of its own? Alternate editions starred Chock-a-Bloke Fred Harris and Chock-a-Girl Carol Leader, both Play School regulars. The show started with the presenter 'checking in' by driving onto the set in a funny little electric convertible. Fred or Carol would then choose a large coloured cartridge to slot into Chock-a-Block to activate various songs and stories, viewed on Chock-a-Block's screen.
At this point, Fred Harris seemed to front almost everything on television remotely connected with computers, mainly BBC micros, such as Micro Live and Electric Avenue.
COMIC RELIEF (A NIGHT OF) (BBC1 1988-date)
Comic Relief actually got going in 1985 (launched from refugee camp in Sudan on The Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Show no less), quickly followed by three live comedy nights at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, and a comedy record by Cliff Richard and the Young Ones. However it wasn't until 1988 that the BBC launched the first Children in Need-style telethon, and Friday 5th February was officially declared Red Nose Day.
BBC1 gave over the whole of the evening to the event, anchored by Lenny Henry and Griff Rhys Jones, with help from Jonathan Ross. Stavros served kebabs from the Telecom Tower, Jim Davidson searched for the Best Children's Joke in Britain (this wasn't for charity, he was just after some new material...), and there was 73 of a Kind, the world's biggest sketch show. Children's BBC got in on the act by running the Gunk Tank vote - Andy Crane, Sarah Greene, Gordon the Gopher and Phillip Schofield all found themselves in the running, along with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Paul Daniels.
Red Nose Day 2 was held in 1989, and since then has been a biennial event.
THE COMPUTER PROGRAMME (BBC1 1981)
The earliest of the BBC's computer literacy programmes was the inventively-named The Computer Programme, for which the BBC decided they needed their own computer. So they teamed up with the British company Acorn whose latest home computer, the Acorn Proton, would instead be born as the BBC Micro. The series, which used Kraftwerk's 'Computer World' as its theme tune, would prove to be a very hands-on, for example Chris Serle being shown by presenter Ian McNaught-Davis how to load a computer program from tape. The Computer Programme was succeeded by Making the Most of the Micro, which then grew into Micro Live.
It was far from the end of the BBC Micro's career once The Computer Programme had ended - aside from being a great success in homes and schools, it would also see service providing graphics in programmes such as Doctor Who, The Adventure Game and Tomorrow's World - all featured here in the Eighties Zone!
CRACKERJACK (BBC1 1955-84)
"It's Friday - it's five to five - it's Crackerjack!!" Well actually, by the 1980s it was more likely to be five past five, but nonetheless the Crackerjack fun remained well into the 1980s. It had already become one of the longest running childrens programmes of all time - but likes of Leslie Crowther, Peter Glaze, Don Maclean and Ed Stewart were now distant memories, and Stu 'oooh I could crush a grape' Francis was now running the show. Comedy geniuses The Krankies, along with magician The Great Soprendo (aka Geoffrey Durham, whose main claim to fame was being married to Victoria Wood), became mainstays in the show's final few years
But some things never changed - the yells of 'CRACKERJACK!!!' from the audience, the generous giveaways of Crackerjack pencils, and the frantic 'Take a Letter' game which ended each programme. And by now Crackerjack was putting people in gunge tanks - long before Noel Edmonds got in on the act!
DOCTOR WHO (BBC1 1963-89, 1996, 2005-date)
The greatest television programme of all time? According to the number of internet sites devoted to it, it may well be.
Doctor Who entered the 80s with new titles and a new theme tune - in my opinion the best, though many would disagree. My memory stretches back as far as 1981's Logopolis when Tom Baker's Doctor fell off a radio telescope and regenerated into the fresh-faced Peter Davison. (That Christmas saw the spin-off programme K9 and Company with Lis Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), but this never progressed to a series). Davison brought a more dynamic edge to the role; but controversially the show was moved in 1982 from Saturdays to a mid-week slot. Some of his best stories included 'Mawdryn Undead' and 'Black Orchid'. In 'Earthshock' Adric became first companion since 1965 to die. In November 1983 the memorable 20th anniversary special 'The Five Doctors' was shown, with all the surviving Doctors participating except Tom Baker - a waxwork dummy took his place in the photo call; while Richard Hurndall took the part of the late William Hartnell.
1984, and Colin Baker took over, adding a touch of arrogance which many disliked. It was intended that this approach would be toned down as Baker progressed in the role. But he was never given the chance, being ditched after just two-and-a-bit seasons, the last of which consisted of one great long story, the awful 'The Trial of a Time Lord', not helped by the inexplicable casting of Bonnie Langford. Things slowly began to improve when Sylvester McCoy became the seventh Doctor in 1987. But with a much reduced episode count, reduced budgets and being scheduled up against Coronation Street, the BBC were clearly determined to kill the show off. They did sso when the final story of the original series, ironically titled 'Survival', ended its run in December 1989. But as we all know, that was far from the end of the story...
Unsurprisingly, every surviving classis series episode can be had on DVD, fully restored and packed with extras.
EUREKA! (BBC2/1 1982-87)
Another show created by Clive Doig (see Beat the Teacher, Jigsaw) which illustrated how things we now take for granted were discovered or invented, eg the vacuum cleaner, the roller skate, the crisp etc, by use of short, light-hearted sketches acted out by Clive's informal repertory company which included Sylvester McCoy, Julia Binsted, Mike Savage and Madeline Smith. (They regrouped in 1987 for another Doig creation, The Album).
The first series in 1982 on BBC2 was introduced, bizarrely enough, by Jeremy Beadle, at that time also appearing in ITV's Saturday night extravaganza Game for a Laugh (see also). A year later, Sarah Greene and Newsround's Paul McDowell presented. Series 3 in 1985 saw Paul go solo, while the final series in 1987, switching to BBC1, saw the actors do the show on their own.
EVER DECREASING CIRCLES (BBC1 1984-89)
Six years after the ending of The Good Life, Richard Briers was reunited with writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey for this surburban sitcom in which he starred as the interfering busybody Martin Bryce. Penelope Wilton appeared as his long-suffering wife Ann, and Peter Egan played their neighbour Paul, who was despised by Martin for being 'Mr Perfect' but adored by everyone else. The high point of the series, though, must be the delightfully twee Howard and Hilda Hughes, who were always seen in matching jumpers.
Most episodes revolved around Martin's dedication to the local community. One episode featured the inevitable Neighbourhood Watch storyline; a repeat of this instalment in 1988 had been immediately preceded by a Terry and June repeat with an identical plotline. As a correspondent to Radio Times wrote: "If we must suffer repeats could they at least be on different topics - on BBC1 on 8 August we were treated to repeats of Terry and June at 8.00 and Ever Decreasing Circles at 8.30 - both with the storylines of Neighbourhood Watch schemes being conned by bogus policemen. The stories were identical down to the militant behaviour of the male leads..."
All four series are available on DVD. Other domestic BBC sitcoms of the same era include William Gaunt-starring No Place Like Home, the Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry! ("language, Timothy!") and, rather less successfully, Wyatt's Watchdogs with Brian Wilde, which took the Neighbourhood Watch theme and stretched it out to an entire series.
Text copyright © Robert Williams, images copyright © the respective broadcasters