Eighties Zone

Our final look at some classic eighties television. On this page, programmes from R-Z; we also have programmes from A-E, F-I and J-P.


RENTAGHOST (BBC1 1976-84)

Highly popular and incredibly long-running, Rentaghost was the king of childrens' sitcoms for eight years. The series began with ghosts Fred Mumford, Hubert Davenport and the mischevious jester Timothy Claypole returning from the spirit world and teaming up with wheeler dealer Harold Meaker to form an agency called Rentaghost. Further characters were added in the next few years, including spooks Hazel the McWitch, Tamara Novek and Nadia Popov; Harold's shrill voiced wife Ethel; and department store owner Adam Painting, which must stand as the highlight of Christopher Biggins's career.

From 1980, there was a change of emphasis. Davenport and the Mumford family left the series, and the set-up changed so that the action was now centered mainly around the Meakers and their domestic life. The Perkins were introduced as their bewildered neighbours, and the slapstick humour was increased. The series had entered its classic, best remembered period (indeed, where most repeat runs have concentrated on). Mr Claypole endeavoured to cause as much havoc as possible, both by himself, and with his robot Jeremy. Meanwhile Scandinavian ghost Nadia Popov, usually seen with 'Tiny Timothy' in hand, sneezed her through each episode and Dobbin the pantomine horse, who spoke only through speech bubbles, - while the long suffering Meakers had to put up with this constant mayhem around them. Yes, the gags were corny, and the visual effects must have looked dodgy even at the time, but it was all part of the fun.

But by the final series, which added Suzie Starlight, the actress posing as a cleaning lady who had an audience in her handbag, Rentaghost was looking tired. By putting a dragon in the Meakers' cellar (cue continual cries of "Don't go into the cellar!!") and ending each episode by having all the characters emerge from the cellar with soot covered faces, it was clear that the ideas had dried up and it was time to bring things to an end. Writer Bob Block returned a year later, however, with the somewhat less successful Galloping Galaxies.


ROOBARB (BBC1 1974-90)

Yes, yes, yes, it's really a 1970s show, but it was also repeated throughout the 80s. And contrary to popular belief, the show was NOT called 'Roobarb and Custard'; it was simply titled Roobarb. Everyone remembers the jangly tune (which formed the basis of a dance hit by Shaft in 1991), Richard Briers' narration and Roobarb himself, possibly the world's only green dog and his laid back neighbour Custard, possibly the world's only pink cat.

Debuting in October 1974, the show was created by animator Bob Godfrey and writer Grange Calveley. It marked a return to very basic animation techniques - no cells, composites or backgrounds, instead Godfrey simply drew the pictures onto sheets of paper using felt-tip pens. The resulting 'wobbling picture' effect became the show's most distinctive feature. Nine years later Godfrey returned with 'son of Roobarb' - Henry's Cat. Grange Calveley produced a further series, Roobarb and Custard Too!, in the mid-2000s which aired on Channel 5. The entire original series is available on DVD.


THE SECRET LIFE OF MACHINES (Channel 4 1988-93)

Boffin Tim Hunkin presented this light-hearted, but very educational, filmed series in which he attempted to explain how various household appliances work, most memorably the vacuum cleaner, television and sewing machine, by use of various home-built machines and models, archive clips, and simple but humorous cartoons - and not a computer graphic in sight. Tim was assisted by the daredevil Rex Garrod. The third series in 1993 was called The Secret Life of the Office. Would Channel 4 show such an educational programme in primetime today?


SCREEN TEST (BBC1 1970-84)

Presented by Michael Rodd in the 70s; Brian Trueman took over in 1979. The quiz show where school-age contestants would be asked observation questions about various film clips. It also included the Young Film Maker of the Year Competition. Severely dated by today's standards, although the show was revamped and modernised for its final 1984 series, with Mark Curry in charge.


STOPPIT AND TIDYUP (BBC1 1988-95)

Surreal cartoon series with a bizarre theme tune, set in the land of Do-As-You're-Told with gherkin-loving Tidyup with his neat house and garden, and Stoppit who lived on a rubbish dump. Most notable for being narrated by the great Terry Wogan.


TAKE HART (BBC1 1977-83)

Succeeding Vision On), this was a more focused art programme (its predecessor's wacky sketches were reborn on Jigsaw). Particularly remembered for those huge paintings on the wall, that you never knew what it was meant to be until he had almost finished. The gallery continued from Vision On, albeit with new music - in the early 80s, it was the sublime reggae-tinged 'Marguerite' by Bob Morgan and Steppin' Out. Comedy came from the caretaker Mr Bennett, and the animated character Morph, who later won his own show of Amazing Adventures into the bargain.

In 1984 Take Hart transmogrified into the jazzed up Hartbeat. Tony sadly died in 2009.


THAT WAS THE YEAR (BBC2 1983-84)

An original idea at the time, this series shown early evening on BBC2 presented historical events in the style of a modern day news bulletin. Each programme focused on a particular year in history - mainly those in which major events occured - and featured on-the-spot reports from the likes of John Craven in medieval dress, bringing us news of Columbus' discovery of America. Some thought it odd to bring us historical news from a modern studio set, with main presenter Chris Serle dressed in a modern suit. But the very contemporary-sounding theme tune was the best bit!


THINK OF A NUMBER (BBC1 1977-84)/THINK AGAIN (BBC1 1981-85)

Johnny Ball - the TV legend who made maths and science fun.

The maths-based Think of a Number, which began in 1977, had a studio audience, and some kind of mishap would befall Johnny at the end of each programme. Think Again, the science-based show, followed a few years later and was presented by Johnny from a pseudo-office set. Both shows had excellent theme tunes, especially the powerful electronic Think Again theme by Francis Monkman.

Later Johnny Ball 'Think' series included Think This Way in 1983 and Think It...Do It! circa 1987. He also co-presented the late 80s children's science series Knowhow, and then later presented a 'best of' his various series in about 1996. Zoe Ball may have mentioned once or twice that Johnny is her dad.


TOMORROW'S WORLD (BBC1 1965-2002)

Usually watched waiting for Top of the Pops to start, Tomorrow's World was a stalwart of the BBC1 evening schedule for 37 years (particularly Thursdays). Raymond Baxter, the jazzy theme tune and the 'toast' opening titles had all disappeared by the eighties. Now we had Maggie Philbin, Judith Hann, Peter McCann and Howard Stableford presenting from a set that had plain black and white backgrounds, and 'brain' opening titles. In 1985 the show received another revamp - and a fantastic new theme tune!

After losing its way in the 90s, the final series returned to the old-style 'live' format, but this wasn't enough to save it, and it was axed as an ongoing series in 2003.


TOP OF THE POPS (BBC1 1964-2006)

The early 1980s was a classic period for TOTP. The new decade, and the dawn of a new musical era, that of synthpop and the New Romantics, saw a new theme tune. No more 'Whole Lotta Love', we had Phil Lynott and Midge Ure coming together for 'Yellow Pearl', used as the show's theme from July 1981. The producers of the era tried to give the show a party atmosphere, with balloons and streamers all over the place and dancers behind the performers, while the likes of Duran Duran, Human League, Wham! and Nik Kershaw performed their hit records on the massive main stage - however thanks to Mike Read, Frankie Goes to Hollywood weren't allowed to.

TOTP sometimes broadcast live in the 1980s, which gave rise to some of the programme's most famous errors, including the singer from All About Eve's amazing ability to sing 'Martha's Harbour' without moving her lips; and then there was the time when Dexys Midnight Runners performed their hit 'Jackie Wilson Said' in front of a giant picture of darts player Jocky Wilson - which was not a mistake, but in fact a jolly jape by the band. Dave Lee Travis is still in the dark over that one...

Radio 1 DJs remained the main presenters of the programme, and a masterstroke was made by employing John Peel as a regular. Normally paired with Kid Jensen, the two of them would often indulge in dressing up in silly costumes and Peel would have great fun with his deadpan introductions, in which he would gently mock groups he wouldn't be seen dead playing on his Radio 1 show. But by the end of the 1980s, the charts were getting ever more kiddie-orientated with the proliferation of Stock Aitken and Waterman music, and in response to this TOTP employed children's presenters like Andy Crane, Anthea Turner and Simon Parkin. But this was nothing compared to the changes in 1991 - when, horror of horrors, everyone had to sing live!

Although no longer running as an ongoing programme, TOTP still returns for its annual Christmas and New Year specials, but of greater interest to 80s fans are the BBC4 repeats, which began in 2011 with episodes from 1976 and have continued ever since, making it well into the 80s! See the latest episodes on BBC iPlayer.

Click here for our more in-depth look at the history of TOTP.


TOTTIE - THE STORY OF A DOLL'S HOUSE (BBC1 1984-88)

One of the last children's series from Smallfilms (Clangers/Bagpuss/Ivor the Engine etc), this mid-80s animation was an altogether much darker affair. Based on the books by Rumer Gooden, the initial set-up appears quite innocuous - central character Tottie was a little wooden Dutch doll, who shared her house with her 'family' - Mr Plantagenet, a man-doll with a china face; Apple, a boy-doll made of plush; and Birdie, the mother of the family, who was made of celluloid. However the tone became rather too morbid when the villain of the piece, a porcelain doll named Marchpane, murdered Birdie by setting her on fire, and no doubt upsetting many small children in the process.

A second series, Tottie - The Doll's Wish, was transmitted in 1986, but both series lacked the enduring appeal of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's earlier creations.


TREASURE HUNT (Channel 4 1982-89, BBC2 2002-03)

Channel 4 was barely on air before one of its best known programmes took to the air (quite literally!). Treasure Hunt is invariably best remembered for the jumpsuited 'skyrunner' Anneka Rice, as filmed by Graham Berry the cameraman as he raced after her on the way to finding another clue, and then back to the helicopter, piloted by Keith Thompson - both of whom managed to become minor celebrities themselves on the show.

In contrast to the breathless Annie, former BBC newsman Kenneth Kendall remained cool-headed back at base as he guided two contestants through the five cryptic clues on their way to a thousand pound prize. In 1985 (the same year that Channel 4 finally arrived in my area!) TV-am's Wincey Willis joined the team, to stand aloof by her map in the corner of the studio and track the helicopter's progress.

By 1989 Anneka had left for her own, similarly frantic series at the BBC, Challenge Anneka, and her place was taken by tennis player Annabel Croft - by which time Treasure Hunt's days were numbered. It was briefly revived by BBC2 with a similiar authoritative newsreader/frantic female combination of Dermot Murnaghan and Suzi Perry. Keith the pilot somehow managed to survive, but the Wincey Willis role was replaced by a satellite tracking device. Such is progress...


TREVOR AND SIMON Going Live! (1987-91, 1992-93), Live and Kicking (1993-97)

Often regarded as the pinnacle of the BBC's Saturday morning shows, the launch of Going Live! in 1987 introduced a new key element - comedy. Though its predecessor Saturday Superstore had dabbled in comedy, with their own soap opera set at the Crow's Road motel, Going Live! took things a stage further by bringing in their own in-house comedy double act - Trevor and Simon. And apart from a years' break in 1991-92, they remained a fixture of Saturday mornings for a whole decade.

Many of their sketches involved embarrassing that week's show's celebrity guests, most notably in the Singing Corner ("Swing Your Pants!"). Other recurring sketches included Theatre Shop with Robin and Ray; the wheeling-and-dealing Sister Brothers; A Sofa for Two with Three; the Driving Test; the Open University spoof Encyclomedia; Looniversity Challenge; Art For 'Em; Blimey That's Good!; the shopping channel PVC; and their various shops - Ken and Eddie Kennedy's barbers, the dry cleaners The Draper Brothers ("We don't do duvets!") and the record shop ("We don't do discs!").

In 1993, when Going Live! became Live and Kicking, Trevor and Simon were given their own chance to put their own unique stamp on the video vote slot with the Video Garden, Video Goldmine, Video Galleon and Video Grand Prix. For their final year of L&K, rather than having their sketches distributed liberally throughout the programme, the duo found themselves shoehorned into a self-contained slot, Transmission Impossible, which was repeated on Thursday evenings. As with their earlier one-off special in 1995, The Trevor and Simon Summer Special, this did not show the duo in their best light. Added to the fact that they have hardly been heard of on television since, perhaps it's true to say they needed Saturday mornings as much as Saturday mornings needed them.


TURNABOUT (BBC1 1990-96)

All right, I know, it's not an 80s show at all. But it was a good fun daytime quiz show with a wacky theme tune and gameplay which was similar in many ways to the Beat the Teacher noughts and crosses board, although this time it was computer generated spheres, which changed colours three ways for the three contestants. Long time London Plus/Newsroom South East regular Rob Curling was the host.


ULTRA QUIZ (ITV 1983-85)

Coming to us courtesy of TVS, this was a large-scale elimination game show for summer Saturday evenings. Hosted by Michael Apsel, and based on a Japanese concept, the first episode on Brighton Beach saw the initial 1,000 contestants quickly reduced to 200 through a series of true and false questions. Subsequent programmes came from locations ranging from the Mid-Hants Railway to Paris to Hong Kong, where various games and challenges gradually whittled the contestants down until there were two remaining in the studio-bound final episode. The winner bagged £1,000 - his prize was released from the studio wall, made up of a thousand pound coins.

Two further series saw David Frost and then Stu Francis (yes, really!) take charge. Not seen since 1985, but the Ultra Quiz seems just the kind of format that will probably get revived at some point, if not necessarily in name.


WHY DON'T YOU..? (BBC1 1973-95)

Possibly the only television programme ever which advised its viewers not to watch television, Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Off and Do Something Less Boring Instead was a fixture of children's programming in the school holidays for over 20 years. In its heyday, the 1980s, it was shown every morning throughout the holidays. Several Why Don't You..? gangs based at various BBC regional centres - usually Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle or Belfast - would bring us ideas for activities, and games to play during the long holidays.

For what it's worth, Ant McPartlin, of Dec and Ant fame, was a member of the Newcastle gang in 1988. At around the same time, the show seemed to start taking on more of a comedy/drama slant. I remember the Cardiff gang's stints circa 1988/89 taking this to new heights with the 'things to do' concept becoming almost submerged beneath the plotlines, and the children began to become characters in their own right. After reverting to its original format, Why Don't You..? finally fizzled out in the mid 90s.


WILLO THE WISP (BBC1 1981-87)

Great animation, a stalwart of the 5.35 slot in the early 80s. Willo the Wisp him/itself was a caricature of Kenneth Williams, who provided its voice. But aside from introducing each episode, the character played little further part in the story, and the action instead turned to Arthur, the talkative caterpillar who dreamt of becoming a moth; Mavis Cruet, the overweight fairy who couldn't fly; The Moog, the incredibly dense dog; and the scary Evil Edna, the television set-shaped witch, which I found easily the most frightening thing on television!

Willo the Wisp became the weekly comic strip in the Radio Times in 1982, and was revived on television in 2005. The original series is available on DVD.


YOU AND ME (BBC1/2 1974-95)

If you're the same age as me, you won't consider the Cosmo and Dibs/UB40 theme tune era to be the 'real' You and Me. Before 1983 this pre-school series would typically be centered around Alice the hamster and Crow the crow, who were animated using the stop-frame technique; alternatively you may have bumped into Duncan the Dragon, or even Purrfecta and Mr Bits and Pieces.

In this era the programme started with a more upbeat acoustic theme tune, and a title sequence which showed building blocks spinning round to spell out the programme title. The true 1980s You and Me experience, of course, always had to begin with watching two minutes' worth of music and a static slide showing the aforementioned building blocks.


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Audio

From our YouTube channel, for fans of BBC TV theme tunes from the mid-80s recorded by holding up a microphone at the television speaker, here is a selection of BBC TV theme tunes from the mid-80s recorded by holding up a microphone at the television speaker.





Links

For more televisual nostalgia, try the following websites:

TV Ark
TV Cream
Kids TV
Little Gems
80s Cartoons
The Broom Cupboard


Text copyright © Robert Williams, images and audio copyright © the respective broadcasters