Growing up in the 70s meant looking up at the stars and wondering when we’d find alien life. We started the decade with the last few manned flights to the moon by both the United States and the Soviets. Astronauts and cosmonauts competing to plant their flag on its surface.
This generated a deeply nerdy fascination among many kids in the whole subject of space travel. Whether it was buying models of space craft, reading sci-fi comics or watching TV dramas about UFOs and extra-terrestrials – the 70s wanted us to focus on galaxies far, far away.
Teatime viewing after school could have involved The Tomorrow People on ITV – a rather baffling show about young people with special powers in a disused London Underground station solving galactic mysteries. For a while, it featured a character played by the drummer of a real-life pop band called Flintlock.
While over on the BBC, you could fly into outer space with our very own answer to Star Trek – yes, I give you Blake’s 7. At the time, it seemed amazing. On a re-watch, it’s like a group of Shakespearian actors condemned to roam the solar system harrumphing at each other.
There were an astonishing number of outer space related movies from the obvious E.T and Star Wars through to Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes, Death Race 2000, Alien, Logan’s Run, The Andromeda Strain and so on… Plus the 70s gave us a heap of conspiracy theories with the movie Capricorn One, for example, illustrating how the moon landings never happened.
Meanwhile, as a kid in the London suburbs, I collected Brooke Bond picture cards of space related stuff and stuck them into the album supplied. Found the album the other day and it’s such a cool, retro piece of 70s kitsch. God I loved that decade!
The BBC’s flagship science programme in the 1970s was Tomorrow’s World – and in this programme from 1979, reporter Michael Rodd revealed a magic device we could scarcely have imagined would become part of our everyday lives: the mobile phone!
Anybody under the age of 40 has to realise that until as late as the 1990s, people used land lines – that is, telephones connected to the wall that weren’t going anywhere. We used a big rotating dial and fought with our siblings and parents to hog the family phone to chat to our mates. When it rang – we dashed to answer it in case it was a mate. And in my teens, I remember using the payphone on the bar in the pub to find out why a friend or date was late.
So – here is when we first heard about the magic of cordless communication.
BBC Four (or BBC Fortysomething as I call it) ran an excellent series of programmes back to back on Friday night about Top of the Pops in 1976 – the year, which I’m sure you’ll recall, it really sank to all time lows.
TOTP in the 60s focused on music and giving youth a voice. It bounced in to the early 1970s with the amazingness of glam – particularly Marc Bolan. And there were the great opening credits to the grinding rock of Led Zeppelin. But then it all ran out of steam. Every Thursday, aged 12 and 13, me and my sister tuned in listlessly to TOTP hoping something would be played to excite our jaded senses.
What I thought the BBC Four programme evidenced brilliantly – and Paul Morley is a god for saying it – was how crap the crop of DJs on Radio 1/TOTP looked by the mid-70s. These smug arbiters of pop taste were annoying the hell out of all of us. Ex-Radio Luxembourg presenters still convinced today they were right not to play punk records – citing the level of record sales.
But as we all know, record sales were contingent on DJs giving songs airtime. I mean, Dave Lee Travis happily plugged his Convoy GB record, which I certainly didn’t want to hear at the time. And that was the problem – these guys loved their novelty hits while ignoring a musical revolution right in front of their noses.
Tony Blackburn rocked up on the BBC4 prog to say that he still detested punk. I recall Generation X appearing on one edition of TOTP hosted by Blackburn and when the camera went back to him, he looked as if somebody had just taken a dump on his face.
The BBC carried on turning TOTP in to a variety show for all the family until the knocking of punk at the front door became so loud they had to be let in. I mean, to give you an idea how awful 1976 was on TOTP – just think about Disco Duck, Brotherhood of Man and Showaddywaddy and consider that while that was being played at TV Centre to people still in flares, the Sex Pistols were gigging but a few miles away in central London.
As Toyah said on the programme, and I never thought I’d quote her, punk injected new life in to TOTP. Far from overthrowing it, they gave the format a whole new lease of life. Seeing Siouxsie Sioux playing Hong Kong Garden on the show is as electric now as it was when she appeared. And yet, there was David ‘Diddy’ Hamilton on the BBC4 programme still saying that punk was horrible.
In the 1970s, nice kids watched the BBC’s children’s output while bad kids tuned in to ITV. Well, that’s an over-simplification with a nugget of truth in there somewhere. On a Saturday morning, the BBC gave you a young Noel Edmonds presenting the Multicoloured Swap Shop in the mid-70s. Over on ITV, something Tiswas was evolving into an anarchic alternative.
There was nothing intellectually engaging about Tiswas – unless you think seeing custard being thrown at people in cages is high art. And whereas Noel was getting kids to do nerdy swaps, Tiswas was appealing to a young person’s more raucous instincts. While Noel chatted on the phones, bands like The Specials were getting pelted with something horrible on ITV.
The team on Tiswas were not completely unfamiliar. Sally James had been on the telly for a while and was the heartthrob of many teenage boys – well, I think she made other organs throb but let’s not wander down that road. Can’t say I’m a huge Chris Tarrant fan now but he was the ring master of this frenetic nonsense and all credit to him for making Noel Edmonds look very old fashioned for a while.
It’s strange to read reviews of Tiswas now that refer to ‘black comedian’ Lenny Henry – because of course black people still struggled to get on TV as anything other than bit parts in dramas and backing singers. Lenny had created a character called Algernon and it was better to see him taking the rise out of the Rasta scene than the horrible Jim Davidson and his racist ‘Chalky White’ character. And I don’t care if he’s apologising for that ‘comedy’ now because he is going to rot in PC hell for all time.
Bob Carollgees had Spit the Dog was a weekly fave as well as were the Phantom Flan Flingers.
ITV had also made the BBC look a bit fuddy-duddy in the mid-1970s with Magpie – it’s rival programme to Blue Peter. At the time, it felt like Magpie was more edgy that Blue Peter though when you look at the programmes on YouTube now, Magpie is still very middle class and safe. But Tiswas was unsettling and it’s amazing that politicians and establishment figures queued up to condemn it – which of course did a wonder for its ratings.