This September at The Archive we will be taking a look at all things 1960s, from the culture of a decade that changed everything – fashion, music, film – to its key events and figures. And in this special blog we will be looking at the ten television series that we believe shaped the decade.
At the beginning of the 1960s, three quarters of the population of Britain had a television. By 1964, only four years later, that number was at 90%. The 1960s were undeniably a decade that changed television, as its role for social good was explored, boundaries between genres were blurred, and the entire nation became gripped by new programmes, an early foreshadowing of the binge-watching culture of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, further advancements were seen in British television during this period: the addition of BBC2 in 1964, and the introduction of a full colour service by the end of the decade. And so, without any further ado, here are our pick of the ten television series that shaped the 1960s.
1. Coronation Street
Perhaps one of the most seminal debuts of the decade occurred on 9 December 1960, when the first episode of Coronation Street aired. Revolutionary in its day, due to its depiction of ordinary working class people from the North of England, contemporary reactions were mixed. Indeed, the initial critical reaction was negative; this from the Belfast Telegraph on 31 December 1960:
Friday night on Channel Nine usually provides some of its best and most durable features. But it is unlikely that the recently introduced ‘Coronation Street’ will challenge ‘Emergency Ward 10’ or ‘Take Your Pick’ for length of run.
And although critics might not have received Coronation Street favourably, the so-called man or woman on the street, whose lives the new series aimed to mirror, disagreed.
The Liverpool Echo ran a special ‘telepanel,’ its members offering their opinions on the latest TV shows. One of its members was Mrs S. Selkirk, who wanted to congratulate Coronation Street author Tony Warren ‘upon the authenticity of his characters and atmosphere.’ Mrs Selkirk, the Liverpool Echo states, ‘foresaw a long and successful future for Coronation Street, with a large viewing public.’
Some sixty years on, Mrs Selkirk’s vision was proved to be correct. Coronation Street is currently the world’s longest running television soap, and draws in an average of six million viewers per episode.
First broadcast on 2 January 1962, police procedural drama Z-Cars debuted to a hail of criticism, showing as it did for the first time a harsher realism than had been seen before on television. In doing so, it was at the forefront of the police procedural genre which has proved to be enduringly popular to this day.
The Daily Mirror two days later reports how ‘The BBC faced storm last night over their new television crime series Z-Cars.’ The production team had worked with the Lancashire police in producing the new show, but the Chief Constable, Colonel Thomas St. Johnston, was not happy with the end result, and had travelled to London to direct his concerns to BBC Controller Stuart Hood.
The Daily Mirror reports how:
He told Mr. Hood that the script gave the wrong impression of the way police behave while carrying out their duties. For, though the Lancashire police provided facilities for the writers, the police were not shown the final script by Troy Kennedy Martin and Allan Prior.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Charles White, Chairman of the Police Federation, had the following complaints regarding Z-Cars:
I thought the beginning of the programme was in bad taste. There was a clear implication that one officer had knocked his wife about with a chair and had given her a black eye. Another officer was shown speaking while eating, and food was issuing from his mouth. We like to think of the police service as a profession and that the people going into it are rather respectable and I do not think this was a fair picture. I assumed that Lancashire police had seen a run-through of the film and I was surprised.
Inhabitants of Kirkby, where Z-Cars was filmed, although the area was given the fictional name of Newtown, were also up in arms, as relates the Liverpool Echo. Mr W. Byron, Clerk to the Kirkby Urban Council, penned a letter to Stuart Hood, writing:
As I expected, public reaction has been quite clearly to identify the town of Kirkby with ‘Newtown,’ referred to in the programme. I may say that the first programme in portraying both the police and the people of Merseyside was completely inaccurate and from this point of view alone the programme had little to recommend it.
Indeed, Z-Cars, in blurring the lines between reality (being linked with the police force, and being set in a recognisable place) and fiction, had upset the status quo, in a way that no television series had done up until that point.
And the resolution to the uproar? The BBC agreed ‘to drop from the screen acknowledgement that the Lancashire County Police had helped in the preparation of the series,’ and the series continued, running until September 1978.
3. Doctor Who
On 23 November 1963 an eerie sound played on the BBC, ‘nothing quite like’ it having been heard before. The title track, ‘a noise with rhythm and melody which continually pulsates in a weird, fluid, and uncanny way,’ as relates the Daily Mirror, belonged to the new science fiction programme Doctor Who.
Doctor Who was an early success, particularly due to the universality of its appeal, which pioneered early evening family viewing. Marjorie Norris, writing for the The Stage in December 1963, observes how:
Although Dr. Who is said to have been written for the 10-14 year olds, I feel sure that if it keeps up the high standard of the first two episodes it will capture a much wider audience. It has certainly captured me.
Norris praises the ‘imaginative and intelligently written story, with four first-class actors;’ Jacqueline Hill, William Russell, William Hartnell and Carole Anne Ford starring in the first episodes. She writes how:
William Hartnell makes a more than welcome return to television in a pastiche of absent-minded professor, space agent scientist and medieval wizard. The difficult role of a 15-year-old Beatle-age schoolgirl with supernatural knowledge of the past and future is so successfully carried by Carole Anne Ford that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.
Norris is also effusive in her praise of the show’s visual effects, relating how they ‘have succeeded in transporting me through time and space more satisfactorily than I can ever recall ever having journeying before.’
Doctor Who, therefore, was an unqualified success, and it gave a productional debut to Verity Lambert, who at only 28 produced the show, and came up with the brief for its iconic theme music. And thirteen Doctors later, the science fiction show continues from strength to strength, and to capture and delight new audiences.
4. Top of The Pops
Heralding the start of 1964 was the debut of music show Top of the Pops, but critics were not convinced. The ‘Telecrit’ for the Liverpool Echo writes how:
Rather belatedly, BBC TV last night got both feet on to the beat music band wagon with ‘Top of the Pops’ which presented a selection from the top 20 records in the popularity chart.
The criticism of the new show mainly lay in its format:
The physical difficulties confronting TV weekly presentation of records from the Top Twenty soon became apparent as the programme progressed. Clearly, it’s impossible to have the stars of all the key records in the Top Twenty in the studio – not only would it cost a fortune; many of them could not be there because of other engagements both in this country and overseas.
Despite the first show, filmed in Manchester, featuring a stellar line-up of Dusty Springfield, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies and The Beatles, the Liverpool Echo rather dismally remarked how ‘one group looked much like any other,’ with youngsters in the foreground ‘dancing rather aimlessly.’
Indeed, the review ended by calling Top of the Pops a ‘tatty poor man’s Thank Your Lucky Stars.’ However, the show endured, and two years later it moved to London. When its final episode aired in 2006, it was the world’s longest running music TV show.
Iconic puppet series Thunderbirds landed on television screens in September 1965, first airing on the 30th of the month. With an eye-watering budget of £38,000 per episode (over £600,000 today), Thunderbirds, so says the Daily Mirror, was set to be ‘one…of the costliest TV series ever made in Britain.’
But early on critics were charmed. Jack Bell for the Daily Mirror hailed Lady Penelope as ‘a very tough doll,’ comparing her role to Honor Blackman’s in The Avengers (which just about missed out on our list, but deserves an honourable mention), channelling sex appeal albeit in puppet form.
A critic for the Birmingham Daily Post describes the ‘gamble’ on the costly television show, but gave an overall positive opinion on the new programme:
An episode was shown to the Press yesterday on the screen of the New Scala Cinema, Birmingham. Seen in colour at cinema screen size it looked cleverly entertaining, and though the reduction to television scale and black and white gives privileged Pressman an advantage, it looks as though it should catch on.
Meanwhile, Cold War fears permeated Kenneth Baily’s review for The People, as he worried that ‘the eyes of spies from all over the world will be on’ Thunderbirds, with its imaginative look at the future of weaponization and espionage. He worried too that the ‘escapism’ offered by the ‘fantasy world of puppet-science-fiction’ was having a dangerous psychological effect, but he was reassured by a psychologist as follows:
I think it’s wholly harmless. The fact that they are puppets and not living actors means that any violence and death in the stories is understood as complete make-believe. Also we live in a world which has opened up all manner of wonderful possibilities for the future. People want to exercise their imaginations on the probabilities of what science may enable them to do. This is a very relaxing and refreshing thing to do.
Baily, his fears assuaged, ends his article with a rallying ‘ALL SYSTEMS GO!’
6. Cathy Come Home
Our first one off television event of the decade was documentary drama Cathy Come Home, which was a hard-hitting television play that tackled the theme of homelessness. It was first aired on 16 November 1966, and sparked a national conversation not only about the issue of homelessness, but on television as a medium for social good.
Linda Dyson, writing for the Birmingham Daily Post, reflects on 19 November 1966 how:
Strangely, it is when television is being most socially conscious, that it arouses the bitterest criticisms, as with Jeremy Sandford’s documentary play Cathy Come Home (BBC1, Wednesday). People object to reality…They say they watch a play to be entertained, not shocked, or made to feel uncomfortable, or selfish.
Dyson is strongly supportive of the ‘social duty’ that television could perform, ‘whether people like it or not.’ She hails the mix of drama and documentary, stating how Cathy Come Home will be remembered ‘as a classic example of this new art of documentation.’
But other critics were not so sure, like Michael Billington writing for The Stage. He worries how ‘far this type of documentary drama can be taken,’ fearing that an audience might not be able to distinguish the line between fact and opinion. Billington states how the ‘distinction between drama and documentary should carefully be preserved;’ however, he does admit how a story, told like Cathy Come Home, would be more likely to draw viewers in than a plain statement of fact.
And as The Tatler relates, response to Cathy Come Home was ‘widespread and immediate.’ The Belfast Telegraph tells how ‘Government interest’ was peaked in discussion of the issue of homelessness, whilst the screening of Cathy Come Home coincided with the launch of homeless charity Shelter. The Tatler reports how on 1 December 1966 Shelter organised ‘a conference in the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields…to launch their campaign for the homeless.’
In all, 12 million people (according to The Stage) watched Cathy Come Home, giving the BBC the largest share of the television audience for years. Meanwhile, in 2000 an industry poll lauded Cathy Come Home as the second best British television programme ever made.
7. The Forsyte Saga
On 12 January 1967, The Stage wrote:
The Forsyte Saga is here and will be shown every Saturday on BBC-2 (repeated on Tuesday nights) while January frosts give place to snowdrops and they, in turn, to daffodils and roses. Twenty-six weeks of the television chronicle of the Forsyte family will take us past midsummer and into summer holiday time.
The Forsyte Saga, chronicling the tribulations of a large upper class family in Victorian Britain, was something revolutionary. An immediate success, the Coventry Evening Telegraph hailing its ‘sumptuous start,’ the popularity of the drama foreshadowed the binge-watching culture of the Netflix generation.
And why exactly was this? The Forsyte Saga was socially acceptable to watch, it was in vogue, as relates the Coventry Evening Telegraph:
Somehow, it seems, word has got round that it is socially O.K. to watch ‘The Forsyte Saga’ as it has never been O.K. to watch ‘United’ or ‘Coronation Street’ or ‘The Newcomers.’
Adding to its air of exclusivity, it was broadcast on BBC2, a channel which had been started some years before. Controller of BBC2 at the time was legendary broadcaster David Attenborough, who defended the decision, as reports The Stage:
Seven and a half million people look at BBC-2. Most of them have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense in order to do so. Would it be fair to fob them off with programmes that are either of little interest, or have been or will be shown on BBC-1 anyway?
Attenborough could afford to be a little more ‘adventurous‘ on BBC2; and this has born out over the years, with a long pattern of series debuting on BBC2, only to be picked up by BBC1 once their success has been established.
8. Dad’s Army
From drama to comedy, and the start of Dad’s Army, which premiered on 31 July 1968. This was a different kind of programming, which appealed to a sense of nostalgia, the Belfast Telegraph commenting how for many that it would bring back ‘many memories of Dunkirk.’
But far from being a nostalgic relic, Dad’s Army saw immediate success. Mary Malone for the Daily Mirror in August 1968 writes how:
It is possibly the only way to make military heroism hit home now. Who could resist the sight of the little home guard commander, Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) harnessing his raggle-taggle fireside fighters into a force bent on the fight to a finish in the true Dunkirk spirit? This make-do-and-improvise war effort is funny and human and nostalgic. This war I’ll watch.
Positive responses came from far and wide, as Dad’s Army managed to communicate the farce of warfare with its own farcical situations. Norman Cameron, writing to the Aberdeen Evening Express, commented:
I suppose it won’t have much meaning for the younger folk, but I greatly enjoy ‘Dad’s Army’ on BBC 1 on Wednesday evenings. I was just old enough to appreciate the Home Guard of the 1940s, and this programme expertly captures the real humour of the ludicrous situations of those really grim days.
These sentiments were echoed by Richard Godfrey for the Newcastle Journal, who owned that he ‘did not expect too much’ from Dad’s Army when he first saw it. But, he writes, it captured ‘two great British traits; the ability to improvise and boundless amateur enthusiasm,’ with ‘beautifully underplayed’ comedy throughout.
Dad’s Army went on to run for nine series, gaining an enormous regular audience of 18 million people.
9. Royal Family Documentary
On 21 June 1969 television audiences were granted an ‘inside look at Royalty.’ ‘Unscripted and unrehearsed,’ the Royal Family documentary took ‘an inside look at the family life’ of the Queen and her family, in a television first.
The Newcastle Journal reports how:
The items shown include The Queen dressed for the Trooping of the Colour Ceremony, feeding carrots to the horses. She is also seen taking Prince Edward into a Scottish shop after buying him ice cream and sweets, is heard exclaiming ‘All that gooey mess in the car!’
The documentary, running for 105 minutes and filmed at the cost of £150,000, also featured appearances from Princess Margaret, her husband the Earl of Snowdon, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Princess Alexandra. A notable part of the film was the visit of President Nixon, who tells Prince Charles that ‘he has seen him on the telly.’
But the film hardly did the Royal Family any favours, despite having been watched by over 350 million people worldwide. Some believed that it took away the mystique of the Royal Family, by showing too much of them.
Here is just one reaction, as published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph:
The television Royal Family documentary makes the mind boggle at such criminal inanities in this enlightened age. There is a stupendous waste of energy and finance on these royal individuals yet this country is always in financial difficulties.
10. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
And now for something completely different! Surreal comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted just as the decade came to the end, on 5 October 1969. The Liverpool Echo previewed the new comedy programme by asking ‘Who is Monty Python?’ and the producer of the show was unable to help:
‘I don’t know,’ says the producer. ‘That’s been puzzling us as well.’
Written by and starring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle, it seems Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with its melange of sketches, puzzled critics alike. Ron Ferrier, for the Aberdeen Evening Express, lamented how it ‘failed to raise many laughs,’ suggesting how how ‘this type of humour [may be] ahead of its time, but that is giving it the benefit of the doubt.’
He goes on to write:
The most surprising aspect of the ‘Circus’ is that John Cleese and a group of forerunners in modern comedy are the brains behind the programme. Somewhere along the line they seem to have gone astray with their ideas. Let’s hope that Monty Python and his new-style comedy perks up a little or I’m afraid the circus will be leaving.
However, Monty Python all but revolutionised modern comedy, some comparing its influence on the genre to The Beatles’ influence on music. The show would go on to spawn musicals, plays, films and books, with members of the troupe gaining huge fame and popularity across the world.
We hope you enjoyed our foray into the television world of the 1960s – what is your favourite television moment of the decade, and can you find it in The Archive? Start your search here today.