Twice before I’ve looked back to what lay ahead for viewers fifty years ago. The Illuminations blog archive (which holds pretty much everything we’ve ever published) has my post about the television year that was 1960 as well as the one for 1961. Today I’m going to ask you to imagine it is 2 January 1962. What television treats lie in store over the coming months? Well, among other things, the start of Z Cars and Steptoe and Son, debuts for Fireball XL5 and The Saint, and a World Cup football tournament in Chile. The big television story of the year, however, will be off-screen rather than on.
In June 1962 the Pilkington Committee will present its report on the future of broadcasting – and do much to shape that future. The first seven years of ITV will be roundly criticsed: ‘the service falls well short of what a good public service of broadcasting should be.’ In contrast, according to the committee, ‘the BBC know good broadcasting; by and large, they are providing it.’ As a consequence of Pilkington the third television channel will be awarded to the Corporation (and will eventually emerge as BBC2).
It will be a big year for television technology too. April will see the first use of a slow motion videotape relay, and the BBC will start to transmit colour test programmes for each weekday from its Crystal Palace transmitter in south London. But the most profound change will be the start of satellite relays via Telstar 1. The first live transatlantic television picture will be received at Goonhilly Down on 11 July.
Telstar will arrive too late to help transmit pictures from the World Cup tournament in Chile. There will be no live television coverage, although BBC Radio will offer commentaries. Film footage will have to be shipped back to the UK and shown on television two days after the matches. as will become an all-too-familiar pattern, England will scrape through the group games only to lose 3-1 to Brazil in the quarter-finals. That Brazil will emerge as eventual winners is little consolation. ITV will decide not to compete with the BBC, but in other football news Anglia Television will start the first regular league highlights show with Match of the Week.
ITV will finally complete network coverage of the country with the new contractor Wales West and North (WWN) coming on line on 14 September to provide pictures to the parts of Wales previously denied delights such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Not that WWN will be much of a success story – its early losses will be such that by May 1963 it will be forced to merge with the Wales and West contractor TWW.
Sunday Night at the London Palladium will be the fourth most-watched show of the year, after The Royal Variety Performance, Coronation Street and – yes – Miss World 1962. But Corrie, along with the rest of ITV drama will be much affected by a lengthy strike by the actors’ union Equity, which in the early months of the year will take several series off-screen altogether.
One bright spot for ITV will be Honor Blackman’s arrival for the second series of The Avengers. Plus, Roger Moore will begin his adventures as The Saint. The latest of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series – filmed in Supermarionation – will be Fireball XL5 and Boris Karloff will host Out of this World, a series of adaptation of sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and others.
Not that ITV will be all downmarket drama. Remarkably, as Amanda Wrigley’s Screen Plays post recently discussed, in November Associated-Rediffusion will transmit a primetime presentation of Sophocles’ Electra in modern Greek – without subtitles. The commercial channel will also start a new quiz series called University Challenge, with Bamber Gascoigne asking the questions. Oh, and Granada Television will put on the air for the first time a band called The Beatles – the company’s early evening local magazine show People and Places will have them playing ‘Some Other Guy’.
And what will the ‘good broadcasting’ from the BBC have to offer? Two copper-bottomed television classics will appear on the screen for the first time: Z Cars, set by writer Troy Kennedy Martin in Newtown, will bring a new sense of realism to television police series, and Steptoe and Son will bring together comedy and tragedy in a world worthy of Samuel Beckett.
Rather less radical, but perennially popular nonetheless, Dr Finlay’s Casebook and Compact will both be seen for the first time. That Was the Week That Was will bring the new satire of the early sixties to television, while Johnny Morris will start impersonating various primates and others in the first editions of Animal Magic.
Finally, while it’s not a debut, the arts magazine Monitor is going from strength to strength, and in the coming year it will produce two of its most influential programmes, both directed by Ken Russell: Elgar will be instantly recognised as a classic film biography while Pop Goes the Easel, a portrait of four young artists including Peter Blake and Pauline Boty, will fifty years on be recognised as a rich and remarkable encapsulation of so much of the cultural moment just before the world woke up to ‘Swinging London’.