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The way we watched: TV shows of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s

Benjie Goodhart / 28 July 2016 ( 01 March 2021 )

TV has massively evolved over the years. We look at the TV shows your grandkids won’t believe were real.

Vintage 1960s TV
In the early years of television when options were minimal we gathered around the TV and watched some pretty strange shows - and we loved it

Over time, the world changes, whether we want it to or not.TV is no different. And the world of TV has changed more in the last decade than at any time in its history.

We can now watch what we want, when we want, and on whatever device we want – with the possible exception of the kettle, but give it time. But while the way we consume telly has undergone a technological revolution, the type of stuff we watch has experienced a more gradual, though no-less pronounced, metamorphosis.

Kids today wouldn’t begin to recognise the TV of yesteryear. Remember, this is a generation who would struggle to understand the concept that Top Gear was once a show about cars, or that the BBC and ITV used to have the rights to live sport on a Saturday afternoon.

So try telling them that you grew up in an era where there were only two TV channels. They’ll probably look at you with a mixture of pity and wonder, like you’re a caveman who’s stumbled, blinking, into a modern world.

But what will really blow their minds is some of the stuff we’ve watched over the years. Whether things have improved with the passage of time is up to the individual to decide, but one thing we can all agree upon is that, way back when, things were very, very different.

1. Jackanory, 1965-1996

Many of the best ideas are the simplest. Jackanory ran for over 30 years, clocked up over 3,500 episodes, and boasted readers of the calibre of Judi Dench, John Hurt, Ian McKellen and Liam Neeson.

But try telling kids today that a teatime treat was watching someone read a book aloud, with nought but an occasional illustration by way of visual stimulus, and they’ll throw their PlayStation at you. Sometimes, a book took a whole week of episodes to get through.

Sadly, the writing moved from the page to the wall for Jackanory, with the last ever programme, in 1996, seeing Alan Bennett read the House at Pooh Corner.

2. Dixon of Dock Green, 1955-1976

It’s hard enough to imagine a time when police dramas weren’t two-a-penny, but Dixon, starring the marvellous Jack Warner, was an unlikely trailblazer. Today, the schedules are bursting with shows about vicious, sadistic psychopaths being hunted by hard-drinking, tortured, grizzled cops who don’t play by the rules.  But it all started with a gentle show about a local bobby who used a gentle, common sense approach to solving petty crime, with nary a cannibalistic killer in sight.

Find out why Dixon is one of our favourite TV heroes

3. The 64,000 Question, 1956-1958

In America, the $64,000 Question saw contestants answer a series of questions building up to a question worth, you guessed it, a possible $64,000. In other words, a lot of money back then. The British version? £64,000, you say? Not quite. In a glorious indication of the parochial and rather small-scale nature of British TV, the grand prize was worth 64,000, um, sixpences. That meant a rather more modest top prize of £1,600. The first question was worth just over £2. Try explaining that to a generation raised on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!

4. Batman, 1966-1968

Although the cultural legacy of the TV show casts a long shadow, the series actually only ran for three years. Viewers today, reared on the super-cool Gothic versions of the big screen Batman with his fabulous outfits and his brooding persona, would be bamboozled by his predecessor, a rather chunky fellow in an unflattering costume running around in a world of high camp. But throw in a fight scene, filled with onomatopoeic signs saying ‘Biff!’ ‘Blam!’ and ‘Thwack!’ and they’d probably die of embarrassment.

5. The Benny Hill Show, 1955-1989

In a world where gender politics is a hot button issue, the idea of a comedy show that consisted largely of sketches about a chubby, bespectacled man ogling leggy lovelies and making double-entendres is unthinkable. But you have to give Hill some credit – only a genius could come up with so many scenarios that ended with a man being chased by a crew of furious, scantily-clad women.

At its peak, the show was watched by 21.1m. It was cancelled when viewing dropped to 9.5 million, a figure that executives would give an arm and a shapely leg for today. Mind you, at £450,000 an episode, it was ludicrously expensive.

6. Come Dancing, 1949-1998

“Sorry? You used to watch normal people dance? Like, people who weren’t famous? You really mean it? Not even someone from Hollyoaks? Why would you do that?” Actually, at the show’s outset, in 1949, it wasn’t even a competition – it was a programme where on-screen instructors taught viewers at home how to ballroom dance. AND, even more extraordinarily, Bruce Forsyth wasn’t presenting the show in 1949! It went on to be relaunched with a celebrity focus as Strictly Come Dancing in 2004.

7. Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, 1976-1982

It seems unthinkable that kids used to sit, for hours on end on a Saturday morning, glued to the telly watching what was effectively a show where other children phoned Noel Edmonds and told him what toys they wanted to swap. There was a top-ten swaps board, and an outside broadcast where Keith Chegwin presided over thousands of children all frantic to swap a Rubik’s Cube for an Action Man. The outside broadcasts always had to be from somewhere the BBC was filming sport in the afternoon, to save on money.

8. Star Trek, 1966-1969

“Oh yeah,” kids will tell you, “we know Star Trek.” No. You don’t. Not the ‘real’ Star Trek. The real Star Trek managed to be both an indescribably magnificent creation, and a shocking exercise in high camp. The cast wore tight-fitting costumes that looked like they’d been made by the same seamstress who worked on Batman. The planets all looked mysteriously like Californian scrubland. And the aliens were almost always identical to humans, except a rather vivid shade of green. My favourite ever alien was a small, blow-dried dog with what looked like an upside down ice cream cone on its forehead.

9. Fanny’s Kitchen, 1955-1961

Just as with good old Dixon, Fanny Cradock spawned a whole new genre – the cookery show. But nobody ever tried to emulate Fanny – possibly because no-one wanted to. She turned brusqueness into an art form, normally at the expense of poor, long-suffering partner Johnny. But she also taught a drab, postwar nation that cooking could be fun and creative. However, what would really stun modern audiences (apart from her outlandish, and frequently garishly-dyed, food) was that she insisted on cooking in full ball gown, frequently accessorised with a fur wrap and diamonds. Johnny, poor, put-upon Johnny, stood by in black tie and monocle. 

Find out why Fanny and Johnny make our list of best TV couples


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