Now that our ABC Television Network is available to stream, it’s time to take a look at some of the vintage gems we’ve got for you. None of these series has been broadcast in over fifty years, and most have been newly transferred especially for this project (well, we had to find something to do under lockdown…)
With a format imported from America, Candid Camera was the forerunner of a whole raft of TV series wherein members of the public became the unknowing participants in a range of farcical practical jokes, with their reactions captured on concealed cameras. Jonathan Routh and Arthur Atkins were the ‘boots on the ground’, staging stunts on the streets, or in converted shop fronts, with the resulting comic escapades presented from the TV studio by hosts including Bob Monkhouse and, later David Nixon. Originally occupying a late-evening slot, Candid Camera’s family appeal saw it take up residence on Saturday and Sunday teatimes, and it was a staple of the ABC schedule for many years. The format later returned, complete with original prankster Routh, for a few years in the 1970s. Only one complete episode remains in the archive (and was last seen in Channel 4’s early 90s retrospective TV Heaven) but many of the staged routines survive as film sequences, which would have been played in as part of the studio production, with audience laughter and the host’s narration added in. These individual sequences have been specially re-edited and will be appearing in the form of short Candid Camera Classics.
These half-hour crime dramas were aimed squarely at the transatlantic market, and featured Canadian actor Robert Beatty as Inspector Maguire, a detective on secondment to Scotland Yard.
Reported to have had a budget of $1.5m, Dial 999 certainly looks more like a feature film than a television series, with extensive location work in and around London, and the scripts have a markedly harder edge than contemporaries like Dixon of Dock Green. Attention was payed to proper police procedure, and the series had a consultant on board in the form of ex-Superintendent Tom Fallon. Series producer Harry Alan Towers had enjoyed a long and varied career in television and radio, and would later branch out into feature film production in a career that was to last into the 21st Century.
A single series was produced, and aired between 1958 and 1959, generally in late evening slots around 10pm, with repeat runs around the ITV network extending its shelf life until around 1964. As a 35mm film production, the series survives intact and complete, but aside from a solitary episode aired in 1992 during Channel 4’s TV Heaven strand, it has remained unseen since the 60s.
Every single episode survives, so dive in and immerse yourself in the world of 1950s police work…
The talent show is a format that has its roots in end-of-the-pier entertainments, and lives on today in the likes of Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor and The Voice. Hughie Green started Opportunity Knocks on BBC Radio in the late 40s, migrating a few years later to Radio Luxembourg. After a brief spell on television courtesy of Associated Rediffusion, the format was revived for ABC in 1964, where it quickly became a must-see item on Saturday evenings. Few people who saw it are ever likely to forget the sight of body-builder Tony Holland flexing his muscles in time to Bob Sharples and the Opp Knocks house band’s rendition of Wheels Cha-Cha – an act which, if nothing else reflected the diversity of entertainment on offer. Acts were ranked in order of preference according to the reaction of the studio audience as measured by the legendary ‘clap-o-meter’: this was, essentially, a VU meter in vision, whose needle registered the volume of applause afforded to each act. But, as Hughie Green so often reminded the viewers at home, ‘it’s your vote that counts’: and it was by postal vote that the winner of each show was decided. Winning acts would return on subsequent weeks, with the extra exposure helping to launch a fair few entertainers who would go on to become household names later in the decade. Opportunity Knocks endured beyond the lifespan of ABC, and was taken up again by its successor, Thames Television, where it continued until 1978. Its later years were dogged by controversy as Hughie Green used the show as a platform for his own political opinions. Later still, the BBC brought it back with Bob Monkhouse at the helm.
Mike and Bernie Winters were one of TV’s most popular double acts in their day, enjoying small screen success to rival that of Morecambe and Wise. But while Eric and Ernie’s partnership lives on in the public consciousness, memories of Mike and Bernie have faded, due largely to their premature disappearance from the small screen.
Hailing from Islington, the Weinstein brothers Mike and Bernie first teamed up as a double act during the Second World War, adopting the stage name Winters. Bernie was the driving force behind their showbiz career, with Mike happily accepting the role of straight man alongside his brother’s gormless gurning and silly voices. Their first TV appearance was on the mid-50s BBC show Variety Parade, which soon led to a regular slot on 6-5 Special. By the early 60s, the duo were turning up regularly on ITV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium and in 1963 they became the hosts of ABC’s Big Night Out, of which a substantial number of editions remain in the archive.
The Winters brothers remained a regular fixture on ITV until the early 70s, but the act later broke following a very public spat between the brothers. Bernie remained a well-known face on television, his new ‘partner’ taking the form of Schnorbitz, a St. Bernard dog. The brothers later made it up, but the double act was never revived, and passed into history with Bernie’s early death from cancer in 1991.
Aside from a few clips featuring a rather well-known pop combo of the day, Big Night Out was gathering dust in the archives until just a few months ago. Now you can revisit this prime slab of Saturday night light entertainment for the first time since its original broadcast.
THE ABC OF ABC
Eamon Andrews hosts this hour-long celebration produced to mark the 10th anniversary of ABC Television in May 1966 – and unseen since. The show takes a look back at some of the jewels in the ABC crown, and includes a number of clips from programmes that are otherwise lost – look out for a splendidly rare interview with Kenneth Williams. It also serves as an excellent introduction for those who don’t remember what ABC was all about. In its early years, ITV was frequently derided as a ‘tuppenny Punch and Judy show’, but the reality was quite different: as you’ll see here, ABC was a network where populist light entertainment and serious, experimental drama sat side by side in the schedules… and won millions of loyal viewers.
At the time this retrospective was shown, there was no suggestion that ABC would not continue for another decade or even longer, but in fact the station was to last for just two more years in its original form, and by the end of the decade had merged with Rediffusion Television to become the iconic ITV brand Thames.
No stranger to Network, Armchair Theatre has been through several DVD releases, but there are still plenty of unreleased episodes left in the archive, and we’ve selected some of the best examples to showcase as part of our evenings in with ABC. Our first collection features a rare appearance by Leslie Phillips in a serious dramatic role, playing alongside one-time matinee idol Michael Craig.
All of this and much more are now available to stream via watch.networkonair.com