In 1983, the Russians still occupied Afghanistan, the Americans began their Star Wars initiative and nuclear war was narrowly averted when an alert Russian soldier realised that the warning of an incoming American missile attack was a false alarm. So 1983 was a tense time for the world, with Armageddon and George Orwell's 1984 waiting just around the corner. On the plus side, this was also the year that we got our first video recorder.
We rented the recorder from Rumbelows or, as my mam used to call it, Rumble-rows. I never found out why (I never found out why she referred to tupperware as tipperware either). My dad insisted that we rent the machine rather than buy it because he feared that the recording of programmes would be a flash in the pan and, understandably, didn't want to waste his hard-earned money on something that could be gathering dust in the corner a few months down the line. If it had been a Betamax recorder, he might have had a point. We rented a VHS top-loaded, possibly of the Ferguson variety.
As I was studying for A-levels at the time I was given the task of deciphering the instructions that told you how to tune the VHS into the television. I tried and tried for hours but couldn't do it. In desperation, I even tried my dad's advice ('Have you tried standing on one leg?') but this didn't work either. This was my dad's standard piece of advice for everything. It only worked once, when I went to the college fancy dress party as Long John Silver. In the end, one of my sisters rolled her eyes, said 'Give it here', read the instructions, understood them and got it up and running in a few minutes. Inspired by this, I wrote a letter to my college asking if they would be so kind as to let my sister sit my A-levels for me. I never got a reply.
I think my parents must have won the pools that year without telling me because 1983 was also the year we acquired a new television set. With a remote control and teletext. My dad used the racing tips on teletext to help him decide which horses to pick for his weekly 5 pence Yankee. 11 bets at 5 pence each plus 10% tax, that'll be 61 pence please. I used teletext once to play Bamboozle, the interactive general knowledge quiz. Answers would appear on screen by pressing the Reveal button on the remote. The drawback with this was that there wasn't a Reveal button on our remote (or if there was the button never Revealed itself). To this day, I still don't know who won the St Leger in 1963. I could Google it but that would spoil the fun. I put the remote to good use, though. As I switched nonchalantly from Blue Peter to Happy Days without leaving the comfort of the settee, I suddenly knew how Raymond Baxter must have felt trying out all those new inventions on Tomorrow's World.
In its own small way, the VHS recorder helped me with my English Literature A-level. I was studying Hamlet and Macbeth and, as the BBC like to educate the viewing public every now and then, BBC2 thoughtfully broadcast a production of the latter one Saturday night. It starred Nicol Williamson as the doomed Thane of Cawdor and Jane Lapotaire as his untrustworthy wife Lady Macbeth. I can't remember who played the three witches but, in an ideal world, Rita Webb would have portrayed all of them. Ms Webb was probably a very talented actress but she used to terrify me whenever she popped up on The Benny Hill Show when I was a kid. I remember watching Mr Williamson in an episode of Columbo. It's the one where he trains his two dogs to kill one of his associates. You may disagree with me but, having viewed Macbeth, I can honestly say that it isn't as good as an episode of Columbo, even one of the later ones that he made from the late eighties onwards. In this touchy-feely world in which we live now, colleges and universities probably offer academic courses in various themes relating to Lieutenant Columbo. I would have been well up for that but alas it is too late for me. I was stuck with Shakespeare.
I recorded Macbeth and watched it over and over in an effort to gain some understanding of what was going on. You will know by now that I am not the most practical person and a recorded programme would often be interrupted by the dreaded line of static which signalled that it was about to be cut off and replaced by something completely different.
So, going from the video evidence, where Macbeth went wrong was listening to his wife, killing the king, having an affair with Deirdre Barlow and, finally, lifting the takings from the till at the Rovers Return. I think Macbeth did well to make a swift exit from the cobbles because, once Ken Barlow was on the warpath, all sorts of Shakespearean tragedy could ensue. Ken was usually a mild-mannered teacher but, as Mike Baldwin can confirm, if you found yourself on the wrong end of his fists you would have wished you had played truant that day.
I came out of English Literature A-level with an E grade and, verily, Jove alone knoweth what I would have ended up with had it not been for our trusty VHS recorder. An A, probably.
"I would have watched TOTP when it was broadcast at 7.20pm on a Thursday evening or, thanks to the VHS, watched it later whenever the mood took me."
I was reminded of all this because BBC4 are currently showing editions of the Top of the Pops from 1983. Or at least, those editions that aren't tainted by appearances from Those Who Are Now Personae Non Gratae. We all lead busy lives and, to save time, I was going to refer to the programme from now on as the Pops. Then I remembered that Peter Powell used to refer to it as the Pops. TOTP it is. 1983 will have been during my peak years of viewing this particular music programme. Yes, everyone knew they were miming and the happy atmosphere was as contrived as the family relationships in Sons and Daughters but TOTP suited me fine. Those who took their pop music seriously could always watch The Old Grey Whistle Test or, even worse, The Tube.
I would have watched TOTP when it was broadcast at 7.20pm on a Thursday evening or, thanks to the VHS, watched it later whenever the mood took me. Just a few years earlier I had spent my Sunday evenings recording the hit parade from Radio One using an audio tape recorder. I would move the microphone next to the radio and demand that everyone be quiet as I recorded for posterity the soothing tunes of Tom Browne counting down to number one. Whenever I hear December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) by The Four Seasons I can remember what it felt like to be that annoying nine year old boy. I am unlikely to ever hear again Convoy by CW McCall but, if I did, it would have the same effect.
Now, thanks to the VHS, I had my own video juke box, ready to play the tunes that I liked without me having to bung 50p in the slot. It also enhanced my viewing of TOTP because it allowed me to fast forward through any song that featured earnest young men hunched over synthesisers and, in 1983, there were an awful lot of those.
It was a time of experimentation in the TOTP studios. In a begrudging nod to the nascent video era, they started showing the top ten countdown in video format. Call me conservative but I think the complete top thirty countdown was better placed at the start of the programme, accompanied by still photographs and Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Another innovation was that the DJs started presenting in pairs, like policemen in days of yore patrolling the less salubrious parts of town. I don't know if the producers deemed the studio to be too dangerous a place for lone DJs but, if they did, I blame Zoo.
"Of all the dancers that graced this programme, beautiful blonde Babs Lord was my favourite."
Zoo was the dance troupe of the day. Raunchier than Pan's People but less threatening than Hot Gossip, they were a mixed-sex ensemble who would mingle with members of the audience in a forlorn bid to create a convincing party atmosphere. They would also stand worryingly close to the presenters as they did their links from one song to the next. I can still see the look of panic on Andy Peebles's face as a trio of Zoo dancers, two female and one male, closed in on him. I always preferred the literal dance routines of Pan's People and Legs and Co anyway. What better way to interpret Get Down by Gilbert O'Sullivan than to have Pan's People cavorting in front of several non-plussed hound dogs? Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart) by Guadelopean marvels Ottawan must surely have been given a leg up the charts by a memorable dance routine from a six-gun wielding Legs and Co.
Of all the dancers that graced this programme, beautiful blonde Babs Lord was my favourite. I don't know if this is the reason she left the troupe but she ended up marrying Robert Powell. History is littered with odd couplings - George and Mildred, Dempsey and Makepeace, Tyne and Wear - but, if someone had told me that Babs from Legs and Co would end up with Jesus of Nazareth, well, I would have expected to see them at Confession the very next Saturday.
As well as Zoo, a fresh batch of new faces had recently been brought in to pep up the presentation. It is difficult now to think of Pat Sharp, Janice Long or Gary Davies as ever being fresh faced but in 1983 they were the young guns, ready to shoot down Noel Edmonds, Tony Blackburn and Those Who Are Now Personae Non Gratae. These new faces were being handed a double-edged sword when they were given their chance in the cut throat world of Radio One but I always felt especially sorry for Richard Skinner. He had the haunted look of a man who thought that things had moved much too quickly for him and that, instead of being in a TV studio full of bright young things, he would be happier behind the desk of Radio One's News Beat where he belonged.
My favourite DJ was David Jensen. He always seemed a likable bloke who realised that he wasn't more important than the music. He also gave as good as he got when paired up with John Peel. They made a great duo. Jensen jumped ship in 1987 to host The Roxy, ITV's attempt to replicate the success of TOTP. Co-hosted by Irish DJ Kevin Sharkey and former Blind Date contestant Paul Nolan, The Roxy flopped in under a year. No one can blame Mr Nolan for seizing his chance with both hands but it would have helped if he'd had some talent. I love television but I wish it would have a more rigorous entrance policy. What it needs is a door man, preferably in the form of Razor Eddie Malone from Turtle's Progress, to sort the wheat from the chaff with the words 'Sorry mate, you've got no discernible talent. You're not coming in so sling your hook.'
Watching TOTP all these years later, some of the acts still impress. Not everything was earnest and synth based in 1983. In this general election year, Wham singing Bad Boys is a joyous sight. Egged on by Pepsi and Shirlie and backed up by an eye-catching dance routine, George and Andrew clearly set out their manifesto on the dangers of regular employment and the attractions of putting it about. They would have had my vote if I'd been old enough. I had forgotten what a great song Sign of the Times was and how cool The Belle Stars looked singing it. They must be kicking themselves now and thinking 'God, if we had been around now in this post Spice Girls world instead of the early eighties, we would have been huge instead of being over-shadowed by Bananarama.' I have the same feeling of lost opportunities whenever I think of that academic course on The Development of the Character of Lieutenant Columbo currently being offered by the University of Too Late Mate You've Had Your Turn.
Pop music is well-named. It lingers for a short while and then goes pop, disappearing into the ether waiting to be re-assembled by a play on the radio or an appearance on a repeated edition of a music programme.
I am still awed by the skill and grace of those teenaged New Yorkers as they skip through the double dutch and I am still amazed by the statuesque Bonnie Tyler as she belts out Total Eclipse of the Heart. Perhaps most importantly, I would still like to bend my brain, see both sides, throw off my mental chains and turn the telly right off when TOTP shows Howard Jones doing his studio performance of New Song. It's not a bad song and I have nothing against Howard Jones but that bald-headed mime artist in the paper chains ruins it for me every time. Always has and always will. All of which goes show, we don't really change all that much, do we? Ooh ooh ooh.
Published on February 19th, 2019. Written by Andrew Cobby (February 2016) for Television Heaven.