I’ve written previously about my interest in old British and US cult TV shows from the 1960s and ’70s, and the recent passing at 93 of British actor Patrick Macnee, who played debonair spy John Steed in the 1960s British spy series “The Avengers” has triggered a few thoughts on the subject.
Two Christmases ago I treated myself to the complete Avengers TV series on DVD, which ran in its original format from 1960 to 1969. The show was a success in its day, being very popular as one of the few British shows to be exported to a US TV network.
But what struck me, watching it, was the number of then young actors in it who became quite well known later in life but have since passed away, with Macnee being the last male lead still living. Its main producer and de facto creator, Brian Clemens, also passed away earlier this year. Watching the show one realises that many of its original viewers have also since passed away (it was off the air three years before I was born) and that the show’s human hinterland, the people who made and watched the show are gradually vanishing.
This is actually a relatively new phenomenon given the fact that television as a medium is only really sixty five years old. Unlike music or movies or other aspects of culture, TV had, until quite recently, a large number of still living if elderly TV pioneers who had been the actors, writers, producers and directors. It was still possible to ask them what they had been trying to communicate, and what their stories meant.
That access, the ability to ask the actual participants, is rapidly dying out across the world.
We are now seeing a whole new avenue of cultural history open up as these shows go from being just old TV shows to a glimpse into the society and culture of a previous age. Watch spy shows from the 1960s and see how many of them like “The Man From UNCLE” or “The Champions” were about international cooperation to preserve peace. “The Avengers”, for example, had a number of episodes where the two heroes fought to stop some baddy trying to sabotage European unity (I’m not joking), the assumption being that it was obviously a good thing. By the 1990s, on the other hand, shows like “The X Files” or “Alias” were about how one’s own government was the enemy.
It’s the same with sitcoms. The 1970s sitcom “Maude”, starring a pre-“Golden Girls” Bea Arthur, was one of the first TV shows to address abortion, which in itself says something about changing culture. Imagine the hysteria that would have arisen if “Friends” had an episode where Rachel had an abortion. “Will and Grace” and now “Modern Family” both traced the changing social attitudes towards homosexuality. “Star Trek” allowed issues of segregation and race be addressed in a thinly disguised science fiction setting, including the first ever inter-racial kiss on US television. TV history is important.
That’s why programmes like the Emmy Foundations interview archive, where actors, writers and others talk at length about their experiences on these TV shows, is important.
RTE should be doing this, talking, for example, in depth to Gay Byrne and others about The Late Late Show. They are part of our living cultural history, and have a story to tell.