TV Cream

Run VT

“Good evening Miss Rantzen” “Do call me Esther”

In 1985 That’s Life! was in its imperial phase. It had an immovable berth in Michael Grade’s aromatic Sunday night line-up of hit shows. It was trying to save children’s lives and start up phone lines and close down sweat shops across the planet. Audiences of 16 and 17 million tuned in to titter at misprints and miscarriages (of justice and babies).

Clearly it was a show at the peak of its powers. That’s what your memory tells you, and what popular culture readily seconds.

How come, then, that the truth is bone-chillingly removed from reality? Here is the first 10 minutes of a programme from June of that year. Maybe the show was near the end of its annual 40-week (or however many it was) run. Maybe Desmond had been giving Esther a hard time about ironing the Boy David’s smock. Maybe everyone just simply couldn’t be arsed.

Of particular note:

1) The first couple of seconds of the clip, which comprises, entirely uncoincidentally, the last few seconds of a plug for a programme by Esther’s other half.

2) The quality of the film stock used during the That’s Life! opening titles. It is appalling. It looks like it dates from the early 1970s. In fact it probably does. On another technical note, the sound balance is dreadful, with the microphones on the audience turned up way too high, meaning you hear endless shuffling, coughing and non-laughing in the studio.

3) The ginormous set. Wogan never got a wall that size.

4) The on-screen captions to introduce the nancies. They are horrible. Where are the Paintbox pyrotechnics?

5) John Gould and Maev Alexander! On an MFI sofa, him in a bow-tie, she in a suit! This was a dreadful decision (thankfully shortlived – Doc was back the following year), evident from the moment they walk on, awkwardly, and sit down, awkwardly, side by side, awkwardly. John seems to be wearing the kind of microphone Cliff Michelmore and David Butler wore on Election ’70.

6) The preamble, which is thin gruel indeed. There is a back-reference to last week’s guest Janet Brown in the shape of Esther trying to do a caricature of herself. There is also a non-amusing mug, a non-amusing cheque, and “two outstanding pictures” which aren’t.

7) Finally, the opening film package. This was clearly concocted off the back of someone who knows someone who knows someone in Esther’s husband’s drinking club. The ‘expert’ is rubbish, laughs at his own jokes and then blows the final punchline. Esther keeps trying to trump the expert with her own opinions, then runs around Covent Garden in a big mac like a flasher, failing to say hello to the people she collars and repeatedly trying to make a joke about ‘leg-overs’.

A quick look ahead through the rest of show reveals all the boxes are lazily ticked: animals running amok in the studio? Check – some ducks! Befuddled special guest? Check – Spike Milligan! Problems with the welfare state? Check – here are some people living rough! And so on. Maybe TV Cream was misguided in its unqualified veneration of Sunday night telly.

Meanwhile, prepare to guffaw raucously like you’ve never seen it before at the sight of an old man, possibly in 1973, using his eyebrows to move a cap backwards and forwards on top of his own head.



  1. Chris O

    April 1, 2009 at 8:25 am

    I think the on-screen captions are straight out of ‘Match of the Day’ circa 1975.

    For ‘Bill Buckley’ read ‘Keegan’…

  2. Foz

    April 14, 2009 at 8:29 am

    As an impressionable 10 year old, even I was uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy on TL. With a particularly unsuitable short pause, the subject would suddenly change from the sad story of Ben Hardwick, straight in to Doc Cox showing pictures of nob-shaped vegetables.

  3. Glenn Aylett

    June 14, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Bear in mind the show was made at the distinctly shabby Lime Grove instead of the BBC Television Centre and the place was becoming a tip by the mid eighties so this could explain the tardiness of the programme. From what I’ve been told the production offices were in a converted house next to this fading monolith and a show like TL, which had massive ratings, surely belonged on Wood Lane rather than the home of Panorama and Newsnight. I saw LG not long before it closed and it looked like a rundown ex cinema.

  4. Backtiming Legend

    May 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    Made at Lime Grove, or just the production offices?
    Here’s me thinking it was recorded at the BBC Television Theatre on (to quote Old Tel) “The place of culture that is Sheperds Bush Green” until the Beeb sold it off, and made the last series ilook like it was taking place in far too colourful dreadful American dineresque bar set in TC8.

    I can just about remember when Enid Rancid took over as holiday cover for Wogan, as she walked out they kept a small part of the TL set to the right of the stage (it may have been her high stool), and the usual Wogan chair, table and uncomfortable sofa was to the left. As she came on, she saw her stool on the stage, and launched into a scripted set piece about how the crew must have been trying to make her feel at home.

    Still at least with the introduction of technocranes, we have thankfully done away with those clunky, wobbly dolly crane pan shots that plauged shows like that in the 70’s and 80’s

  5. Adrian

    May 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

    The length of time deemed necessary to crunch gears between features about dying children and features about oddly shaped vegtables was exactly 4 seconds long, and was known in the broadcasting circles as ‘an Esther’.

  6. televisualcabbage

    May 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Did Esther when she lost her deposit at the recent general election turn to Doc Cox to get her out of there with a humorous remark or witty mistake from a local paper?

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