The BBC recognised the media hype that was whipping up around Dallas on the other side of the Atlantic and sought to replicate it in the UK. As the second series drew to a close on BBC1, viewers intrigued as to what all the fuss was about, switched on in greater and greater numbers. In January and February 1980, Dallas was attracting 15 million viewers – the highest yet. This grew again in March when the series pulled in 16 million viewers and was the eighth most watched programme of the month and was surpassed again in April, as Dallas attracted 16.7 million viewers and beat both This Is Your Life and Coronation Street to become the most watched programme of the month. All of this without a single bullet being fired.
On 3 May 1980, Radio Times published the following disgruntled letter from Gary M Quigley of Canley, Coventry: “How on earth does Bill Cotton, controller of BBC1, justify the petty tampering with the viewing habits of the public? I refer, of course, to the postponement of the final episode of Dallas … ” Cotton replied: “My apologies for having created a problem by withholding the last episode of Dallas in which JR gets shot! The reason was simply that Larry Hagman appears as JR on Saturday this week, in the second episode of Knot’s Landing, the replacement series which features another branch of the Ewing family. We plan to show the final episode of Dallas at a suitable time in the near future.” Such delaying tactics aroused suspicion that the postponement had more to do with the BBC’s desire to maximise its audience, rather than concerns about undermining the narrative of Dallas’ spin-off soap.
Eventually, the concluding episode of the second series was aired, but shrewdly the BBC chose a Bank Holiday weekend (26 May) on which to broadcast it. This too provoked the ire of viewers. “Devotees of Dallas have been used to setting aside a Saturday night for the programme and to show it on a Monday without prior notice seems totally unfair and displays a complete lack of respect for viewing habits,” complained Pauline Young of Bolton, Lancashire. “And most important, many people had planned well in advance to go away for the Bank Holiday”. However, the BBC’s decision was the right one, as the episode attracted a staggering 24 million viewers.
The hullabaloo might not have been instigated by Katzman and his Dallas creative staff, but it was certainly perpetuated by a number of parties with vested interests. Shrewdly, the BBC began to direct its many resources into extracting as much out of the hype as possible, and the reaction in the UK to the “Who Shot JR?” story is remembered with much affection by Dallas aficionados and cast members alike. “Great Britain – no, the entire UK, – was obsessed by Dallas,” recalls Hagman. “The BBC figured one out of three Britons watched the show, and when reruns began after the cliff-hanger, the Daily Express ran a humorous editorial warning, ‘Withdrawal symptoms are bound to set in to such an extent that Britain could clearly be facing its darkest hour.’” The shooting of JR was featured on ITN’s News at Ten and the BBC’s Nine O’clock News and tapes were held under armed security guard until they were handed over to the BBC. More than £50,000 worth of bets were placed on who shot JR in Britain during that summer.
Keen to use the cliff-hanger as leverage for a pay rise, Hagman realised that maintaining a high profile throughout the summer of 1980 was vital. “Every photo and bit of TV footage shows up over here,” counselled Hagman’s agent, “and the more (the Dallas producers) see, the sooner they’ll start to see this is an international phenomenon.” Hagman put in appearances at Royal Ascot (resulting in thousands of spectators chanting “JR”), the exclusive London nightclub Annabel’s and Harrods. Along the way there were photo opportunities as Hagman posed with female police officers and shop assistants. He also took time out to meet up with Terry Wogan – his famous, unofficial UK promoter, in a move that helped both men’s careers. “(A) television producer named Frances Whittaker got the bright idea of bringing over Larry, and having a TV confrontation: ‘JR meets TW,’” recalls Wogan. “It was my first-ever television talk show, and I loved it. I could not have had a better guest than Hagman, he played the JR role to the hilt, slipping in and out of the character like the terrific pro he is”.
When Dallas finally returned to UK screens it was on a Saturday night. A massive 27.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the two-part episode “No More Mr Nice Guy,” to learn who had pulled the trigger on the series’ villain. The series by and large, retained its Saturday night 9pm slot and carried on producing decent ratings for the BBC for the next 12 months or so. By 1981 it stabilised at around the 12 million mark – a figure it would routinely attain for most of the next three years.
While all of this was great news for the BBC, ITV, and in particular LWT would look on with jealousy. Dallas’ success rankled for a number of reasons. First of all, many in ITV saw the programme as more befitting commercial, rather than public service television. Secondly, ITV were still troubled they had let the programme slip through their fingers. But thirdly, and perhaps most irritatingly of all from LWT’s perspective, screening a soap opera on primetime Saturday nights was something that ITV had never dared try and had they been inclined to do so, it was difficult to see either Coronation Street or Crossroads (the network’s two most successful soaps at the time) fitting in to a schedule composed predominantly of light entertainment, American imports and big budget movies. An attempt to steal Dallas from under the noses of the BBC seemed inevitable, and although Thames would famously (albeit briefly) succeed in snatching Dallas away from the BBC in 1985, an earlier move was made by the station (cheered on by LWT) in 1981.