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.