TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

31. Just shoot the bastard


While the BBC wasn’t keen to ape American dramas, it wasn’t entirely dismissive of them either. On 5 September 1976, the long-running series about three siblings who inherited a haulage firm, The Brothers, drew to a close. For the previous four years it had entertained viewers with boardroom backbiting and avarice. Playing on mainly Friday or Sunday nights, The Brothers drew an avid audience keen to observe the machinations of a group of characters behaving abominably, and doing all sorts of things that the average viewer knew they could never get away with.

The arrival of Dallas then in 1978 may in retrospect look to have been a cost-efficient replacement. There was much about it that reflected the boardroom and bedroom battles of The Brothers, yet of course, the series – American in origin – had not been influenced by the BBC haulage drama in any way. Having originally pitched the US network, CBS, a show called Knots Landing, New York writer David Jacobs was advised that his idea was “too middle-class and tame” and was asked to come up with something bigger and brasher and to have it feature actress Linda Evans.

A self-confessed “unreconstructed novelist”, Jacobs envisaged Dallas as a serial dealing with issues of isolation and corruption. He found programmes such as The Waltonsconstant need to remind the viewer of what had gone on in previous episodes to be incredibly frustrating and so initially each episode of Dallas was to be self-contained. The show’s lead actor Larry Hagman was able to recognise the series’ essential ingredients right from the first script. “Dallas was Romeo and Juliet set among the oil fields, except there wasn’t one likeable character in the entire episode. Not one nice person. For television at the time, that was a real breakthrough. Mama was an old bitch. Daddy was an alcoholic asshole. My little brother was a womaniser. And my character, JR Ewing, was a combination of all of them”.

While the various shenanigans made for – what one reviewer described as – “steamy drama … on the arid Texas plain,” this was still not Dallas as we remember it today. As Jacobs admits it was largely down to producer Leonard Katzman that the programme became an international success: “They’re my children,” he reflects of JR, Bobby, Su, Pam, Sue Ellen and the rest, “but I sent them to camp early. If I’d been in charge of Dallas, it would probably not have been the success it is. I have this tendency to bring things down to earth. Dallas is up there. When I went on set I was shocked to see some people taking it seriously. I suppose someone has to. I don’t think I could have.”

Within five weeks, the series was a hit in America, playing at 10pm on Sunday nights and attracting the 12th largest audience of the week. The series abandoned self-contained stories in favour of a traditional episodic structure, beloved of soaps. In 1978 Dallas was offered to ITV, during an autumn Los Angeles buying trip. But Paul Fox (chairman of the network’s Film Purchase Group) and Leslie Halliwell (who, although an employee of Granada Television, bought overseas material for the network) turned it down. They saw the pilot only after they had purchased as much American programming as their budget would permit. This left the course clear for the BBC. On the strength of the same pilot episode, Bill Cotton and head of acquisitions, Gunnar Rugheimer snapped the series up just a couple of days later.

In the UK, Dallas began its inexorable rise in the ratings from day one. Scheduling the series at the weekend was in keeping with the tradition established by The Brothers, but running it on a Saturday night suited the show’s brash approach. It is felt that Dallas’ first two series were, by and large, more realistic then those that followed. However, one prominent British broadcaster was quick to lampoon the Texan soap opera from day one. “Rightly or wrongly,” says Terry Wogan “I was perceived in the BBC as the main architect in the runaway success of Dallas with the British viewing public. The rumour had started on my Radio 2 morning programme, with a few observations from me concerning the apparent fact that, although richer than Croesus, the Ewing family of Dallas had only one telephone – in the hall; that they had walk-in wardrobes, but only wire coat-hangers … The listeners, bless ‘em, responded; Dallas became a cult, and then a full-blown ratings winner”. Wogan was grateful for the easy copy the show provided him. “It was like a weekly Eurovision Song Contest,” he reminisces. “Over the top, full of ridiculous characters, deeply, deeply foolish … and riveting to watch … Americans watched Dallas from an entirely different viewpoint than we did. They thought it was a drama series of everyday Texan oil-billionaires; we thought it was a comedy. We were right”.

Katzman’s decision to end the first series on a cliff-hanger was pivotal in ensuring Dallas’ long-term success. Sue Ellen escaped from a mental hospital and ended up in a coma after crashing a car and prematurely giving birth. As the curtain came down on Dallas’ first season the question was posed: “Would baby and mother survive?” The pivotal moment in the show’s history came a year later when the decision was made to have the series’ lead character and main “bad guy,” JR, shot. “CBS made a request for four additional episodes, something practically unheard of so late in the year,” Hagman recalls. “But Dallas was the sixth-highest-rated show. The network wanted to keep up the momentum and take advantage of more advertising income. Mr Katzman and his writing staff plotted out the new shows, and as the story goes, when they began discussing the cliff-hanger, now a part of the Dallas formula, someone said, ‘Why don’t we just shoot the bastard?’”.

Next Monday: Britain could be facing its darkest hour



  1. George White

    March 26, 2018 at 8:48 am

    Rugheimer not Ruggenheimer (an ex-RTE man who weirdly enough, helped discover Tel in the first place), and Linda Gray not Evans, surely.

  2. TV Cream

    March 26, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Fixed! Thanks, George.

    • Jack Kibble-White

      April 7, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      Actually it WAS Linda Evans, so that’s going to get changed back (see a future instalment for more on this)

      • George White

        April 7, 2018 at 9:25 pm

        Ah yes, you’re right.
        Actually, this makes total sense.
        Lorimar, Dallas’ producers did try to push her in a few films.
        Because they did Avalanche Express with her, which isn’t a good film because both Robert Shaw and the director, Mark Robson died in post-production, it does have a room decorated with pictures of Cyril Shaps as a plotpoint, though.

        • Glenn Aylett

          April 8, 2018 at 12:35 pm

          Dallas was originally a vehicle for Linda Evans, but when she dropped out, it was Linda Gray who took her place. Both Lindas did do well in their respective roles, of course.
          I was 12 when Dallas mania took off in Britain. Compared with Crossroads wobbly sets and ham acting and Coronation St in its cat gone missing for six episodes phase, Dallas was light years ahead. By the shooting of JR phase, nearly half the population was watching, and it was as big a talking point as the state of the economy. Not until the Neighbours boom 8 years later did an imported show become so popular.

  3. Glenn Aylett

    March 26, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    Wasn’t the first series of Dallas shown on weekday nights and wasn’t very popular, and the show didn’t become a massive hit until it was moved to Saturdays in 1979? Then I’m sure it was moved again to weekdays in the spring of 1980, by which time Dallas was so big it didn’t matter, and then moved back to Saturdays in the fall of 1980, with over 20 million viewers finding out who shot JR.

  4. Richard16378

    March 27, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    I remember it was on weekdays (I think Wednesdays) in 1981-2, as my Mum would try to finish my bedroom story by the end of the theme tune then go downstairs to watch it.

  5. Glenn Aylett

    March 30, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    @ Richard 16378, it tended to alternate between Saturdays and Wednesdays, although after 1981, Dallas was a weekday show as BBC1 had bought Dynasty for Saturday nights. Dynasty never quite hit the ratings heights of Dallas, pulling in 12 million against 17 million for Dallas, but was decent enough for a BBC that was starved of Saturday night hits in the Alan Hart era.
    I will admit to being a Dallas nut in 1980, even buying the novelty record I Hate JR and getting the car sticker I Shot JR.

    • George White

      March 31, 2018 at 9:58 am Did you encounter this 1981 Irish hit by TR Dallas, surprisingly not a one hit wonder, and the brother of Allen as in Foster and.
      Country and Irish music is one of the most prolific sins to sound.

      • Glenn Aylett

        March 31, 2018 at 12:25 pm

        Oh yes, it was dire, but it was amazing how much mileage country music got out of singing about JR Ewing at the time. Somehow singing about a Coronation St character wouldn’t be the same.
        It’s amazing now to think that an imported series could attract nearly half the population and be a talking point for months on end. Yet Dallas was a brilliantly made, excellently written series with strong characters and was light years ahead of our soaps.

        • George

          March 31, 2018 at 5:31 pm

          Went to Castleblayney, where many of the country and Irish acts are from and realised, “Nah. There isn’t really anything to say about country n Irish. THAT is why there is so little written, why RTE/BBC NI docusoap Stetsons and Stilettos is the way it is – covering tractors and trucking festvials as well as jiving, why Margo’s book when not hinting at dodgy business is mostly boasts about US stars. YES, there might be a few freakish relics (Radio Luxembourg DJ/RTE music show producer Pat Campbell’s The Deal probably the most notorious) but everyone is dead, old or uninteresting. Everything that’d been or needs to be said behind the scenes has been said. There are stories but they are tied into the troubles. Plus everyone takes it far too seriously. On the bus up I met by an expat Dub who told me not to be so flippant because the locals don’t see it as a bit of light ent fluff but something akin to a religious experience, because like late era Northern Soul, it is the dancing that counts. They call it the Vegas of Ireland, but I noted that Branson was a fairer comparison. She also said that never tell a boyfolk act they are not country or they will get very angry.
          There’s really two varieties of Irish country – the old stuff that began in the showband scene, Big Tom, Philomena Begley, Daniel O’Donnell, his sister Margo, Foster and Allen, Larry Cunningham, the sort of Irish acts who’d appear on Sing Country, and get played by Wally Whyton. Mostly awful or middling material – usually covers (usually tied to a certain act – Philomena Begley to Billie Jo Spears, while TR focused himself on Mac Davis songs), with a few tacky but catchy songs like Lovely Leitrim, but performed by decent cabaret performers who if saddled with better material, may have gone onto more than national fame.
          Then, there’s the younger crop – it began in the early 2000s with Michael Fallon – alias Mike Denver – a cowboy-hatted, peroxide-tipped Galwegian, and Michael English, a protege of O’Donnell’s, and a sort of Eoin McLove type who briefly got picked up by Louis Walsh due to the latter’s mother being a fan. Then, Nathan Carter came on the scene – a young, still in his teens Liverpool singer of Irish extraction who moved to Ulster, and started singing and talking in a strange Scouse-Irish-American twang, like Ronnie Whelan in reverse via Route 66. Carter somehow broke through via a cover of Darius Rucker/Old Crow Medicine Show’s reworking of Bob Dylan’s half-written ditty Wagon Wheel, which became this unavoidable hit all over rural areas – touring in stadiums in the cities as well as small country hotels, and appealing to young housewives as well as grans, though he does have a foothold in the latter, with his strange obsession with his nana – who goes everywhere with him. Think R Wayne in Britain’s Got the Pop Factor… Carter has spawned a slew of copycats, mostly failed boybanders and failed rappers whose careers failed, and country is an easy way out. People like Derek Ryan, Lee Matthews, or farmers who reckoned themselves good singers and got money via suspicious means like Marty Mone and Eamonn Jackson (outed as a puppy farmer) and talent show runner-up Jim Devine. Mone’s Hit the Diff, a sort of sub-Wurzels ditty about tractors – not so much a song but a a list of adjectives that roughly describe the movements of a tractor being shouted at in a broad Monaghan/Ulster border accent. Country music should be heart and soul, but this isn’t. These singers have no sense of humour – singing comical songs seriously (Ex-All-Ireland Talent Show runnerup (imagine Britain’s Got Talent in the style of the First Division – with Dana and Shane of Boyzone and a few regional TV hosts) Cliodhna Hagan’s We’re All Gonna Die Someday has the ring of a Not the Nine O’Clock News parody – but apparently was a cover of an Aussie song from the late 90s, think they’re singing country, the amount of insincerity and insecurity in the scene is huge. And promoters tapping into the jiving scene which exits really only in the Northern border area are using this. Music to dance to, not listen to. Basically, it’s akin to Northern Soul. If the likes of the Highwaymen are Motown, then this stuff is Wayne Gibson and Wigan’s Ovation, or the Eric Winstone Orchestra with the Joe 90 theme.

          • George

            April 1, 2018 at 7:34 pm

            There’s really two varieties of Irish country – the old stuff that began in the showband scene, Big Tom, Philomena Begley, Daniel O’Donnell, his sister Margo, Foster and Allen, Larry Cunningham, the sort of Irish acts who’d appear on Sing Country, and get played by Wally Whyton. Mostly awful or middling material – usually covers (usually tied to a certain act – Philomena Begley to Billie Jo Spears, while TR focused himself on Mac Davis songs), with a few tacky but catchy songs like Lovely Leitrim, but performed by decent cabaret performers who if saddled with better material, may have gone onto more than national fame.

  6. Richard16378

    March 30, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    I remember later in the 1980s the BBC scheduled programmes normally on Sundays on a Saturday. Bergerac & All Creatures Great & Small come to mind.

  7. Glenn Aylett

    April 4, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    I had to laugh when five foot tall Lucy Ewing( Charlene Tilton) decided to become a model in Dallas, when the minimum height for a model in America is 5 ft 6( 5 ft 4 for Asian Americans). Maybe she wore massive heels, or in the traditions of the show, threatened to bankrupt the modelling agency if they didn’t take her on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top