As the annual TV Times Magazine Top 10 Awards reared its head, readers were asked once again to ponder upon their favourite broadcasters and programmes. The 1983 awards meant choosing between Richard Chamberlain’s performance in the American mini-series Shogun, Mel Smith’s turn in Muck and Brass and Bernard Hill’s portrayal of Yosser Hughes in Boys From the Blackstuff (the nominees for best actor). Meanwhile conversationalists Alan Whicker, Russell Harty, and David Frost would again fight it out to see who could come second to Terry Wogan in the favourite personality section.
1983 would see the introduction of a favourite US TV star award in recognition of the recent popularity of imported action drama series, and in this inaugural competition there would be a three-way battle for supremacy between Bruce Boxleitner (Bring ‘Em Back Alive), Tom Selleck (Magnum) and Lee Majors (The Fall Guy). The short list in the laughter section was perhaps the longest and most eclectic of all. The regulars – Benny Hill and Kenny Everett – were expected to do well, but so to was magician Paul Daniels and newcomers Jasper Carrott, Victoria Wood and Paul Hogan. Tracey Ullman, David Copperfield and Lenny Henry had achieved popularity as Three of a Kind and were separately or collectively many people’s tip for the award. Conspicuous by their absence though, were another comedy trio.
The Goodies’ success in the 1970s was manifest, however their television downfall is an illustration of the perils of cross-channel defection. First broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday 8 November 1970 at 10pm, The Goodies’ (Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie)initial series drew in a respectable audience of three million. Its loose situation comedy concept of “We are the Goodies … we do good to people” was in keeping with the programme’s ramshackle plots and combination of physical and verbal comedy. Throughout the early 1970s the series gradually grew its audience (although never becoming successful enough to graduate to BBC1), picking up a Silver Rose in the 1972 Montreaux television festival. However the show’s popularity exploded in 1975, when it was moved from early Saturday evenings to 9pm on Fridays. While incurring the wrath of younger viewers, the ratings shot up from three to 10 million viewers.
Strangely though, the Goodies relationship with the BBC was never very comfortable. Irrevocable cracks appeared in 1977 when the trio found themselves in conflict with the BBC over an episode in the seventh series – “Rock Goodies”. The corporation felt the spoof on the emerging punk movement was beyond the bounds of good taste and demanded cuts, which the Goodies strenuously resisted. Just one week later though, the two factions were at it again as the BBC got cold feet over a script lampooning the Royal Family. The episode, “Royal Command”was delayed to ensure its broadcast did not coincide with a visit to hospital made by Princess Anne.
Three years were to pass before the eighth (and final BBC) series of The Goodies was broadcast. The corporation’s attitude towards the trio remained as standoffish as ever. On the one hand, the BBC denied them any additional money for special effects, yet on the other it held the three to a non-playing contract, effectively barring anyone else from coming in to secure their talents. At the conclusion of the series, the Goodies and the BBC finally became locked into a fully-fledged conflict – one from which there could be no happy resolution. The corporation had committed to producing a big budget television version of the successful radio comedy The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “The importance of that Douglas Adams’ epic has been somewhat blown out of proportion in the eyes of fans of The Goodies looking for conspiracy theories,” concludes writer Robert Ross of the Goodies eventual defection to ITV. “True, Hitch Hiker’s bit deeply into the BBC’s effects budgets, but Mary Whitehouse complaints and a new breed of comedians quickly usurped the established guard and made the corporation less than keen to renew the trio’s contracts … Besides that, Bill and Graeme were both going through bitter, expensive divorces and needed money quickly”.
Aware of the trio’s growing disgruntlement, LWT tempted them with the promise of a three-year contract, more money and talk of a film. In retrospect, transferring a weekday BBC2 comedy programme onto Saturday primetime ITV was a risky move. However, for a while, The Goodies worked in a mainstream niche slot. Although recorded last, “Snow White 2”(a 25-minute Christmas special) was the Goodies first ITV broadcast. “We haven’t moved into luxury,” reported Bob Spiers, director of their last BBC series and the ITV Christmas special. “As it turned out, we have produced more economical shows. The Goodies are still the same. Viewers needn’t expect any changes, but I’m bound to say I think the new series is the funniest they have done. I think they have reached a very high standard.”
Recording for the Christmas special was fraught, with one stunt in which the Goodies force the seven dwarfs’ house to collapse by standing up in it, creating particular problems. “We had iron bars to support the cottage,” remembers Spiers. “But in one of those incredibly unlucky accidents no one can foresee, the bars swung loose when the roof collapsed, struck the comedians and nearly knocked them out. It was certainly the closest brush with disaster I have seen with them.” “I really thought my number was up,” added Brooke-Taylor. “I have survived all manner of stunts, including dashing away from a Buster Keaton-type situation when a house collapsed, but this time I was really frightened.”
In promoting their first ITV series, Brooke-Taylor, like Spiers, stressed the Goodies’ decision to abandon the BBC was for creative not financial reasons. “It was because of planning problems,” he explained. “We take at least a year to write a series. I know most channel switches are due to money, but not in our case. We are not greedy. We simply want to do our show in the way we love!” Such talk bode well for the trio’s first ITV series, and things got off to a great start when The Goodies first proper ITV episode (“Robot”broadcast on January 9 1982) achieved the trio’s highest ever ratings.
Things went downhill from there. Whether it was due to the comparatively early scheduling of the series (each episode was broadcast at 6.45pm on Saturday evenings), or more painfully, that the Goodies had passed their sell by date, audiences deserted them in droves, and the executives at LWT began to wonder (as the BBC had before them) why they were investing so much money in a “kid’s show”. Morecambe and Wise had conspicuously failed to repeat their previous ratings success over at ITV when they’d first switched and prior to reuniting with their scriptwriter Eddie Braben (who had initially elected to stay with the BBC) the duo had looked in serious danger of bombing completely.
Happily for Morecambe and Wise, they were able to retain some of their old popularity and hold at bay the inevitable ravages of time (and comedy fashion). In truth though, their ITV series were much like The Goodies’ – over-rehearsed and over-polished. The Goodies position became untenable and at the end of 1982, Michael Grade made the decision to cancel the show. After just one Christmas special and six episodes, The Goodies’ ITV excursion was over, and having burnt bridges with the BBC, there was nowhere left for the trio to go. They were victims of ITV’s ongoing jealousy of the BBC, and of Michael Grade’s staunch belief that to beat the corporation you had to use its own stars against it.