Given the growing success of Casualty (which by 1990 was entering its fourth year and pulling in audiences in excess of 13 million) it was little surprise the BBC was keen to seek out another ensemble drama to complement their schedule. Mersey Television’s Waterfront Beat seemed a good candidate. Like the hospital drama, it looked to combine the day-to-day work of the main characters with contemporary political issues (in this case “the way one non-metropolitan, urban police force comes to terms with economic regeneration”). Furthermore, it promised a revealing look at the kinds of duties and tasks that come with the job, but are not usually portrayed on television. Coming from the same stable as Brookside, it was perhaps unsurprising that Waterfront Beat also boasted a strong social conscience.
“What’s good about Waterfront Beat is the characters and situations are real,” claimed John Ashton (who played Chief Supt Don Henderson). “There’s no Don Johnson-type who solves the crime in 50 minutes. And although it isn’t a comedy per se, it’s got a quirky sense of humour. Things don’t always run smoothly.” One example of this quirkiness was the names given to each of the characters, in particular the show’s token rookie – PC Ronnie Barker. “He could call himself Ron or Ronald but he doesn’t because he still gets his leg pulled,” explained actor Brian McCardie (who played Barker in the series). “The name has made him a target but it’s also made him very open and tolerant. Some people might think you couldn’t have a policeman called Ronnie Barker but we discovered there actually is one. I didn’t ring him up and ask him how he coped with it.”
Intertwined into the dramatic mix, Waterfront Beat was also keen to portray the impact of policing on those who perform it. As such, strong domestic storylines would pepper each episode. The series’ tone was at times unduly didactic, and while this balance had worked well in Casualty, by 1990 the hospital drama was beginning to shed some of its overt political leanings and focus more on developing audience empathy for the main characters. Waterfront Beat lasted for two series and it is probably fair to say that during that time it failed to find a place in the viewers’ hearts.
ITV’s notion of Saturday night drama was altogether different. One slot that had grown particularly crucial to them in the ratings war was early evening Saturday at 5.30pm. Perceived as the traditional time when families would get together after a day’s shopping, watching football or hanging out with friends, the logic was – at it had always been – that if you could lock the family into your schedule early on they would stay with you all night. Certainly this had proven to be the case for BBC1 in the 1970s, however the theory still held some water in 1990 (even though the proliferation of remote controls and VCRs made it far easier for the viewer to pick and choose their evening’s entertainment).
Tradition seemed to dictate that programmes of family appeal and of an escapist nature worked best in this slot. Famously, the BBC deployed Doctor Who (albeit with the start time varying down the years) for almost 20 years in early Saturday evenings. ITV, however, ran a variety of programmes, usually sitcoms (such as Metal Mickey which ran from 1980 to 1983) or – more often – adventure series. While some of these would be home grown shows, such as Robin Of Sherwood or Dick Turpin (1979 – 1982), generally the 5.30pm slot would consist of an American drama. Given the current lack of American television on primetime BBC1 or ITV, it is perhaps surprising to recall that once American programmes signified a kind of glamour and excitement that was perceived as both decidedly un-British, and also highly desirable to a television audience.
Yet the allure of Dallas and Dynasty, once so intense, had by 1990 declined (the last few series of Dynasty,broadcast in the late 1980s, had struggled to attain audiences higher than 8 million). Other American ratings stalwarts were showing signs of aging too. In particular ITV’s The A-Team (which had run successfully in the early evening slot since 1984) was becoming increasingly emasculated. The series, once one of ITV’s bankers, was suffering in an IBA –led backlash against gratuitous sex and violence on our screens. Two separate incidents in 1987 had caused the authority to take such a stance; first of all in late August Michael Ryan killed 16 people in the small town of Hungerford. A subsequent investigation into this horrific act postulated a link between Ryan’s behaviour and violent television programmes and movies. In particular the Rambo series of films (which featured Sylvester Stallone as a vengeful ex-soldier) were thought to be strongly influential.
On 3 September the IBA stated that “In the light of public concern following the Hungerford tragedy, the Independent Broadcasting Authority today reviewed once again its arrangements for dealing with television programmes containing violence.” The second factor in The A-Team’s downfall came into play just three days later when ITV broadcast the first part of their latest American acquisition Sins.Beginning on Sunday and broadcast over three nights (in an attempt to lure viewers into watching on Monday and Tuesday– then the least watched nights of the week) Sins had to be carefully scheduled to ensure it did not impose upon the usual running time of the ITN news bulletins. As a consequence, the Sunday evening episode was transmitted at 7.45pm. Given that it featured a brothel and a rape scene (implied not shown), the series – and LWT (who had scheduled it) came under sustained attack.
The knock on impact was that series containing violent content (such asThe A-Team) were increasingly edited to ensure that no offensive material was broadcast. Sometimes as much as nine minutes would be cut from what was meant to be a forty-eight minute programme. This would often leave the plot in a disjointed state that was very difficult for the viewer to follow. Clearly this was an unsatisfactory situation, however before ITV could take any decisive action, word came through that NBC (who originally commissioned the series) had decided to axe it. The search immediately began for a replacement. For a time ITV elected to run an additional episode of Blockbusters in the slot. The series fared respectably enough, but it lacked something in terms of “Saturday night appeal” and besides it was more popular on weekdays. Eventually though, there appeared another American series on the horizon, that ITV felt would be just the ticket.