TOO OFTEN are the ITV stations tarred with the ‘eyes and teeth’ brush of tawdry showbiz. Here was one independent afternoon banker that was as unglamorous as the medium ever got. August 19th, 1969 saw Southern’s first colour transmissions hit the air with the orange and brown finery of the Houseparty kitchen-cum-lounge, a modernist, open-plan affair complete with Formica surfaces and Hessian wall-weave, lovingly recreated in Southampton’s studio 1. Punctuated by the occasional guest-introducing doorbell (“I wonder who that could be?”), the mumsy Ann Ladbury and the patrician former model Cherry Marshall (later joined by daughter Sarah) led a genteel, open-ended stream of chat among half a dozen personable housewives over the Poole pottery chinaware, with the viewer as casual eavesdropper.
‘Eavesdropping’ was the key. The whole thing literally fell onto the air, with nary a title sequence or theme tune to its name, just the ladies appearing underneath the good old Southern compass ident, in mid-chat (sometimes mid-sentence) and trundled on, with the viewer neither acknowledged nor appealed to, until the close, where a few credits would flash on the screen, and the ladies would fade out, carrying on their business. It’s the sort of odd format that would generate reams of over-excited copy from media studies wonks if it surfaced today, but back then it was what it was – a quick dip in to a never-ending cavalcade of teatime banter, with absolutely nothing added.
Loose Women this was decidedly not. Half-formed rants about the news were a no-no (unless it was helpful stuff to do with “prices”), and the phrase “isn’t that right, girls?” was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, knitware, cookery and macramé were the order of the day, the raciest it ever got being when bras were tried on for size (over the twin-sets, of course). Lucy Morgan, the glamorous one, showed off the natty little numbers she’d picked out in the local jumble sale, and crafted handbags from Victorian tea cosies. Sylvia Marshall (no relation) arrived and switfly rose to ‘head of the household’ status. Mary Morris was the redoubtable cook, often accompanied by the less able Daphne Lee or Karen Saxby in a ramshackle run-through of a recipe read off a crumpled piece of notepaper (“Is this a wartime recipe?”), which pre-dated Blue Peter‘s flour-spilling cackhandedness by a good few years.
Sadly, even this seemingly non-stop cosy camaraderie had to come to an end when Southern lost its franchise to the more socially ambitious TVS, and the final programme was appropriately emotional – no tears or anything of course, that wasn’t the Houseparty way, just a few rather touching goodbyes and one last round of tea. Well, they didn’t like to make a fuss.