The reasons why such a hoard of great television programmes from the golden age were junked are many and varied and as a goggle-box devotee, never mind the son of a BBC producer, all of them make me weep.
Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s it’s reckoned that 60 to 70 percent of shows didn’t survive. One was Morecambe and Wise’s BBC1 debut but last year, on the 50th anniversary of its broadcast, Eric’s son Gary found a copy in his dad’s attic.
“It’s wonderful, it’s a revelation,” he says, and the big joy of Morecambe and Wise: the Lost Episode (ITV), to quote the double-act’s theme song, is the sunshine it brings Gary, Eric’s widow Joan and daughter Gail, all watching together and chuckling.
The ITV voiceover hails the missing programme a “classic”. I suppose, with every medium-to-large pop combo being breathlessly described as a “supergroup” and Harry Kane being drooled over as a “£150million-rated footballer”, then it is. And the network’s excitement, given you’d imagine the Corporation would have loved to be screening this, is understandable.
Ah, but would the Beeb have slapped a warning on the sketch of Eric, visiting Ernie in hospital, getting frisky with the nurse? Or the one where our duo are in bed together, Eric not getting Ernie’s apparent “putting up the curtains” euphemism for the passionate noises emanating from next door’s newlyweds, Eric placing a microphone to the wall, then Ernie nipping round to the love nest? As Jonathan Ross, one of the talking heads puts it, Ernie really would have wanted to assist with the drapes.
In truth, the lost episode is one for the completists. It’s M&W harking back to variety and not taking too many risks. Back in the 1950s on the Beeb they’d bombed, Eric keeping a cutting of the most damning crit in his wallet.
But soon they were racing to the top of the ratings much like the police car which inspired the latter’s most famous line (“He’s not going to sell much ice cream going at that speed, is he?”). BBC1 demanded audiences of ten million; within two months Eric and Ernie had delivered 20 million.
This programme was fleshed out with properly classic goofery alongside Shirley Bassey, Des O’Connor (given a career boost by M&W’s ridicule), Glenda Jackson (going from Oscars triumph to dialogue what Ernie wrote) and Andre Previn (Eric: “I am playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.”).
The 1977 Christmas show was watched by 28 million. Half the country thrilled to the A-list of BBC presenter-dom cartwheeling through “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” when most didn’t even know these guys had legs. Just last month that gargantuan audience was topped by the England football team in the Euros final. What did I think of that? Cue Eric: “Rubbish!”
Follow that? Two comedies back for second seasons try. Jason Sudeikis is Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), the good old Kansas boy trying to make sense of British mores and British football. Maybe you saw photos of the actor at the show’s premiere in a “Jadon & Marcus and Bukayo” T-shirt in support of England’s penalty missers, which is the kind of sweet stunt his character would pull: a good man though a manager of indeterminate quality.
The action begins with a penalty, AFC Richmond’s Mexican striker Dani Rojas taking careful aim only to strike the greyhound mascot in mid-leap as it chases a pigeon. The dog dies, and with it the team’s hopes of a win. “That’s seven ties in a row,” sighs Ted, the gridiron man still not really getting it.
Dani plunges into a deep depression so a psychologist is hired to sort him out. Like all comedies and dramas based round football Ted Lasso knows there’s little point in replicating matches as nothing beats the real thing and no one goes down in the box as if he’s been shot quite like Harry Kane.
So there’s lots of off-the-field stuff: newly-divorced club owner Hannah’s dating exploits and the developing relationship between Keeley and Roy. Ex-Page 3, she used to model for the club (my team don’t have one of those) and now does PR. He’s an ex-player and angry all the time, except when he’s teaching yoga at home to women of a certain age, sessions which invariably end up in front of some reality TV fluff with a bottle of rose.
And there’s Ted. A chump in charge of a workforce but nothing like David Brent. He doesn’t say funny things. Or strive for funny like Brent and miss by miles. But he’s got something.
So has King Gary (BBC1), which peps up the hoary over-the-garden-wall sitcom format with good gags, the considerable presence of geezerish Gary King (Tom Davis, who co-writes) and a motley collection of neighbours and family including Simon Day as his dad.
A big man, Gary is capable of organising both a skip for the street (“Oi, we’re not ‘avin’ greedy boards!”) and his own wedding. With partner Terri he gatecrashes other nuptials for ideas (“The singer was inspirational, dance tunes slowed down, like being in a John Lewis advert”). They do four weddings in a day - and a funeral, although at least he knew the deceased.