Is television too ‘woke’ for its own good? – Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith rediscovers the masterful opening of snacks as he watches a re-run of 1970s crime drama Hazell.
Will Andrew Neil eventually come with a white, middle-aged male warning? (Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire)Will Andrew Neil eventually come with a white, middle-aged male warning? (Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire)
Will Andrew Neil eventually come with a white, middle-aged male warning? (Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire)

“Only three days to go,” went the tweet. Then, unsurprisingly: “Only two days to go.” Not long now until the TV event of the year. The Crown? No, you berk, re-runs of Hazell.

Can I get away with terms like “berk” and “stupid tart”? Probably not, it’s 2019, and not 1978 when Hazell was first broadcast. A disclaimer was flashed up on the screen before the cockney sparrow private eye strode the mean streets of Sarf London once again: “Contains language and prevailing attitudes of the time which some viewers might find offensive.” A crackle of excitement coursed through me, the kind I used to get from my Blue Stratos aftershave reacting with my drip-dry nylon shirt. “Great – bring it on,” I said, ripping the cellophane from the Matchmakers in a manner you might call masterful, which was another of those prevailing attitudes of the time.

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Okay, I jest. It was Twiglets, not Matchmakers. But the hoary old detective drama starring Nicholas Ball is typical of what can be found on Talking Pictures TV. The mix of old telly and even older movies has been a word-of-mouth hit with nostalgists who, often unable to find the schedule in listing mags, rely on social media to pass round tip-offs about the stuff we watched when we didn’t know any better.

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In a time of Brexit, Christmas electioneering, bitterness, rancour, Trump, wailing royals, food banks and, as Prince put it, Ed Sheeran being “rammed down our throats”, the appeal of Robin’s Nest at 5.30pm every evening is fairly obvious. But I’m wondering if Talking Pictures TV has something else going for it right now. Is is also the anti-diversity channel?

Not anti as in dead against, this must stop, terrible idea from the start, simply that diversity as the idiot-lantern portrays it is maybe, just maybe, starting to go too far.

Pandering to youth?

How many times have you watched a crime drama on ITV – because that’s the station most keen on winning the Bafta for Best and Least Crowbarred Use of Inclusivity – and, as the big chief has detailed the grisly case to the hardened tecs, thought to yourself – is this really what police incident-rooms are like?” Hipsters and nerds? Really?

And how many times have you watched a drama with a big romance as a key theme and, bear in mind the leads are supposed to be adults with a bit of back-story to them, long and winding roads to have got this far, thought to yourself: “How old’s he – 18? And what’s she – 16?”

John Craven, strict uncle to children of the 1970s from his stewardship of Newsround, complains that kids’ telly now is no place for old men or even solidly mature ones. Later … with Jools Holland has returned with the long-time host required to incorporate younger assistants and a brightly lit set. You might wonder: why hoist the giant umbrella of diversity to pander to youth? They don’t even watch telly!

TV is trying – desperately at times – to be as woke as possible, and to forget the dodgy bits of its past. A British rival to Netflix has just been launched with the aim of celebrating what’s sometimes called “the least-worst television service in the world” – but politically incorrect shows have been left off it and, in effect, erased from history.

This is sneaky of the TV companies – Britbox is a joint BBC/ITV enterprise soon to involve Channel 4 as well – because they’re presumably happy to take their cut of DVD sales of the likes of Till Death Us Do Part and Love Thy Neighbour but don’t want to have to answer tricky questions about them as they start to play with the big boys of the streaming world.

Joke was on Alf Garnett

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For the benefit of younger, non-telly-watching readers, Love Thy Neighbour was a sitcom about a black family living next to a white one and the sometimes comical but often offensive misunderstandings which ensued. Till Death Us Do Part, another sitcom, concerned the rantings of an English nationalist bigot who spared no one, not even his wife (“Silly old moo”) and certainly not his long-haired, layabout son-in-law.

Now, Love Thy Neighbour was no classic and indeed is regarded as easy shorthand for the rubbishy 1970s. But the joke was invariably on the white family, as it was on Alf Garnett. It might have been bold of Britbox to include the shows, and Benny Hill and the rest, in the archive. They could be used to illustrate how sophisticated TV has become, how women on the box have gone from silly old moo to Fleabag, and how echoes of Garnett can be heard in the bellyaches of some Brexiteers. After all, Downtown Abbey gets its place on Britbox, so the lower orders knowing their place must be deemed acceptable.

You wonder where diversity will stop. Whether something like The Andrew Neil Show – essential viewing right now – will eventually come with a “white, middle-aged male” warning.

Still, there’s always Hazell. I watched the first of the dug-up episodes last Friday where the eponymous hero had four women including a traffic warden swooning over him in the first ten minutes before he bedded a bored housewife. Her husband was on picket duty at the time. What’s that? Ask your dad. Nice social context there, but if I’m honest, the show wasn’t quite as terrific as I’d remembered it.