Life

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Having less to choose from made you value the good stuff even more

Before streaming killed the television schedule: In a time before box sets and Netflix, what was on a handful of television channels when you turned on was all that you got. Here, Weekend's TV critic looks back at what was screening in 1997, the shows that have endured, and the TV stars we have lost...

Terry Wogan Gaby Roslin on the Children in Need Telethon
Terry Wogan Gaby Roslin on the Children in Need Telethon
Julian Clary

Paul Whitington

"The past is a foreign country," the British novelist LP Hartley once famously wrote, "they do things differently there." That's definitely true of television schedules, and a look at the TV highlights pages of early editions of Weekend magazine offers a sobering reminder of what passed for home entertainment 20 years back.

These days we flick impatiently at the first inkling of boredom, stream the latest US shows via smart TVs and gorge on box sets of award-winning dramas with Hollywood production values. But back in 1997, what was on was what you got.

On November 15 that year, for instance, there was not at this remove a great deal to be excited about. But to judge the past by the standards of the present is a mistake and, back then, having less to choose from made you value the good stuff even more. On Liam Kiely's Weekend highlights that Saturday, a new Inspector Morse adventure was something to get worked up about. In Death is Now My Neighbour, Morse would berate poor Lewis and mutter bitterly into his lunchtime pints before being hugely cheered up by ghastly murders in a quiet suburban close. The crime drama has dated badly, but back then Morse seemed brilliant.

Elsewhere in those 1990s schedules, some usual suspects were at work. Paul O'Grady's alter ego Lily Savage was still hosting her primetime BBC comedy show, as was Julian Clary, while on UTV Denis Norden was presenting the umpteenth series of his endearingly innocent blooper show It'll Be Alright on the Night. Alan Partridge had been fired from his TV gig, and was mortally offending the farmers of Norfolk on his local radio show, and Ellen DeGeneres was still starring in her own sitcom.

Julian Clary
Julian Clary

Then there was Terry Wogan, now the late lamented, doing his usual delightful job of fronting up the BBC's annual Children in Need telethon. ITV's hugely popular period drama Heartbeat was still in its pomp, Robson Green was making a name for himself in the ITV army drama Soldier Soldier, while on Channel 4 the Secret Lives documentary strand was having a pop at L Ron Hubbard.

From an Irish perspective, November 15, 1997 was all about sport. In the afternoon, on RTÉ2 (then called Network 2), the Irish rugby team would line out at an unreconstructed Lansdowne Road to endure another hammering at the hands of the All Blacks. Then in the evening, and also on 'Network 2', Mick McCarthy's boys in green would face Belgium in Brussels, with a place in the 1998 World Cup Finals at stake. They lost, horribly (more of this on page 15) and a grim but entertaining postmortem was conducted by Giles and Dunphy.

That doesn't sound like too bad a day in front of the box to me.

Weekend Magazine

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