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Best British TV Shows & Series - 1960s
The Early 1960s - British TV
So what did people who had TVs watch in the 1960s?
In 1960, British TV had not yet succumbed to the popular soap opera format seeing huge success in the U.S.A. and for the most part, variety shows were still the name of the game.
From 1960 through to 1964, The Royal Variety Performance was the most watched TV show and you can't get more 'variety' than that.
There were comedies on British TV and some drama too but in 1960, British TV, whilst not in its infancy exactly was only just getting to grips with giving the people what they want.
The Royal Variety Performance in 1960 was televised for the first time that year, ITV's Lew Grade buying the rights to the show,
The line-up included Liberace, already a huge worldwide star and British performers Cliff Richard and Adam Faith.
Comedy was provided by Charlie Drake and Harry Worth.
The Royal Family, as John Lennon quipped later in the 1960s, rattled their jewellery.
So what else would the 1960s have in store for those Brits who already had a TV?
1960's British TV Comedy Shows
Comedy in the UK has enjoyed a long history. even at the turn of the 20th century, British film makers were making short comedy films and this trend continued throughout the 20th century.
British radio still had a large audience for comedy in the 1960s but it is a decade which would see some breakthrough comedy writers give us some fantastic, hilarious comedy shows.
Many of them survived into the 1970s but more on that later.
In the 1960s you had to pay 58 guineas for a TV - yes folks, not pounds, shillings and pence but guineas! Most people just rented one.
But television was hugely popular - if you could get a decent signal! My mum's friend had a cheap TV set in the living room with an aerial hung on the wall. My mum says their reception was fantastic - the tiny screen showed a perfect picture, the aerial was made of a bicycle frame...without the wheels and pedals - difficult to imagine but absolutely true!
Comedy Shows In The 1960s
In 1960 the two most popular comedy shows in Britain were 'The Army Game' and 'Bootsie and Snudge'.
The Army Game certainly has staying power. In 1960 it is #4 on the all time viewing list and had already been on TV since 1957.
It starred a few actors who would go onto later fame in other TV shows , William Hartnell (the 1st Dr Who), Charles Hawtrey (many, many Carry On movies), Geoffrey Palmer (Butterflies, As Time Goes By) and Dick Emery (The Dick Emery Show).
In 1960 it was actually only a year away from being cancelled but went out at the top of its game.
It also spawned a spin-off show, Bootsie and Snudge, starring the Army Game's Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser.
Bootsie and Snudge was at #7 on the viewing list in 1960 hot on the heels of 'The Army Game'
The only other comedy show to make the top 20 in 1960 was 'The Larkins' starring Peggy Mount and David Kossoff.
All 3 were extremely popular shows and it would not take long for comedies to become one of the most popular types of British TV Shows.
In 1964, Steptoe and Son had Brits watching in their millions and in 1966, Morecambe and Wise was the most popular comedy (and variety) show. And of course, there was 'H - H - Hancock's Half Hour', starring Tony Hancock, the tortured comedy genius who had crossed over successfully from radio.
Later in the 1960s, 'Til Death Us Do Part', 'Howerd's Hour', 'In Loving Memory', 'The Dustbin Men' and'Please Sir' were all in the Top 20 viewed TV shows. Other shows in the top 20 still had variety as their main fare.
Best British Drama In The 1960s
Emergency Ward 10 lead the way in 1960 as the top drama show and for all intents and purposes it was the UK's actual first soap opera, albeit set in a hospital rather than a street.
Emergency Ward 10 had already been on British television since 1954 and its excellent storylines lead to its longevity and of course, successful soap operas do last a long time, just look at Coronation Street.
However, the real fun and games in British drama happened later in the decade when real innovation and boldness won the day. Shows like Danger Man and The Prisoner, both starring Patrick McGoohan were both enormously successful.
The Prisoner could, arguably, be seen as a forerunner to the likes of The Matrix. McGoohan became quite obsessed with the show but some of the story lines were really out there but its blend of sci-fi, drama and political subjugation seemed to strike a chord with the British public.
The Prisoner was filmed in the Welsh village of Portmerion, a sort of utopia designed and built by Sir Clough Williams Ellis in the style of an Italian village. It gave The Prisoner a unique landscape on which to roll out its bizarre themes.
Other dramas which enjoyed success in the 1960s include The Avengers, Doctor Finlay's Casebook and Z Cars. The themes were all so different - The Avengers was a fabulous romp if a show with a sophisticated crime stopper in a bowler hat, assisted by a beautiful girl, played by future Bond girl Diana Rigg ( the BEST Avengers girl in my humble opinion), international espionage at its best.
It was copied by shows like The Champions, Jason King and Department S.
Doctor Finlay's Casebook was about a local GP in a small Scottish village but British people seem to love these stories of local communities and their inhabitants and we do love a medical drama.
Z Cars was a cop show about British policemen fighting crime. It was hugely popular and ran for many years.
Other one off dramas caught the public attention.
'Cathy Come Home' caused a real stir when it was first shown as the young couple lose their home and eventually their child in a Britain without the right apparatus to support them. It shocked its 12 million viewers ,(almost a quarter of the UK tuned in to watch) and led to questions in the House of Commons and the BBC received thousands of phone calls and letters from people genuinely worried about the couple.
It was directed by the now reknowned director, Ken Loach who gave it a documentary style look and always worked with an ad hoc approach to scripts; it had real grit and genuine despair. Carol White used to talk later of people pushing money into her hands when they saw her shopping in London, truly believing that she was Cathy, the homeless girl who loses her husband and child to hard times.
'Cathy Came Home' was voted the best ever British drama in 2009, the accolade was well deserved.
1960s Soap Opera
Coronation Street was Britain's top soap opera in the 60s and it is still extremely popular today, watched by millions of Britons every week .
I can remember in my home, we rarely watched Coronation Street; my mother used to say it was mainly about people like the rest of us and for whatever reason, it just wasn't her cup of tea.
The soap opera most watched in our home in the 1960s was Peyton Place. One of my earliest memories is of Ryan O'Neal kissing his girlfriend on the show and of Barbara Parkin's lovely sixties fashion dresses. So for my young mother in her early twenties, the choice was simple, Barbara Parkins, skinny and young and dressed the way my mother wanted to dress or Ena Sharples and her hairnet and raincoat; the choice was fairly easy!
My parents tended to prefer its story lines so Coronation Street for all its homespun goodness never got a look in.
Best British TV Shows 1960s - Summing Up
So there it was, a quick waltz through the comedy, drama, variety and soaps of Britain's Best TV Shows of the 1960s.
On the face of it British viewers seemed to enjoy the same sort of shows at the end of the decade as they did at the start of the decade. There was more variety in later years but the need to be entertained remained a central part of the TV watching experience.
There was no reality TV as such, though 'Cathy Come Home' was filmed to make it look like a real-life documentary and the British public responded well to this innovative way of making TV.
We excelled at comedy and variety and both were well represented throughout the decade, though variety would not be as successful in the 1970s as tastes changed.
I hope you have enjoyed this walk down Memory Lane.
Click her for my Best of British TV Shows in the 1970s and 80s.
Other great hubs about British TV here:
Thanks so much for reading.