Reviews

BIG BREADWINNER HOG (1969)

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Big Breadwinner HogHaving raised the bar for television violence the previous year with his crime drama Spindoe, writer Robin Chapman pulled out all the stops for his next series based on the power struggles among the criminal fraternity. However, for many viewers it was several stops too far and Granada Television found themselves having to make an official apology to viewers before the transmission of episode two! Peter Egan stars as Hogarth, a ruthlessly ambitious, flash and violent small-time criminal who has visions of being king of London's criminal underworld. Hogarth has no respect for authority whatever side of the law it is on and his audacious nighttime robberies soon bring him to the attention of the established underworld who decide he needs a lesson in criminal etiquette. But when local crime boss Ryan (Godfrey Quigley) makes an example of Hog by giving him a public beating in his nightclub the young upstart extracts his revenge by returning with a bottle of acid. It was the extended scene where Hog throws the acid into the face of one of Ryan's subordinates that caused a flood of viewer complaints. Following the official apology, Granada ordered that the violence be toned down on all subsequent episodes and moved it to late night viewing in some areas. This wasn't enough for some ITV companies who pulled it from the schedules completely. A daring raid on several jewellery establishments suddenly puts Hog into the big league but also brings him to the attention of a law firm nicknamed Scot-Yanks which is no more than a front for a mafia-style operation that controls and takes profits from all major criminal activity. With the owner of Scot-Yanks currently residing in a high-security prison the firm is experiencing its own power struggle. Currently Scot-Yanks is controlled by the equally ruthless and manipulative Lennox (Timothy West) who decides that Hog is just the person he needs to spring their owner from prison but only so Lennox can have him murdered. But Hogarth is one step ahead and has knowledge of another murder arranged by Lennox, of which there is a crucial witness, Ackerman (Donald Burton), a one-time private eye who has been blackmailed into working for Scot-Yanks and bitterly resents Lennox as a consequence. Hogarth now sets his sights on taking over Scot-Yanks.

The eight-part series was widely condemned at the time for its amorality and violence, and apart from the famous acid scene further complaints followed a later episode where a woman is shot whilst in police custody. Written and produced by award-winning writer Robin Chapman and directed by BAFTA-winners Mike Newell and Michael Apted, Big Breadwinner Hog is one of the all time great British gangster dramas. Definitely an improvement on the previous years Spindoe which also broke new grounds in its gritty portrayal of a violent and malicious underworld, 'Hog' left such a lasting impression that he managed to land a number nine slot in a 2002 'Radio Times' poll of TV's nastiest villains. Never repeated on television since its original transmission, Big Breadwinner Hog is available to the viewing public again through Network DVD and comes as a box set with Spindoe. There is also an added bonus of an episode from the series Villians in which Bob Hoskins is seen in an early television appearance as the recently released crook, Knocker. All in all, this is a superb release and is highly recommended.

THE BIG VALLEY (1965)

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Starring four times Academy Award nominee Barbara Stanwyck as iron willed cattle rancher Victoria Berkley, a rich widow and mother of an illegitimate boy, three sons and a daughter, and set in California's San Joaquin Valley around the 1870's. Eldest son Jarrod (Richard Long who had previously appeared in Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip) was a successful San Franciscan lawyer, who handled the family's legal affairs; Nick Barkley (Peter Breck) ran the ranch whilst youngest son Eugene (Charles Briles) was something of a dreamer. Completing the family was former Disney girl Linda (Dynasty) Evans as daughter Audra and Lee (Six Million Dollar Man) Majors, making his TV debut as Heath. The series was created by Lou Edelman who had produced an earlier series for Stanwyck, and developed by A.I. Bezzerides, as an attempt to rival both Bonanza and The Virginian. However, it had a somewhat shorter television life than those other two series and finished after four seasons. The stirring theme tune was written by Lalo Schifrin.

BIGGLES (1960)

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BigglesThe adventures of Major James Bigglesworth, better known in flying circles as "Biggles", were written by Captain W. E. Johns (February 5, 1893 - 21 June 1968) an English pilot and writer of adventure stories who created his air ace hero in the story "The White Fokker", published in the first issue of 'Popular Flying' magazine in March 1932. This 1960 series, made by Granada Television, was a children's adventure transmitted in an early evening slot (initially Fridays at 6.30pm and later twice a week with the second episode being added and then going out on Wednesday's and Friday's at 7.00pm). The story featured a post-war Biggles (played by Nevil Whiting) who had left the RAF to join the CID, heading up a crack unit of investigators that comprised himself, Bertie (Lord Bertram Lissie) and Ginger (Ginger Hebblethwaite), who would traverse the globe to solve crime. Ginger was played by John Leyton who, on the back of this success, turned pop star and had a Number One hit the following year with the haunting 'Johnny Remember Me'. But even more notable than that was that one of the writers of this series was Tony Warren-who, whilst working on Biggles was also creating a 13-part soap called Florizel Street, but later (wisely) renamed Coronation Street. Actor William Roache also worked on the series and was spotted by Warren who then cast him as 'The Streets' Ken Barlow.

THE BILL (1984)

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The Bill For over twenty-five years The Bill kept the nation gripped in its depiction of the men and women of the Metropolitan Police as they strove to keep law and order in an ever-changing environment. Criticised in some quarters for its portrayal of police methods, the series was nevertheless compulsive viewing for a public that has always been fascinated with the inner workings of law enforcement agencies everywhere. When Thames Television producer Michael Chapman was looking for one-off dramas for his series Storyboard back in 1983, he turned to new to television writer Geoff McQueen, who would create two successful BBC series, Big Deal -starring Ray Brooks as small-time gambler Robbie Box, and Give Us A Break about an East End wheeler-dealer and his snooker prodigy, starring Robert Lindsay and Paul McGann. McQueen had also submitted an idea to the BBC called 'Old Bill', about life in a London police station. The BBC, however, were not interested. McQueen reworked the idea for Thames and renamed it Woodentop (the nickname bestowed on uniformed officers by CID) -and told the tale of new probationer PC Jim Carver's first day at work, the highlight of which was discovering the decomposing body of an old lady in a bath. Director Peter Creegan gave the one-off drama a distinctive and atmospheric feel by adopting a fly-on-the-wall documentary style by using a single handheld camera. The response to Woodentop was so good that within a month Thames Television had commissioned a 12 part series.

Retitled to resemble more closely McQueen's original title, The Bill debuted on 16th October 1984. Set in the East End of London, the series followed the exploits of the officers of the fictional Sun Hill Police Station as they set about their daily task of keeping law and order. McQueen (who tragically died in 1994 at the age of 46) decided that events should always be shown from the police point of view, therefore every scene had to include a police officer and he also ruled that the officers private lives would be just that -so there were no domestic scenes. If a police officer was suffering from domestic strife it would be reflected in the way it affected his/her work and not how it affected his/her home. The first two series, filmed on the streets of Wapping, were a tremendous success and the series was taken up as a year round project of two half hours broadcast twice a week. But the fictional police couldn't rely on the protection of the real police when in 1985 a heated industrial dispute threatened the safety of actors in police uniform, and the series, not altogether popular with the Met, was forced to move to the streets of North Kensington before finally moving to a permanent base on an industrial estate in Merton. In 1993 another weekly episode was added before the series returned to its hourly format, but by 2001 ratings were dropping dramatically and struggling to find an audience of just over 6 million viewers. At this time former Brookside producer Paul Marquess was brought in to revamp the series. He did this by axing six of the less popular characters in dramatic style. The Bill had never shied away from controversial subjects, in order to retain any form of credibility it couldn't-and subjects covered included an officer's suicide, death by car bomb, death by firearms, an officer charged with manslaughter, crooked coppers, gay coppers, and coppers murdering coppers. But none were so dramatic as the episode transmitted on 16th April 2002 when six officers were killed when a petrol bomb was thrown at the station. Following Marquess' clearing out of the old and bringing in the new viewing figures began to steadily rise and within a year of him taking over The Bill could boast an increased audience of 50 per cent to 9 million.

The Bill has been screened in over 55 countries and is one of the top rated shows in both Australia and New Zealand and many of its characters have proved immensely popular spawning two spin-off series, Burnside (featuring hard hitting DI Frank Burnside played by Christopher Ellison who was whisked away from Sun Hill to join the elite National Crime Squad), and MIT (the initials standing for Murder Investigation Team). The series also attracted a number of famous faces in guest starring roles and both heroes and villains have been portrayed by former Spice Girl Emma Bunton, rock star Roger Daltrey, EastEnders own Dirty Den: Leslie Grantham, comedian Eric Sykes, Alex Kingston, Mirrillion singer Fish, comedienne Kathy Burke, DJ Tony Blackburn, former fashion model Linda Lusardi, singer Chesney Hawkes, comedic actor Hugh Laurie and Full Monty star Robert Carlyle...to name a few!

BILLY BEAN AND HIS FUNNY MACHINE (1954)

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Billy Bean "Billy Bean built a machine to see what it could do. He built it out of sticks and stones, and nuts and bolts and glue. The motor ran, chuttle-a-bang, ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-torator, And all of a sudden a picture appeared on the funny old cartoonerator". Like the title song suggests the puppets Billy Bean and his friend Yoo-Hoo the cuckoo operated a machine which featured such devices as a windmill, a Dorset-Faucet and a cartoonerator which drew magic pictures. The voice of Yoo-Hoo was supplied by Ivan Owen, who later went on to voice one of the Britain's best loved puppets of all time, Basil Brush.

BILLY BUNTER OF GREYFRIARS SCHOOL (1952)

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Billy Bunter William George Bunter was an oversized schoolboy who attended Greyfriars School and often got involved in a number of comic misadventures. In fact it was from the children's comic Magnet that Bunter sprung, transferred to television by his creator Frank Richards. The shows were performed live twice a night (at 5.25pm and 8pm) on Tuesday's, from 1952 to 1961 and made a star of lead actor Gerald Campion (who was 29 at the time), but not as big a star as one of his schoolboy tormentors, namely, Michael Crawford. Anthony Valentine and Melvyn Hayes also got early TV exposure and the series gave rise to two catchphrases; "Yaroo" and "Oh, Crikey!" Well, it was the fifties!

THE BILLY COTTON BAND SHOW (1956)

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Variety series starring everybody's jolly uncle - Billy Cotton. Click Here for review.

BILLY LIAR (1973)

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Billy Liar An eternal dreamer, Billy Fisher is a likeable North Country lad with a habit of becoming lost in his own wild imagination. His flights of fancy do him no favours at the funeral parlour where he works and earn him continuous scorn from his boss, Mr. Shadrack. Life at home proves just as boring and his daydreaming provides a constant source of annoyance to his Dad. Adapted from the highly successful novel/play/film by successful writing team Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, this version of Billy Liar was updated by them to make it more relevant to the early 1970s, when it was made. As such, it's a unique and whimsical time capsule of a decade when flares were mandatory and hippies walked the streets. All of this counterpointed by Billy's flights of fancy! Featuring exceptional performances by Jeff Rawle as Billy, George A. Cooper as his Dad and Colin Jeavons as the mortifying Mr. Shadrack, Billy Liar still remains one of the funniest shows from one of Britain's premier writing teams. The series transferred to the USA as simply Billy starring Steve Guttenberg.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER (1989)

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Birds of a Feather A rare treat on British television - a sitcom centred round three female characters who were the only regulars in a comedy that concentrated on sibling rivalry, class distinction and a very annoying next-door neighbour. Birds of a Feather became an almost overnight success and stayed on primetime television for 9 years. The two main leads, Pauline Quirk and Linda Robson had been real-life friends since primary school, attended theatre school together and made their professional debuts in the 1970 movie Junket 89. As a teenager Quirk hosted three children's TV series: You Must Be Joking (1975), Pauline's Quirkes (1976) and Pauline's People (1978-79), the latter of which also featured Linda Robson. In 1982, the friends found themselves cast Shine on Harvey Moon, a successful comedy-drama series on the trials and tribulations of a London family in the immediate post-war years. Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, it was the writers first significant hit, and eventually led to them forming their own company, Alomo Productions. Birds of a Feather was the first series to appear under Alomo's banner.

Sharon Theodopolopoudos (Quirk) and her sister Tracey Stubbs (Robson) have taken different life paths. Sharon lives in a dilapidated Edmonton council flat in a high rise block with her shiftless waster of a husband Chris. The only time they communicate is when they hurl insults at each other, and this is almost constantly. Tracey, on the other hand, is married to successful business man Darryl and appears to have an idealic lifestyle. Together, Shaz and Daz have a son, Garth, who goes to public school, while they enjoy living in a house which they have named Dalentrace, complete with indoor sauna and swimming pool in the real-life Essex suburb of Chigwell, the 'millionaire row' for footballers, business men and the nouveau riche. However, the two sisters are suddenly and unexpectedly thrown together when their spouses are arrested for pulling an armed robbery together. For Sharon, Chris's part in the heist comes as no surprise. But for Tracey, the shock leaves her (in her own words) "totally gob-smacked!" Seeing an opportunity to move decidedly upmarket by moving in to Dalentrace, Sharon graciously puts aside her differences with Tracey, in order to offer support in her sister's hour of need. The move is expected to be temporary, whilst Daryll's lawyer goes to work on getting the case against the two villians dropped, but becomes permanent when each of them are sent down for 12 years. In the midst of Sharon and Tracey's new sibling relationship, enters Tracey's nosey next door neighbour, Dorien. Aware of what has happened to Daryll, and always on the look-out for a juicy bit of gossip, Dorien, a snobbish, middle-aged, sex-obsessed (as long as it's not with her husband, Marcus), social climber, breezes in and out of Dalentrace as if it was her second home, and mocks Sharon about her weight and lack of social graces, whilst Sharon teases Dorien about her lifestyle and age. This relationship gradually gives way to a begrudging friendship. While the early episodes concerned itself more with the plight of the two sisters and how they deal with their husbands' misdemeanours as well as their new, manless enforced lifestyle, the later seasons are more about the relationship of the three women.

Although the series was written for Quirk and Robson, Lesley Joseph, playing up her character's stereotypical Jewishness, became a surprise star in her own right, putting in some cracking performances as the sex-starved, self-obsessed, cheating, manipulating, Dorien. A classic British sitcom character in every sense. Sharon and Tracey (even down to their names) came to symbolise the pejorative stereotype, labelled somewhat harshly at times as 'Essex girl:' Brash, uninhibited women who had escaped working class backgrounds and were driven by materialistic possessions. A profile that became the source of numerous crude jokes in the so-called politically correct late 1980s and mid 1990s. Nonetheless, Birds of a Feather proved to be a huge success for all concerned and although the series finished in 1998 after eight seasons and numerous specials, Linda Robson confirmed in 2010 that a script has been written for a stage show, which all three actresses are keen to be involved with, but that this would depend on the availability of Pauline Quirke, who had just been contracted to Emmerdale for 6 months. Quirke herself announced that a touring version of Birds of a Feather would start in spring 2012.

A BIT OF A DO (1989)

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A Bit of a Do Set in a small Yorkshire town where everybody knows everybody else's business, A Bit Of A Do gave another British comedy writer the chance to poke fun at one of the country's favourite preoccupations - class distinction. Well-not just any other British comedy writer in this case, and when you see David Nobbs' name on the writing credits and David Jason in a lead role-you know you are in for a bit of a treat. Jason is cast as Ted Simcock, a no-nonsense self-made man and the owner of Jupiter Foundry, makers of household iron and steel products such as toasting forks, coal scuttles, fire-irons, boot scrapers and door knockers. In the first episode we are introduced to Ted and his family as well as their newly acquired in-laws, Liz and Laurence Rodenhurst, as they gather for the first 'do' - a wedding reception following the marriage of Ted's scruffy son Paul to the Rodenhurst's already-pregnant only daughter, Jenny. Laurence is a successful dentist and considers himself to be socially superior to Ted. What he doesn't count on is his wife's lust for a 'bit of rough', and while his back is turned she drags Ted off to a private room where they indulge in some behind the marital scenes sex. This sparks a chain of events that changes the lives of the snobbish Rodenhursts and working-class Simcocks forever...as their liaison leaves Liz ever so slightly pregnant! For Ted's wife, who has already long suffered her husband's infidelities it is the final straw...and the one that finally breaks up their marriage.

The snobbery is not confined to the immediate in-laws but to both sections of the two families, their friends, and across the different generations. The series is littered with a host of great characters including Rodney and Betty Stillitoe, boozy regulars at each function they (and subsequently the viewer) visit. David Nobbs, adapting the story from his own novels; A Bit Of A Do and Fair Do's, leaves no sordid sin untouched; lust, jealousy, hypocrisy, envy, greed and of course, lust - are all covered in functions ranging from the Angling Club Christmas Party to the crowning of Miss Frozen Chicken at the Cock-a-Doodle Chickens event. Nobbs began his writing career on That Was The Week That Was. That led him on to The FrostReport, which led to The Two Ronnies. As well as writing for stand up comedians like Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd he did a long stint with Barry Cryer, writing for Les Dawson and then created one of the BBC's best-loved comedy series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

A Bit of a Do is a sharply-written comedy drama which won David Jason the Best Actor Award at the 1990 British Comedy Awards. Featuring an outstanding supporting cast that includes Nicola Pagett, Paul Chapman, Gwen Taylor as scorned wife Rita Simcock and Stephanie Cole and Tim Wylton A Bit of a Do sees the changing lives and fortunes of the group through various social occasions, including five weddings, a christening and a funeral. The series is now available on DVD.

THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW (19)

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Show Image A firm Saturday night favourite for many years The Black and White Minstrel Show, a mixture of American deep South music previously popularised by internationally famous vaudeville stars such as the great Al Jolson, and quick fire humour from a host of stand-up comedians first appeared on British television in a one-off special entitled 'The 1957 Television Minstrels.' It was twenty-one years before the BBC decided that white men wearing black greasepaint on their faces with broad white smiles was politically improper and therefore cancelled the series once and for all.

The man behind The Black and White Minstrel Show was George Mitchell, born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1917, the grandson of a well-known choral director. At the outbreak of war he was working as an accountant. While in the services, he formed his first group "The Swing Choir" from A.T.S. and military personnel. This group was soon engaged by the BBC for 'Variety Bandbox.' Other broadcasts followed, but demobilization broke up the group and George returned to accountancy.

In 1948 he was asked to arrange spirituals for the BBC show 'Cabin in the Cotton' -other engagements poured in and George decided to form a large professional choir, 'The Glee Club.' Sections of this choir were heard as many as five times a week in such famous BBC shows as 'Hi Gang', 'Waterlogged Spa', 'Stand Easy' and 'I.T.M.A.' In 1950 he formed the George Mitchell Minstrels and seven years later the producer George Inns devised the format for 'The Black and White Minstrel Show.'

George Inns was born in Hammersmith, London, and from an early age took a keen interest in the theatre. Although his ambition was to become a comedian, George joined the BBC in 1925 as a messenger boy and later became a member of their Dramatic Society. After transferring to the Effects Department at Savoy Hill, he joined Hermoine Gingold in a mother and son act which played in London on the radio. In 1932 he went into television.

After the war he briefly returned to the radio where he produced shows for Ted Ray, Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warris. He transferred back to television in 1952 and had always wanted to do a 'Minstrel Show' since he worked as assistant to John Sharman and Harry Pepper of the then famous Kentucky Minstrels. His opportunity came in 1957 when he produced the first 'Black and White Minstrel Show' at the Earl's Court Radio Show. The show went from success to success, culminating in The Golden Rose Award for the best television show at the International Festival in Montreux in 1961.

At the height of its success the Black and White Minstrel Show was watched by a (then) record 18 million viewers a week and established itself as one of the world's best known musical/variety shows on television. Among the comics who appeared regularly were Leslie Crowther, Stan Stennett and George Chisholm, but it was three of the singers, Sheffield born Tony Mercer, Gillingham born John Boulter and Swansea born Dai Francis who were the undoubted stars of the show.

Aside from the lead singers the rest of the troupe were made up of the George Mitchell Minstrels and a group of female singers and dancers known as The Television Toppers and Mitchell Maids.

In 1960 the first of many albums of music from the show was released and quickly went on to break sales records. A London stage show at the Victoria Palace ran for ten years and played nearly 6,500 performances.

In May 1967 the BBC were handed a petition by the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, signed by black and white people alike, requesting that the show be taken of the air. The BBC, despite both the controversy and publicity surrounding this campaign stood steadfast and continued for another 11 years when the final 'Black and White Minstrel Show was broadcast in July 1978

BLACK ARROW (1972)

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Black ArrowBlack Arrow was a lone figure of mystery who protected the poor against greedy warrior barons fighting for power and influence throughout the 15th century Wars of the Roses. But an even bigger mystery for viewers of Southern Television's (initial) seven-part adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure was the identity of the actor who wore the Black Arrow's mask. "We are going to keep the secret until the end of the series-and we might not reveal it even then" the actor told TV Times readers in 1972. "I see Black Arrow as the Lone Ranger who rides into town, settles differences and rides out again" said the actor. "He is also a bit of a Robin Hood except that Robin had his gang of merry men whereas Black Arrow is alone. On the "good" side of the story were Richard Shelton, played by 18-year old Robin Langford, Joanna Sedley played by Helen Stronge and Will Lawless played by Eric Flynn. Principal villain was Sir Daniel Brackley played by William Squire. Suitably successful the series was off screens for less than a year before it returned in December 1973. The part of Richard Shelton (now four years older) was then played by Simon Cuff - very confusing for viewers, as Cuff had appeared in the first series as a completely different character. The Black Arrow actor was still a mystery, though. It wasn't until series three that Shelton was revealed as the Black Arrow - adding even more confusion - as he would have been too young in series one. Viewers were left to make up their own mind. (Adapted from original TV Times article)

BLACKADDER (1983)

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BlackadderWritten originally by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder told the story of Edmund, Duke of Edinburgh, and was set during the War of the Roses, as the houses of York and Lancaster battled for the English throne. Filmed mainly on location around Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, the series proved to be so costly due to its darkly lavish production design and costuming, and had such little impact on viewers, that new BBC chief Michael Grade sent the series to the chopping block. However, Ben Elton replaced Atkinson as one member of the writing team, and a script for a second series was produced with a much smaller budget, tighter scripts, and more laughs. Given a new lease of life Edmund Blackadder returned in the form of the original's great great grandson and as a treacherous and scheming courtier of Queen Elizabeth 1 (Miranda Richardson). Once again support for Blackadder came in the form of his squalid buffoon of a manservant, Baldrick, as played to seedy perfection by Tony Robinson. With the inspired restructuring of the dynamics between the two central characters, which saw a direct role reversal from the original series, with Blackadder becoming the intelligent side of the partnership and Baldrick the astonishingly stupid stooge, the series was a hit and Blackadder returned for a third stint of scheming and plotting, set two centuries later, this time as butler to the idiotic George, Prince of Wales (Hugh Laurie). By now the show was forming something of a repertory company of actors with Laurie, Robinson, Stephen Fry and Tim McInnerny returning in various guises to both frustrate and thwart Edmund's designs on making his life more comfortable at the expense of just about anyone that stood in his way.

It was with the last series, Blackadder Goes Forth, that viewers were finally introduced to a more sympathetic character, as Curtis and Elton tackled the futility and hopelessness of the First World War. Ensconced in a trench along the Western Front, Blackadder tried every trick in the book to work his ticket home. However, hampered by his imbecile lieutenant, George, Private Baldrick and the unsympathetic General Melchett and his adjutant Captain Darling, the series finally reached its inevitable conclusion as Edmund Blackadder and his men went "over the top" in a futile assault of the German trenches and on to their certain death. As the slow motion action faded the viewers last image of Edmund and his men was replaced by a field of silently, gently swaying poppies. The four series boasted a guest cast of some of Britain's finest actors, including Brian Blessed, Robbie Coltrane, Rik Mayall, Miriam Margolyes and Elspert Gray. Co-writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton went on to individual successes, Curtis with The Vicar of Dibley and the smash hit movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, Elton with numerous West End productions and best selling books. Atkinson re-created his character for a special film to be shown exclusively at Britain's Millennium Dome, there was also a Christmas special based on Charles Dickens classic story A Christmas Carol, in which Edmund was depicted as Ebenezer Scrooge, but in a twist to the original, Blackadder started out as a kind and generous figure before turning into the character the viewers loved to hate. There was also a 15-minute special for Comic Relief (The Cavalier Years). A year after Blackadder finished Atkinson created another memorable comic character for TV, Mr Bean.

BLAKE'S 7 (1978)

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Show Image Making its television debut on BBC 1 on 2nd January 1978, the night that Star Wars blazed across the cinema screens of London for the first time, Blake's 7 was the BBC and veteran writer/creator Terry Nation's attempt to present to the viewing public a serious home grown science fiction adventure series.

Set in the 'third century of the second calendar', the series presented the grimly depressing central premise of an Earth under the yoke of a near omnipotent, brutally totalitarian government, known as 'The Federation'. Ruthlessly crushing all attempts at individual freedom and creative endeavour, The Federation controlled its populace by means of air and water administered tranquillising drugs, and the immediate elimination of any and all dissidents by means of murder or sentencing them to exile to an off world penal colony for crimes of which they are innocent.

Utilising just such a fabricated charge, in this instance child molestation, a daring move on Nation's part at the time, the Federation dispose of Roj Blake, (Gareth Thomas), former hero and leader of the underground resistance movement. However, Blake manages to start a revolt whilst on the prison ship carrying him and a fresh group of criminals to their life of servitude, ultimately escaping along with a small group of fellow prisoners aboard a technologically advanced, abandoned alien spaceship, which they dub The Liberator. From this point, Nation (co-creator of Doctor Who's most notorious monsters, The Daleks and the sombre, serious post apocalyptic drama series Survivors), began the slow development of the black character and his band of mismatched fellow escapee's into a reworked, futuristic version of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, with the Federation cast in the role of King John's tyrannical forces.

The series original seven consisted of Blake, the coldly deadly and self-serving computer genius Kerr Avon, (Paul Darrow, acting initially as a marvellously judged foil and counterpart to the more overtly idealistic Black character), full time thief and accomplished coward Vila Restal, (Michael Keating) the gentle giant 'Little John' character Olag Gan, beautiful smuggler and space pilot Jenna Stannis, Auron telepath Cally, and Zen - the ship's near sentient computer. Over the course of its run, the core cast underwent a number of changes. The character of Blake himself departed when Gareth Thomas opted to pursue other career avenues, to be replaced by the far less charismatic and interesting standard hero character of Mercenary Del Tarrent. The Giant Gan and telepath Cally were both killed off and Jenna left the Liberator, their places were taken by two new female characters, weapons expert Dayna Mellanby and blonde gunslinger Soolin (Glynis Barber, who later starred as one half of the TV detective duo Dempsey and Makepeace). Rounding out the new seven were the non human forms of the smugly superior mini supercomputer, Orac, and following the destruction of the Liberator at the climax of season three, the introduction of the far less imaginatively designed replacement ship Scorpio's obsequious onboard computer, Slave.

With Blake no longer at the head of the outlawed band, Darrow's Avon character emerged as the natural successor to Blake's vacated leadership. Now, with an outright and morally cynical anti-hero in control, the war against the Federation took on a much darker, less noble aspect. This change of direction and character dynamics led to a much more intimate small-scale style of warfare between the two opposing forces, the chief highlight of which grew to be the complexly ambiguous, almost love/hate relationship between Avon and physical embodiment of the Federation, Servalan (an almost wilfully high camp performance from Jacqueline Pearce, which nevertheless demonstrated the character's cold-bloodied insanity to sometimes chilling effect).

Over the course of its four seasons, the series steadily consolidated for itself a large and devoted cult following, despite the fact that with Nation's departure and the loss of the Liberator, the series had seen a steady and unstoppable decline in script quality as the writers slowly lost their grip on the underlying direction which had provided the series with its early bedrock foundation. Despite this, a number of the later episodes were still interestingly written and executed enough to hold the audience's attention, with the final story of the series, entitled simply Blake, arguably one of its strongest, finest and certainly most controversial.

In that final episode, more than ten million viewers watched in disbelief as the heroes they had followed faithfully over the course of four seasons were seemingly cut down in a hail of Federation gunfire, whilst the returning Blake was himself killed by Avon. It was an audacious end to a series, which ultimately failed to live up to its early potential.

Despite the hindrance of a severely limited budget and lack of dramatic focus during its latter seasons, Blake's 7 was capable of offering thought provoking, well executed character driven science fiction drama of genuine quality. And while it wasn't Star Wars, it was entertaining escapist television science fantasy. (Review: Stephen R. Hulse)

BLEAK HOUSE (2007)

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BBC drama adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. Click Here for review

BLESS THIS HOUSE (1971)

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Show Image In 1971 the TV Times announced the arrival of a new television family-the Abbotts as 'just another group of people who find themselves - unfortunately, they think - related and, at the same time, divided by that ever-present generation gap.'

Devised by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, Bless This House was a starring vehicle for Sid James that showed him in a new and unfamiliar light-as a family man. Sidney Abbott, although married in blissful harmony to his devoted wife Jean, still showed many of the traits that Sid James was well known for in previous TV outings, but now he played father to teenage daughter Sally and ex-art student, but unemployed son, Mike. The plots mostly involved Sid's efforts to come to terms with his children's modern values or sneak away from his wife in order to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes of booze and football (he supported Chelsea).

The series was unusually both directed and produced by William G. Stewart, later the deviser and host of the popular C4 quiz show, Fifteen To One. It was the first time Stewart had worked with Sid, and during rehearsals for the first episode, Stewart had serious doubts about the show, because he found both the script, and Sid James' performance particularly lacklustre. Taking Sid aside, Stewart confided his fears and said they needed to do something about it. "That's not the way I work", Sid told him. "I don't want to leave my best fight in the gym." Stewart was unconvinced until the recording when Sid gave one of the funniest performances the producer/director had ever seen. For the next five years, Stewart claimed that he never saw Sid's full performance until the studio recording.

Powell and Driver set out from the start to exploit the friction that exists in most families made up of middle-aged parents and teenage children. "The Abbott family live in a state of perpetual turmoil, varying between hysterical neutrality, punctuated with occasional moments of veiled hostility, and open warfare", they told the TV Times. It proved to be an instant hit with viewers and by the end of the first season the show was already well-established with an audience of 9 million viewers and ending 1971 as the fifth most popular programme. William G. Stewart also commissioned episodes from a variety of script-writers. Vince Powell and Harry Driver contributed a dozen scripts but Carla Lane, whilst penning The Liver Birds for the BBC, wrote 25, including 22 out of the first 42 episodes.

Playing Sid's wife, Jean, was Leeds born Diana Coupland who had begun her showbiz career as a singer with a number of big bands in the 1940s and through to the 1960s. One of her most celebrated performances, however, was attributed to another star: When it was discovered that Ursula Andress could not sing, Coupland was employed by the makers of the first James Bond movie "Dr. No" to sing "Underneath the Mango Tree", in the famous scene where Andress' character, Honey Rider, emerges from the sea. Bless This House made Coupland a household name but the image of Jean was one she found difficult to shake off after the series ended in 1976 following Sid James' death.

Playing Sid and Jean's teenage children were Sally Geeson as Sally and Robin Stewart as Mike. However, when the series proved popular enough to be transferred to the big screen in 1972, Stewart was absent. There was nothing sinister in this as Robin Stewart told Television Heaven; "I was in every episode from the beginning of the series to the end six years later. I could not do the film as I had signed months previously to do another summer tour lasting six months." Not wanting to wait until Stewart was free of previous commitments, and possibly knowing that in order to make a financial profit it was essential for the film to go ahead whilst the TV series was still fresh in the mind and popular with the public, the makers and distributors, Rank, went ahead with Robin Askwith in the role of Mike. Sid James would have felt at home during the making of the film as it was made by the 'Carry On' team director; Gerald Thomas

The series finished in 1974 as one of the best loved and longest-running sitcoms of the era, Sid James' popularity was as high as it had ever been. In 1976 Sid was talked into reviving the series. The final programme was screened just four days after the stars death on stage on 26th April 1976. "Sid James was a comedy writers dream," said Vince Powell. "Because if a line wasn't that brilliant he would have the knack of turning ordinary lines into brilliant lines." William G. Stewart agrees: "He knew exactly what he was doing. Every one of those odd grimaces and looks to one side and boyish little whimpers-he knew what they meant and how to use them. Sid was a very clever actor." Gerald Thomas added: "His interpretation of a script was superb. We never wrote funny lines for Sid. His comedy came out of the situation and his interpretation of other people's funny lines. He was a remarkable actor with impeccable timing."

BLUE PETER (1958)

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Show Image There are a very select group of series that almost magically transcend their original target audience and humble origins to almost accidentally attain the coveted status of treasured and much loved national institution. In the world of factual children's programming that accolade has been bestowed upon one show above all others, a show which, despite more than four decades of continuous transmission, remains at its core as true to the spirit of its original format as on the day of its first broadcast. That programme is Blue Peter, and its story is the stuff of television legend.

Presented by 21 year-old Leila Williams, the previous years Miss Great Britain, and 25 year old former army officer turned actor Christopher Trace, who had been Charlton Heston's stand-in on 'Ben Hur', Blue Peter began transmission on 16th October 1958 as a seven week experiment in the 'Children’s Television' slot. With each show lasting just 15 minutes, and heralded by its jaunty 'Barnacle Bill' theme tune, the programme mainly concerned itself with items on train sets for boys and dolls for girls, and stories of Packi, a little white elephant, told and illustrated by Tony Hart. Due to ill health John Hunter Blair had to retire after two years producing the show and died later in his home whilst watching the show he had created. Leila Williams left Blue Peter in 1962 and was briefly replaced by Anita West, but it was with the arrival of the next female presenter that the show really took off.

Long time editor Biddy Baxter said of Valerie Singleton, "If the studio roof collapsed in the middle of a live programme, Valerie would have stepped out of the rubble and said: 'And now for something quite different', without faltering." Another addition to the show in 1962 (which by now had switched to a thirty minute format), was that of the first 'Blue Peter pet'. Petra was a mongrel puppy who was introduced on the show in a box wrapped in Christmas paper. Unfortunately, two days after making its debut the dog died of distemper and the producers had to look around for an exact replica as replacement so as not to upset the shows younger viewers. The switch was made and as far as the public was concerned there was only ever one Petra. Petra mark ll died in 1977 and the corporation commissioned a bronze bust of the animal, which was placed at the entrance to the BBC.

In 1965 Chris and Val were joined by 31 year-old Yorkshire born actor John Noakes. Sporting a Beatle haircut, Noakes became an instant hit with the public as he undertook a series of daredevil stunts such as scaling Nelson's Column, and became the first British civilian to make a 25,000ft free-fall by parachute. John also had two pets of his own; the first was called Patch, the son of Petra, and later, perhaps more famously, a black and white Collie by the name of Shep. The two became inseparable and John's good humoured admonition, "Get down, Shep", became a nation-wide catch phrase, as indeed did the famous "Here's one I made earlier", when referring to one of the many models that the presenters have shown the public how to make out of nothing more than plastic bottles, old toilet rolls, wire coat hangers and sticky-back plastic.

Christopher Trace left the show in 1967 to be replaced by former Doctor Who actor Peter Purves, and the show entered, arguably, its golden and most fondly remembered era. Shown twice a week (Monday and Thursday) its trademarks have left an indelible mark on an entire generation of children, each of whom would kill for a coveted Blue Peter Badge, awarded for contributors to the show. The 'Blue Peter appeals' have passed into television legend. Raising funds for national and international causes but without asking for money, Blue Peter has collected hundreds of toys for underprivileged children (1962), seven and a half tons of silver paper to buy two guide dogs for the blind (1964), 240,000 paperback books which bought four lifeboats (1967), 2,000,000 parcels of wool and cotton which bought three hospital trucks, six emergency vehicles and medical equipment for child victims of war in Biafra (1969), 40,000,000 aluminium cans which bought life support machines for sixty five hospitals (1989), and the Great Bring and Buy sale which raised over £6,000,000 for Romanian orphanages (1990). These are just examples of the numerous charitable causes that the show has come to the aid of.

In 1971 Blue Peter won the royal seal of approval when Valerie Singleton was allowed to accompany HRH Princess Anne on safari to Kenya, and Prince's Edward and Andrew popped into the studio to meet a lion cub. The show has not been without its problems, although thankfully most of them have been comical misadventures in front of the camera (the show is still transmitted live) like the time when Lulu, a young Sri-Lankan elephant from Chessington Zoo came to the studio with her keeper, Alec, and 'relieved' herself all over the studio floor, dragging the hapless zookeeper straight through the middle of it.

Although Biddy Baxter retired in 1988 the show is still going strong, a third weekly programme was added in 1995 and Liz Barker joined as the 28th 'Blue Peter' presenter, following such household names as Lesley Judd, Sarah Greene, John Lesley, Anthea Turner and Katy Hill, to name but a few.

The stunning, winning, simplicity of the Blue Peter format shows no sign of flagging, even as the show sails confidently into this, the beginning of a new millennium, the secret of 'Blue Peter's' innate magic is perhaps impossible to quantify, and perhaps shouldn't even be questioned. When all is said and done, perhaps the best and only correct answer to the show's juggernaut success story is that the people behind it throughout the years genuinely cared. That its devoted audience continue to genuinely care is both a foregone and heartening fact. (Co-writer: Stephen R. Hulse)

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