I watched TV in the 80s. Lots of TV. In Britain, a lot of the TV that children watched (except for the stuff shown on children’s TV on weekday evenings between 3 and 6) was American. The stuff produced for kids in Britain was often quite… odd. I remember the obvious shows, the famous ones, like Bagpuss, Danger Mouse and Fraggle Rock, but I also remember some more obscure ones, like Jamie and the Magic Torch, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and The Adventure Game. Not to mention Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Metal Mickey, Cheggers Plays Pop, King Rollo, Mr Benn, Rentaghost… the list goes on! Many of these titles I remember with fondness, some with a cringing horror and a couple with genuine confusion. Check out the opening titles to Jamie and the Magic Torch on youtube if you don’t understand why.
But these shows, rose-tinted though my recollection may be, are not the ones that were truly formative. These just formed a backdrop to my early years, when there were far more interesting things to do than watch telly (there were only three channels back then anyway, at least until 1982). Riding bikes and climbing trees were much more exciting! But then something changed. Friday and Saturday evenings, usually at the beginning of what they would term ‘Prime Time’, started being taken over by the Americans. A couple of names drifted across British televisions a lot in the 80s: Glen A Larson and Stephen J Cannell. Between them, they produced a huge percentage of the iconic TV shows that British children ended up watching: The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, The Greatest American Hero, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and The A-Team, as well as several less known and short-lived series (Manimal, Automan, The Highwayman). These two men, just names on a screen, shaped a generation of British kids with their heroes and villains. Yes, the shows were largely cheap crap, with recycled stock footage and the same four stunts shown from different angles, but that didn’t matter. They created an entirely fictional America, in which the sun always shone, convertibles were the coolest thing ever, everything was slightly too yellow, and every woman looked fantastic in a shiny jumpsuit.
These shows were incredible to my young eyes, although if I watch them now I can see just how much television has moved on since the 80s. I genuinely believed in the formula that they were selling. I believed that the good guys would always win, even if my heart was in my mouth the whole way through each episode. I believed that facial hair often indicated a bad guy (and now I have a beard – what does THAT mean?), and women needed men to rescue them, unless they were Wilma Deering, in which case she’d kick a bit of ass (before needing to be rescued). There were other issues, ones which the child didn’t notice but the man can’t ignore. The shows were almost exclusively white (Mr T’s inclusion in The A-Team being the most obvious exception). Any racial minority was either a bad guy or a one-off supporting character at best, often appearing in a storyline about how racist everyone except the hero was. Remember that this was two decades after Sidney Poitier won his first Oscar, so black actors were not unknown, just unused. The black community shouldn’t feel alone though, because women were pretty poorly treated as well. Relegated to supporting characters, or more usually a bit of eye candy, they were invariably the love interest for the main hero, or a glorified secretary. Even the supposedly ‘strong’ characters, like the aforementioned Ms Deering, were always getting into trouble by being too impulsive or careless, and the hero would need to come and rescue them again. The 80s weren’t a great decade for female empowerment, it must be said.
Ok, now that the critique (such as it was) is out of the way, let’s have a look at what made some of these shows so great. We’ll start with an easy one: Battlestar Galactica. I won’t be talking about the new series, partly because it offends me, with its high production values and sets that don’t wobble, but mainly because I haven’t bothered watching it. I remember the original with too much fondness to watch a new version. If it’s bad, it will taint my memories of the original, but if it’s good, I’ll feel like I’m betraying the original! So we’ll stick with the original in this article.
Battlestar Galactica was pretty much a rip-off of earlier, and more succesful, science-fiction stories. Universal Studios were sued by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that they had plagiarised a large number of ideas from Star Wars (a slightly rude claim, considering how much Star Wars had stolen from earlier shows). Glen Larson was given the nickname Glen Larceny by Harlan Ellison for this very reason, and Galactica failed to make a huge impact on American television. It was a modest success in Britain, where it was repeated for a good few years. It never made it to a second season, although Larson certainly had plans for one, including bringing Isaac Asimov in as Science Consultant (which may have involved throwing pretty much everything about the first series out of the airlock!) and trying to bring in some female viewers by strengthening the characters of Athena and Cassiopeia. We’ll never know if this would have worked, obviously, but it’s worth noting that this plan did apparently introduce several elements that were picked up in the remake.
As a child, Galactica was great. Even the brown suede jackets and guns that looked suspiciously like the Stormtrooper pistols from Star Wars. Even better were the Viper fighters. A poor man’s X-Wing, maybe, but undeniably awesome. They looked brutal, dirty and cool, like they would actually fly (even if they did only have three buttons), and had huge flaming jets out of the back when the pilot hit the Turbo! Oh, and the pilots were replaced by female shuttle pilots in one two-part episode, when Blue Squadron succumbed to a mystery disease. This gave the producers an excuse to show what the flight suits looked like under the suede and velveteen.
Sexist? Never! The Apollo/Starbuck friendship was the classic mix of straight-laced and easy-going, with Dirk Benedict schmoozing his way across the screen with his trademark cigar clamped between his (impossibly white) teeth. These were cookie-cutter hero templates, with righteousness oozing from every pore, and their only flaws being just too damn irresistable to the opposite sex. Oh sure, Starbuck would get into trouble by being too impulsive, and Apollo would disobey orders so he could ‘do the right thing’, but it would all be fine in the end. There wasn’t really any conflict, and even the Cylons weren’t that much of a threat – having forced the fleet to traverse the galaxy looking for a new home by destroying the colony worlds, the Cylons seemed incapable of blowing up a few ships and would constantly be foiled by a handful of ‘plucky Viper pilots’ (TM) despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage. But this is the Way of the TV Hero. No matter what, you will live to win another day.
This is very clear in what is arguably the most famous of the 80s TV action shows: Frank Lupo and Stephen J Cannell’s The A-Team. It told the story of four Viet Nam veteran ex-commandos who were “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground”. The four men, Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Lieutenant Templeton Peck – otherwise known as Face, Captain ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch and Sergeant B.A. ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus, became mercenaries, hiring themselves out to any good cause that wanted help. There were a few subsidiary characters (notably reporters Amy Allen and Tawnia Baker – the only two recurring female characters who had both ‘left’ the show by the third season – and Frankie Santana in the fifth and final season), mainly made up of the military police officers assigned to hunt the A-Team down. The final important member of the team was big, black and made by GMC: the iconic A-Team van.
The A-Team spent a large proportion of their time firing fully automatic weapons at the bad guys, causing huge explosions and making jeeps spin out of control, leap a parked car and explode, yet somehow managed to avoid killing or even seriously wounding anyone! Helicopters would spiral into the ground, exploding in a ball of flame, and a few moments later the occupants would crawl out of the fire-blackened wreckage. This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the programme makers to ensure that the show was acceptable for early evening, prime-time broadcast. The violence was kept to exciting but safe levels, almost comic-book style, big explosions and wild gunfights, with no blood or death to disturb the young viewers (or the censors).
Each character filled a very specific niche, both in terms of their skills and their personality. Hannibal was the sensible leader, the man with the plans. Face was the smooth-talker, the fixer. Murdoch was the crazy one, the pilot who could fly anything. And B.A. was the strong man, the mechanic, who wouldn’t take no shit off fools! They would almost invariably get captured at some point in each episode, and end up inexplicably locked in a shed which just so happened to have all the parts and tools with which to construct an armoured, fire-breathing, racing tank (or similar). As a team, they had all the bases covered and had the righteous courage to stand up to any bully, and this was the core of the series: a group of comrades with no fear, as long as they worked together. They may not always have been friends (Murdoch was always deliberately winding B.A. up, for example), but they always pulled together like the battle-hardened soldiers that they were.
An iconic vehicle was the order of business for our next show: Knight Rider. The car in question was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a truly pimped-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was fitted with pretty much anything it would need, most of which would only be used in one episode and then forgotten, but the usual gear included a turbo boost, flame-throwers, smoke-screens, ‘Super-Pursuit’ mode, impenetrable armour plating and, of course, an Artificial Intelligence Unit with Voice Synthesizer. KITT was capable of driving itself around, so quite why it needed the presence of that mop-haired buffoon, David Hasselhoff, is anyone’s guess.
The story was that Michael Long, an LAPD officer played by Larry Anderson, was shot in the face while investigating the murder of his partner. Long was declared dead, but was actually transferred into the care of FLAG (the Foundation for Law And Government), a secret organisation set up by billionaire and philanthropist Wilton Knight. Long’s wounds were healed and he was given a new face (that of Wilton Knight’s presumed dead son) and a new identity (that of Michael Knight, played by The Hoff(TM), with The Hoff’s Hair(TM) in a supporting role) with which to go out and fight crime. Michael Knight had support, in the shape of Devon Miles, the Director of FLAG played by Edward Mulhare, and Dr Bonnie Barstow, FLAG’s chief engineer, played by Patricia MacPherson. Knight would drive around California (usually) as a high-tech knight-errant, fighting crime and solving mysteries. It was pretty formulaic, and eventually lost out to The A-Team in both the ratings war and the nostalgia war.
In another case of ‘The Car’s The Star’, a 1969 Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, with an orange paint job and welded-shut doors became an iconic piece of 80s action history. The Dukes of Hazzard was a highly enjoyable romp around Hazzard County in Georgia with the Duke Boys, Bo and Luke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat), as they drove like lunatics and annoyed the local law, portrayed as the incompetent redneck Roscoe P Coltrane (James Best), under the control of the corrupt Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), the county commissioner. The Duke Boys were forever foiling Boss Hogg’s money-making scams by…well, by driving around mostly. I have to admit, I have only a tenuous grasp on the actual plot, beyond the fact that the Duke Boys were moonshine runners originally, and now had a thing about foiling Boss Hogg’s plans. Look, there was a lot of driving around, and skidding and jumping over things.
I was ten years old, leave me alone.
Yeah. Cousin Daisy, played by Catherine Bach and her two supporting co-stars. She drove around in her white Jeep spying on Boss Hogg for her cousins and generally kept Uncle Jesse company. There was basically a lot of driving and vehicular stunt work in the show, as Bo was supposedly an ex-stock car racer and the General Lee was modified for racing. There was also the famous ‘hood-slide’, where one of the Duke Boys (usually Luke) would slide across the bonnet of the General Lee in order to get around the other side of the car more quickly. I don’t really know why, because it didn’t really impart much of an advantage. It just looked awesome.
All I know is that it didn’t work so well on a 1983 Austin Ambassador.
END OF PART ONE