Andrew Vine: Laughter without cruelty was at heart of golden age of TV

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IT really does seem like only yesterday, though it’s well over 30 years ago now. Our front room – we never called it the lounge – on Christmas night, everybody there, the whole family, us, uncles and aunts, cousins, all glued to the television and in gales of laughter, young and old alike.

It was 1977, and the scene in our house was replicated across countless other households all over the country, on what was probably the greatest single moment in the history of light entertainment on television, an hour so vivid that it still sticks in the memory.

At 8.55pm that evening, the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show started on BBC1. By the time it finished an hour and 10 minutes later, 28,835,000 people had tuned in – a record for a comedy show that still stands – which was well over half the total population of Britain at the time.

It was a staggering number of viewers, and maybe the single greatest example of the benign power of television – deployed rarely enough in our age of bear-pit reality shows – to act as a unifying force.

There was nothing in that hour or so that any adult watching would have any qualms about their children, or their parents, seeing; no question that there would be anything offensive or off-colour.

Eric and Ernie, were, of course, by that time the nation’s favourite comics, a hard-won accolade that was the result of 35 years on stage and television honing their craft, but even by their standards, that night was something special. So it was for all of television; earlier in the evening, impressionist Mike Yarwood pulled in 21m viewers, on any other day more than enough to blow any rival out of the water.

It isn’t just family memories that make me recall that evening as Christmas approaches; it’s more a perusal of the television schedules.

The 1970s are remembered for all the wrong reasons – industrial conflict, national decline, the grim absurdity of the lights going out at regular intervals and shops selling out of candles – but by heck the telly was good, and it did more than it’s often credited for in holding the country together.

There were, of course, only three channels then, and a large number of those who tuned in to see Eric and Ernie did so in black-and-white on sets that were rented from the electrical shop round the corner, on the basis that televisions were complicated things and if the tube went, it cost a fortune to fix if you owned your own. Oh, and there were no remote controls. If you wanted to change the channel, you got up from the chair and pushed the button on the set to do so, and occasionally had to twiddle with two little knobs on the back to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold to stop the picture shaking like the hands of the man from down the road who spent all his time in the pub.

Ah, bless. He’s lost in a rosy glow of nostalgia, isn’t he? No, actually. These things that sound quaint, archaic even, to anybody under the age of 40 or so came with no sense of deprivation at the time. Everybody was quite happy with three channels, thank you very much, and crossing the room to switch over to ITV really wasn’t a problem.

One of the reasons that people were happy with those three channels was because what they broadcast had the stamp of quality. Programme-makers’ minds were focussed on entertaining a mass audience, especially at Christmas, and did their damnedest to produce shows that had the broadest possible appeal. What they aimed at, more often than not with spectacular success, was genuine family entertainment.

That meant no four-letter words, no graphic sex scenes, nothing that would cause offence to the families tuning in, and in its turn that helped to produce a consensus amongst the population at large about what was and was not acceptable both on television and in the world around them.

It’s no coincidence that there was far less routine effing and blinding to be heard in the street, shops, workplaces, or even schools, then than there is now; no coincidence either that the general manners and behaviour of society were that bit kinder, that much less hard-faced and aggressive.

There was no hint of malice or cruelty in the comedy that united vast numbers of people in that era; no trace of it ever entered the work of Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, The Two Ronnies and the rest.

The BBC, in particular, set a gold standard in producing the big family shows; how odd and alien it would have seemed to the men and women responsible for them to read comments from the corporation’s present chief operating officer, Caroline Thomson, made at a conference about broadcasting a few weeks ago in which she said expletives were acceptable in the name of comedy, and that one of its points was to cause offence and make viewers flinch. How odd and alien too to so much of the audience.

Of course, there will be no audience this year to match that of Eric and Ernie’s in those far-off days, nothing to unite a majority of the population in laughter; the proliferation of channels and the rise of other forms of home entertainment mean such vast numbers are gone forever.

A few shows will pull in many millions, probably the soaps with their festive staples of death and infidelity – oh joy, just what I want to see at Christmas – Downton Abbey and Strictly Come Dancing, perhaps not coincidentally because its host, Sir Bruce Forsyth, is a reminder of a lost golden age of entertainment.

There were no home videos when Morecambe and Wise were in their pomp; maybe there was no need, because quality television was all around us. These days, sales of boxed DVD sets of classic comedy are buoyant and will doubtless find their way into a lot of Christmas stockings.

Hooray for that – at least for a while, we can switch off the real world and spent some time in one that’s funnier and kinder.