THE TOP 10 BRITISH TELEVISION ICONS
OF THE 1950s
EMERGENCY-WARD 10 Britain's first medical soap, which was also the first of the nation's twice-weekly serials, (airing on Tuesday's and Friday's), 'Emergency-Ward 10' started life as 'Calling Nurse Roberts', a six-week filler which went on to become one of the nations best loved programmes, reaching an average audience of 16 million people a week and 24 million at its peak.
The series was the creation of South African born Tessa Diamond, an ATV continuity writer who was responsible for writing the links for programme announcers, and who had already submitted several series idea's to the stations programme developers. Set in the fictitious surroundings of Oxbridge General Hospital, the series was an instant hit -with one million viewers tuning in to the first episode in February 1957, and running for ten years. In the process it made stars out of the actors and actresses who walked its wards, not least of all Jill Browne, who played pin-up nurse (later Sister) Carole Young. The series also won praise from the British Medical Association for allaying people's fear of hospitals, and in 1962 the then Minister of Health, Enoch Powell, congratulated the show on its 500th episode and commented on the useful job it did in reminding the public of the need for immunization.
Although the series was high in drama it had a very low mortality rate (patient deaths were strictly limited to five per year), concentrating more on the lives of the men and women who staffed the hospital. These included Charles Tingwell as surgeon Alan Dawson and Ray Barrett as Dr. John Nolan. Richard Thorp who would later go on to star in another long running soap, 'Emmerdale Farm', played Dr. John Rennie, and John ('Please Sir!' - 'Upstairs Downstairs') Alderton joined the cast in 1963 as Dr. Richard Moone. (Alderton later married his co-star Jill Browne).
The long list of patients who received treatment within EW10's walls included Ian Hendry, Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney, all of whom went on to bigger and better things. There was a 1958 full-length feature film, 'Life in Emergency-Ward 10', and a brief spin-off series starring Richard Thorp; 'Call Oxbridge 2000', but in 1967, with ratings beginning to fall, ATV supremo Lew Grade pulled the plug on the hospital's life support. Grade later admitted it was; 'one of the two biggest mistakes of my life.'
THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT The summer of 1953 had seen the BBC's then new head of drama Michael Barry allocates his entire first year's budget for new scripts - the princely sum of £250 - on a single author, a young staff writer (and winner of the 1950 Somerset Maughan Prize for Literature), named Nigel Kneale. The scripts ultimately delivered by Kneale were for an imaginative, atmospheric, and innovative six-part science fiction thriller very much different from the somewhat staid, theatrical productions that at the time were very much the standard template for the BBC's television drama output. Kneale's dark and disturbing story was basically woven around a simple but highly effective framework. The Quatermass Experiment told the tale Professor Bernard Quatermass (Reginald Tate), head of the British Rocket Research Group, and the deadly after effects which arise when an experimental spaceship with a three-man crew is deflected hundreds of thousands of miles off-course, before finally returning to Earth. The survivor, Victor Caroon (Duncan Lamont) had been contaminated with an alien life-form that caused him to metamorphose into a hundred-foot-tall vegetable creature capable of infinite reproduction. After a tense cat and mouse manhunt, that saw the alien wreak havoc on London, it was finally cornered by Quatermass in Westminster Abbey and ultimately destroyed in time to save the world.
The Quatermass Experiment was to be the first of several successful collaborations between the writer and celebrated producer/director Rudolph Cartier. Cartier and his production team exhibited great faith and ingenuity to bring Kneale's literate and complex scripts to the television screen. At the time, Television drama was broadcast live, and the art of small screen special effects were virtually unknown. Indeed, the horrific elements required by Kneale's story had to be created 'on the night' itself, within a tightly limited series budget of just over £3500. Such were the limitations to be overcome for the serial, that Kneale himself 'played' the monster during the tense climax, using his own rubber gloved hands, covered with bits of vegetation and leather and pushed up through a simple blown-up still of Westminster Abbey. Only too well aware of the technical limitations placed upon him, Kneale relied on the basic dramatic strengths of a tight coherent plot and well-drawn three-dimensional characters to tell his story.
Once broadcast, the serial's impact was immediate, and tremendous. The combination of it being aimed, as it was, at an adult audience, as well as being the first episodic production of its kind, ensured it as an instantly popular success as well as being the basic template for the serials to follow.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD Richard Greene starred as the legendary 12th century outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntingdon, was forced to rebel against the cruel Prince John (Hubert Gregg, Brian Haines and most famously -Donald Pleasence) and his local henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Wheatley). Ably abetted by his traditional band of Merry Men, Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett (Ronald Howard, later replaced by Paul Eddington who would go on to find fame in The Good Life and Yes Minister), and Alan-a-Dale. The series was one of the first British shows to be purchased by an American TV company where it was also a big success.
Robin Hood enthralled a generation of children and spawned a number of imitations such as The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Sir Francis Drake and The Adventures of William Tell. Shot at Nettlefold Studios at a rate of a 26-minute episode every four days, Hood managed to maintain a high standard of writing, employing blacklisted Hollywood writers who wrote under various aliases. The series was also significant in being the first commissioned programme for the new ITC company. Terence Fisher, Don Chaffey and Ralph Smart were among the directors, and the theme song was a hit in 1956 for Dick James, who also went on to become a world famous music publisher with his DJM company publishing the songs of The Beatles and Elton John.
DIXON OF DOCK GREEN Jack Warner first played Dixon in the 1949 Rank movie, 'The Blue Lamp,' in which he was gunned down by armed robber Dirk Bogarde. His creator, Ted Willis, resurrected him six years later as a replacement for the BBC series 'Fabian of the Yard.' Willis spent a number of weeks researching at Paddington Green station, where he 'recruited' some 250 officers to provide him with anecdotes, until he finally placed Dixon at London's fictitious Dock Green police station, where he became a permanent fixture for the next 21 years, making the series the longest running police show in British TV history. Willis created a cosy, non-violent image around George Dixon, episodes began and ended with a monologue to camera beneath the police stations blue lamp, with a moralistic message that crime doesn't pay, before old George would disappear into the night whistling 'Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner'. George was eventually promoted to 'Desk Sergeant' and new, younger characters, such as Detective Sgt Andy Crawford came to the fore. With his promotion George rarely strayed beyond the station's front doors, and indeed, the last few years of the series saw him preparing for retirement, not surprisingly as Warner was now 80 years of age. Jack Warner died 5 years after the series finished, and in tribute to him his coffin was borne by officers of Paddington Green Police Station, as the shows theme 'An Ordinary Copper' was played over a PA. It was not just Jack Warner who was buried that day, it was an entire age of innocence, where the good guys upheld simple, traditional values and the bad guys came quietly. More than a quaintly old fashioned and reassuring television series came to an end when George Dixon went off duty for the final time, a doorway to an old way of life was closed and firmly bolted forever.
SUNDAY NIGHT AT THE LONDON PALLADIUM Debuting on the first weekend of commercial television in the UK, from the very start Sunday Night At The London Palladium established itself as the highlight television show of the week for Britain’s viewing millions - and immediately climbed to the top of the TV ratings. The show was the topic of conversation for millions in factories, offices and shop floors on Monday mornings and one Church of England vicar – the Rev. D.P. Davies, of Holy Trinity Church, West End, Woking, Surrey – started his Sunday evening service half an hour earlier, so that his congregation could get home in time to see the show. The British viewing public had never seen anything as spectacular as this on their TV sets before as the world’s most celebrated stars and the best of homegrown talent was bought into their living rooms in an extravaganza of music, dance and comedy. Sunday Night At The London Palladium was very probably the one show, above all others, that helped establish Commercial Television.
When 'Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium' aired for the first time on 25th September 1955, it featured among its stars the legendary Lancashire Lass, Gracie Fields, and from the USA current singing sensation Guy Mitchell. The show was hosted by Tommy Trinder. South London born Tommy had been a regular at the Palladium since 1941 with the review Gangway, and was without doubt one of the top comics of the day. Loved by his audience he would always tell them how fortunate they were to see him perform with his good-natured catch phrase "you lucky people". When, in 1958, Tommy decided to give up hosting the Palladium show a replacement was sought. When Parnell saw Bruce Forsyth perform for the first time he knew that he had found his new Palladium compere. Initially given a four-week run as front man, Forsyth was an instant hit and the series entered its golden era. Like Trinder before him, he had a natural ability for ad-libbing and audience participation. Within week's audience figures rose to over 14 million households for the Sunday night spectacular, and in the process a new star was born.
The format for the Palladium show never altered, it opened with the famous high-kicking Tiller Girls, a welcome from the host, a few acts and then Beat The Clock. In the second half another couple of acts were followed by the star turn, and the finale involved all the acts waving goodbye from the famous revolving stage. In its heyday 28 million viewers tuned in, at the time nearly half the population of the United Kingdom. The stars that appeared on the show or 'topped the bill' reads like a who's who of show business. The day after the Beatles topped the bill, the British press, unable to believe how the West End of London had been brought to a complete standstill by the groups fans, discovered a new word: BEATLEMANIA.
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