Television nowadays seems to suffer from what I would term a ‘reboot culture’. Old programmes are revived often because big bosses have fathomed that they were actually serving quite a useful purpose in the first place.
There have been two examples of that lately: the BBC reboot of Waterloo Road and the news that the former Ant and Dec fronted Byker Grove will be returning.
But what has happened to the ingenuity of programme commissioners?
In both instances, the revivals help to redress a deficit of regional representation, in the North West and North East respectively. The reboots are also governed by the idea that those programmes did something which little mainstream TV seems able to do today, that is speak to young people in unpatronising and honest terms.
But what has happened to the ingenuity of programme commissioners? Surely we can generate new ideas without just regurgitating stale old ones? And is the valuable lesson not to repeat the past but instead look to these old representations to teach us something about society?
The recent rebroadcastings of two programmes, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Brookside, help to demonstrate this use. In and of themselves they are very different programmes, but both are thinly veiled social critiques of a kind.
The first was broadcast in the mid-1970s, a sequel series to the Likely Lads. Whilst the first installation is about the joyful and carefree buoyancy of youth, the second becomes a programme about coming to terms with ageing. How will character Terry Collier cope with his best mate Bob Ferris finally settling down into domestic life with fiancé Thelma? And how do you deal with the reality of adulthood being not quite as you once imagined it to be?
What follows is an ultimately very funny comedy programme, easily up there with anything of the era. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the masterful team behind Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, it is filled with humour and incredible punchlines.
But it is also quite profound. Whilst Bob adapts to the professional, modern life of the 1970s with veritable ease, Terry’s stint in the army in Germany has left him discordant with his peers and distant from his best pal. It is not political with a capital P, but hits sharply and wistfully at the challenge of growing up. And it is set in Newcastle, an early representational box-ticker.
The conversations and characterisations are markedly contemporary
Brookside came just less than a decade later. One of the first programmes broadcast by Channel 4, it was a soap opera but with a twist. Set in Liverpool, a city synonymous with the political strife of the 1980s, it also presents a fundamental social conflict. This time it comes not through a friendship but a new housing estate, which brings together neighbours of different classes and creeds.
The conversations and characterisations are markedly contemporary. There is Lucy Collins, the daughter of prudish and conservative Paul, who makes nuclear disarmament her teenage obsession. Or there is Catholic union man Bobby Grant, who defends Jonah against accusations from the mother of his child.
Soap operas nowadays can at times feel excessively performative and dramatic. Eastenders have just brought yet another character, Ian Beale’s ex-wife Cindy, back from the (presumed) dead. That makes it two in poor Ian’s family alone. The time when these shows felt like a representation of communities and stories we can identify with is now few and far between. The recent brain cancer storyline featuring Albert Square’s Lola was perhaps a rare exception. When these storylines excel, they excel. But they aren’t frequent enough.
Brookside, perhaps with the fresh wind of Channel 4 behind its sails, had permission to be bold. What ensues is a fascinating insight into the mentalities of the time, the sense of a community in conflict with itself in a time of growing deindustrialisation, secularisation and globalisation. There are some families on their way up the social ladder and some on their way down. But they all live together and so must muddle on.
We would do better to leave them as intriguing depictions of the past
The problem with a lot of television commissioning nowadays is that the lesson of clever, nuanced and articulate programmes like this is either ignored or palely imitated. The revival of Waterloo Road was definitely the latter. Instead of developing relatable and interesting characters like its original series, the new edition tried to cobble together as many social themes of 2023 it could think of and all too quickly. The Byker Grove revival may well, as The i‘s Emily Baker has suggested, try harder and more sincerely to cut through.
But either way, rather than rushing to recreate these iconic programmes of the past, we would do better to leave them as intriguing depictions of the past. It is far more productive for us to instead be enthused by their boldness and audacity in telling the stories of their time than trying too desperately to bring them back to life.