Maybe it's just my imagination, but the above question seems likely to crop up when discussing any comedy series from thirty years ago and over.
It's a fair question. Or is it?
I mean in the fair corner we all know that comic tastes change over time. Famous celebrities come and go, and with them something of the desire to poke fun at them. Taboos change too - for example a 1980 joke about two men getting married might not even look like a joke today. Fashions change, music changes, technology changes. Everyday things like LPs, train doors, the price of using a public lavatory, and the word "wotcher"… they fade away into unfamiliarity, and with them, jokes about said subjects lose their all-important relevance to us.
But the bottom line is surely that there is only one thing that really changes:
1979 will always remain 1979, whatever year you or I may be looking back at it from, and the tapes of its shows shouldn't change much while in storage either.
Ah, 1979 - yes I can still remember what I was doing on Sunday 15th April. Watching the first episode of new sketch show End Of Part One on London Weekend Television. I can still remember, at age 8, watching the first episode's opening gag, and loving it.
But on the start of the first End Of Part One, the familiar music played, the vertical line came down the screen and… it just kept on going! It went right off the bottom of the screen and crashed with this almighty collision sound effect, as the rest of the picture shook like an earthquake!!! It was riotous!!!!! Oh, right, I guess you had to be there… or rather then…
Well, no you didn't. You can still see what it was lampooning, just by checking out the start of reruns or other recordings of so many other LWT shows from that era. Mind Your Language, The Rag Trade (colour episodes), World Of Sport, Weekend World…
And that's just my point. End Of Part One, which parodies all of those programmes listed above and many many more, is today a spot-on satire of UK Gold, UKTV, YouTube, or whatever 'Old British TV' station you happen to be investing your relaxation time in watching.
Anyone remember the movie review show Film 79?
And yet, no, that's still not the whole story. For End Of Part One, in its first series at least, set about parodying not just TV programmes of the day, but a whole bunch of other difficult-to-record televisual concepts that really have been lost to time.
The loose plot of one episode finds Vera Straightman auditioning for a job as the new girl on the live testcard, for which she has to sit next to a rag doll, and remain perfectly still while muzak is played.
Ah yes, the surreal world of the long-suffering Norman and Vera Straightman. Throughout the first series they represent the series' comparatively more down to Earth sketches, about getting kidnapped by Vikings, donating to a decapitation charity, and buying a takeaway meal from a pet shop. Not to mention their actual pet - Mr Sprote of Hackney - and their nosey neighbour from Cardiff, whose name I recall was Mr… Err…
Sadly, this parody of the traditional 1970s sitcom family was dropped from the second series, which in retrospect I guess ought to have been called Part Two. On the one hand the Straightmans' departure freed up the remaining beautifully strange TV parodies to really bite, but perhaps at the cost of the programme's soul. In the increasingly surreal second series, there just isn't anyone to root for, only against.
Not that that's why End Of Part One itself ended. According to wikipedia, a third season was considered, but declined by the writers, who were demoralised at the show's continued scheduling on… Sunday afternoon. Yes, afternoon.
Mrs Crint: "Oh my goodness…"
Quizmaster: "So bad luck on getting the booby prize there Miss thing…"
Yes, these shows are as tightly-scripted as any episode of The Simpsons, and the gag-to-minute ratio is so high that a ridiculous amount of material gets lost under the audience laughter.
Now there's an irony - how many of End Of Part One's original audience could do that? Presumably the viewer who taped episode six at home, and in so doing accidentally saved that edition from LWT's furnace. Whoever you are, thank you.
As I said earlier, I can still remember watching the very first joke in this series. I loved this show as a kid, and so did friends at school. When it all came to an early end a year later in 1980, well, I can actually remember its parting punchline too. I guess the series just really hit a nerve with me, even though I also found myself regularly disappointed at not understanding a lot of the humour.
Had there been a third season, we can only wonder what lost elements we might have seen parodied of the way in which we used to watch TV in Britain in 1981. The Crystal Palace transmitter breaking down. American series getting their theme moved up to ahead of the first prologue. Whole series getting aired in the wrong order. Closing credits getting faded out early. (today they put them in a box) The BBC's refusal to use real trade names in drama. The phrase "the other side", along with each broadcaster's regular implied denial of the other's existence. Booster transmitters, after closedown, picking up a weaker foreign station on the same frequency and automatically rebroadcasting that. LWT's regular audio output swamping the police's VHF channel. The police getting their revenge by appealing for information via hijacking Rediffusion's cable service on the east coast. The electricity meter running out in the middle of a programme. Switching channels where the regions overlap and seeing slightly different trailers for the same programme. Early morning engineering tests. 'TV detector' vans. The jump in quality between film on location and videotape in studio. Magnetic weather symbols. Teletext. The wiping of shows after their broadcast, in the face of growing criticism that there were too many recent repeats. The reshooting of black and white shows in colour. Those very rare series that managed to change networks. That flipping strike…
It's all gone now, it's all gone...
However, to answer this what if question properly, maybe I should just rewatch all three seasons of the authors' follow-up sketch show Alexei Sayle's Stuff, which is similar in tone, and contains just as many sketches about BBC2 continuity.
The final word though must surely go to the barman in episode two when a ghost walks up to him and orders a "Double scotch please."
I'm not sure I'd ever heard that one before, even in 1979.
Illiterate? I don't know the meaning of the word.
Now available on DVD (alas not Betamax!) here.