Factual Television in the 1980s

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Factual television, documentaries and current affairs, came under particular pressure during the 1980s, leading on several occasions to direct confrontation between the government and the broadcasters. Programmes such as the BBC’s Real Lives (1985) and Thames/ITV’s Death on the Rock (1988) stiffened Margaret Thatcher’s resolve to drive television broadcasting in a more commercial and populist direction. Ray Fitzwalter, Editor of Granada’s prestigious World in Action during the 1980s presented a paper to the No Such Symposium on the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which made investigatory series like World in Action and Thames Television’s This Week much more difficult to sustain, especially on ITV (ITV paper). It also destroyed one of the strengths of ITV, which was its regional basis. This is also described by Nick Gray in his account of Yorkshire Television’s documentaries.Popular genres.


But, at the same time, factual programming extended its scope in some unexpected and innovative ways.  The No Such project looked at the high-profile current affairs mainstream, but also at ‘alternative’ programming and at the development of new formats which sought a more popular audience.

Mainstream current affairs

For a book article, Patricia Holland and Georgia Eglezou have observed the ways in which mainstream current affairs programmes, in particular the BBC’s Panorama and ITV’s This Week/TVEye, dealt with the politics of health -particularly the ways in which the various groupings: ‘professionals’ ‘workers’ and ‘patients’ were represented in these prestigious slots. ‘There is no such thing!’: On public service, broadcasting, the National Health Service and “people” in the 1980s’ in Louisa Hadley and Elizabeth Ho (eds) Thatcher and After (London:Palgrave 2010)

Throughout the decade, Panorama, the BBC’s highly-respected current affairs series, remained at the forefront of political comment. Its star presenters, Robin Day and David Dimbleby, regularly interviewed top politicians, including Margaret Thatcher. David McQueen discusses the Prime Minister’s relations with her ‘inquisitors’.(Panorama paper)

‘Alternative’ programming

But other types of programme were available to viewers across the schedules, frequently blurring the line between ‘social affairs’ and ‘current affairs’. Within the BBC a Community Programme Unit had been set up in 1972 specifically to make programmes about people who had been largely excluded from the media. Peter Lee-Wright was one of the launch producers of its innovative series Open Space in 1983. Here he gives an account of the Unit, and particularly its approach to programmes about the NHS.(Alternative Programming paper). Such ‘alternative’ programming gained a new outlet when Channel Four was launched in 1882 with a brief to encourage innovation and to seek out audiences not addressed by the other Channels.

Popular genres

Television was expanding its hours. In 1987 both the BBC and ITV launched daytime programming, which meant that there was a need for suitable, possibly less demanding, formats. ITV offered Jimmy’s, an observational series which followed the daily life of St James’s University Hospital in Leeds, and ran twice weekly at 12 noon. The series deviser and producer, Nick Gray, describes how its success took its second season to a peak time slot at 7pm. While Jimmy’s pioneered a new popular format, the docu-soap, at the same time it was able to give an unprecedented insight into the daily life and politics of a large general hospital (Jimmy’s paper).

Jimmy's group staff photo   Jimmy's operating theatre
Jimmy's Series 10.
Picture credit: 'ITV Picture Archive'
  Jimmy's Series 10.
Picture credit: 'ITV Picture Archive'

Just like Granada and Thames, Yorkshire Television had a strong documentary tradition, including the current affairs series, First Tuesday. Jimmy’s grew out of that tradition, and also drew strength from YTV’s regional basis. “St. James’s was their hospital, Yorkshire Television was their TV station: part of the strong relationship that formed between the regional ITV companies and their viewers. We were serving the region, but also showing the region to the rest of the country”.

Jimmy's group staff photo   Jimmy's operating theatre
Jimmy's Series 10.
Picture credit: 'ITV Picture Archive'
  Jimmy's Series 10.
Picture credit: 'ITV Picture Archive'


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