‘Stand Up and Be Counted’: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory

‘If there is one article worth singling out, it is surely Joe Moran’s splendid ‘”Stand Up and Be Counted”: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory’, History Workshop Journal, 70 (2010), pp. 173-98, which pulls off the amazing feat of viewing the entire decade through the prism of its least lovable television presenter.’ – Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 ((London: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 907.

At about 7.20pm on 27 December 1976, towards the end of Opportunity Knocks, a talent show on the UK commercial channel ITV, the presenter Hughie Green turned to the camera and suddenly adopted a grave demeanour. His Canadian accent became more clipped and English, which tended to happen when he was addressing more serious matters. As the in-house orchestra played sombre mood music, he asked his viewers:

In your farewell to 1976, did you see Britain old and worn, on the brink of ruin, bankrupt in all but heritage and hope, and even those were in pawn? Where do we go from here if time – bought with borrowed money – is lost through lack of conscience? We British – Scots, Welsh, English, Irish – who in the past earned respect throughout the world, have one more loan to come, one more transfusion for the nation that twice – twice nearly bled to death for freedom. A nation that Churchill offered only blood and toil, tears and sweat. Have we really lost what he once inspired in us – the dignity of work, the urge to salvage honour, the will to win? Do we need loans for these? Friends, let us take – yes, take, not borrow – this year of 1977. Let it be our year. To lift up our heads and resolve that this time next year, we can say: we did it! And it cost nothing but determination, hard work, freedom from strikes, better management, and from all of us: guts! Lest without these virtues, we lose our freedom for ever.

Throughout this speech the orchestra had been building up to a crescendo. Now the Wimbledon Operatic Society chorus, accompanied by girl guides and sea scouts, appeared on set draped in union jacks and launched into a song that had been co-written by Green and his orchestra leader, Bob Sharples. ‘Stand up and be counted’, they sang, with the words coming up on screen in subtitles. ‘Take up a fighting stance / This year of 1977 may be the final chance. / We are still the nation that bred the generation / who in 1944 changed the course of the last war / so that we could enjoy… freedom, freedom, freedom … with victory, victory!’[1]

This bizarre scene, a dramatic shift in tone on a light entertainment show, would have been widely viewed. Opportunity Knocks had spent twelve years consistently in the top twenty rated television programmes. It regularly attracted around 18 million viewers, and this was the Christmas edition, when families would have been gathered round the television and, in the three-channel era, the only alternative offerings were a Carry On film on BBC1 and an Engelbert Humperdinck opera on the highbrow channel, BBC2. Green’s employers at Thames Television were horrified at this flagrant breach of the 1955 Broadcasting Act, which stipulated that political issues should be dealt with on television with due impartiality. Thames’ director of programmes, Jeremy Isaacs, later wrote that Green’s ‘mixture of patriotism and propaganda … was excruciating and inappropriate’.[2] But no immediate action was taken, perhaps because there was little evidence of this speech provoking a reaction in the media or among the general public. Hughie Green, wrote the Guardian television critic in March 1977, is ‘unabashed about being hired to introduce a talent show but using it for giving his millions homilies about the state of the wunnerful nation. And we don’t seem to see it as absurd that it should be so.’[3] The absence of comment in other media suggests that this critic was right and that others did not see it as absurd.

Even more oddly, Green had form. At the end of the final Opportunity Knocks of 1974 he had urged his viewers: ‘Let us work with all our might to see that 1975, with the gathering storm of despair ahead, will not be the end of our country. Lest we perish, friends, let us all together say in 1975, both to the nation, to each other and to ourselves: for God’s sake, Britain, wake up!’ The orchestra again swelled as he was speaking before a choir broke into a chorus of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.[4] ‘Hughie Green,’ Isaacs said after the presenter’s death in 1997, ‘thought he was fighting the cold war.’[5] Green argued at each Thames budget round that at least one edition of Opportunity Knocks per series should be an outside broadcast. His preferred locations were a nuclear submarine or a NATO airbase, since ‘he enjoyed wrapping himself in the Union Jack’.[6] Alongside his more dramatic pronouncements, Green included many minor homilies in the shows, such as reminding his viewers about poppy day, and signing off with ‘bye-bye, buy British’ or ‘drive carefully and be sparing on the petrol’.

Green’s politics were militaristic, jingoistic and ultra-right-wing. There had been rumours circulating since the late 1960s about paramilitary groups organizing in the British countryside and the possibility of an armed coup against Wilsonian ‘socialism’ which would impose a South American-style junta on Britain.[7] Brian Tesler, Isaacs’s predecessor as director of programmes at Thames, told a 1997 television documentary about Green that he had disclosed his own plans for a military coup against Wilson at a dinner arranged to dissuade him from bringing politics into his shows. Green named General Sir Harry Tuzo, chief of staff of the British Army of the Rhine, as a potential right-wing figurehead.[8] In January 1976 Green had announced his support for the Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher, the day after the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star had named her ‘the Iron Lady’. At the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs, Green became the first person to sign a national petition against Labour’s Education Bill, under which all grant-maintained schools were to become comprehensive – and used the occasion to attack the Soviet Union and those he called its ‘friends’ in the UK. ‘I think one has to look into the political motives of certain people who do not want our children to have a proper education,’ he said. ‘I love this country and I do not want to see the citizens of tomorrow becoming servants of another power – and I think Mrs Thatcher was right when she recently named the other power.’ His concern was prompted, he said, by researchers for Opportunity Knocks informing him that standards of literacy and numeracy among children they were auditioning were declining.[9]

Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech was not, then, as odd as it first appears; it emerged out of both his own personal politics and the political-economic ‘crisis’ of the mid-1970s. What is interesting about this speech, which now seems so hammy and histrionic, is that, in referring only obliquely to actual political and economic events, it assumes a set of shared cultural understandings with its audience. Green made only passing mention of this speech in subsequent interviews, and never gave a public account of what motivated him to produce it. But it is possible, by exploring in more detail the events of late 1976, to piece together what he was aiming to do – and to use this speech as one way of understanding the peculiar collective mentalities of that moment. My aim is to bring together these different strands of the low-cultural and high-political in order to show how they form part of a unique historical conjuncture, one which cannot necessarily be tied to a uniform understanding of ‘the 1970s’. By focusing on a largely forgotten moment in the cultural history of that decade, I want to set some of the historically contingent elements of the 1970s against the simplifications of popular memory and political mythology.

CREATING THE CRISIS

One useful starting point for understanding the historical moment of late 1976 is to look at the contemporaneous work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, which was developing an account of the collapse of the postwar social-democratic consensus and the beginnings of the Thatcherite challenge to it. This work saw Britain’s current crisis of political legitimacy and authority as the result of longstanding structural problems, masked by postwar affluence, in the backwardness of Britain’s post-imperial economy. The deep world recession of the 1970s had exposed the UK as a country where ‘there are no viable capitalist solutions left, and where, as yet, there is no political base for an alternative socialist strategy. It is a nation locked in a deadly stalemate: a state of unstoppable capitalist decline.’[10] The key move made by the CCCS, drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s work, was to understand this moment as both economic-political and cultural-symbolic: the discourse of ‘crisis’ was not merely descriptive but also creative, a way for emergent elements in the cultural-political hegemonic order to consolidate themselves.

The sense of a Britain in crisis had been talked up intermittently since the OPEC oil crisis of 1972-3, a moment which decisively ended the era of postwar affluence. After Harold Wilson returned to power in a minority government in March 1974, this language of crisis was primarily evoked by those on the political right, on both sides of the Atlantic, who were worried about Britain’s supposed descent into state socialism. From the early 1970s onwards, as Stuart Hall and his co-researchers put it in Policing the Crisis, ‘British society became little short of fixated by the idea of a conspiracy against “the British way of life”’, especially by politically-motivated union leaders and socialist politicians intent on the ‘Sovietisation’ of Britain. By the end of 1976, this view had spread from marginal organizations like Aims of Industry and the Economic League into mainstream media like The Times and the Economist,[11] and the rhetoric of potential insurgency by the ‘enemy within’ was familiar enough to have filtered into popular representations. In David Nobbs’s BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the first series of which was broadcast that autumn, Perrin’s brother-in-law Jimmy is organizing a private army and collecting a cache of rusty rifles ‘in case the balloon goes up’. He declares war indiscriminately on ‘wreckers of law and order. Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, neo-Trotskyists, crypto-Trotskyists, union leaders, Communist union leaders, atheists, agnostics, long-haired weirdos, short-haired weirdos, vandals, hooligans, football supporters, namby-pamby probation officers, rapists, papists, papist rapists, foreign surgeons – headshrinkers, who ought to be locked up, Wedgwood Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue-sniffers’.[12]

Much of this counter-revolutionary rhetoric fitted in with a recurring theme of middle-class anxiety, embattlement and resentment which, as Ross McKibbin has argued, has tended to surface at particular crisis points in the twentieth century such as the early 1920s and the late 1940s.[13] The common motif was of the middle classes as an overlooked, anxious majority which did not form part of an organized lobby and therefore could not make its influence felt in a corporate state organized around horsetrading between government, management and trades unions.[14] This theme of a beleaguered middle class was evident in a number of social phenomena throughout 1976: the publication in April of the Sunday Telegraph journalist Patrick Hutber’s The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class – and How it Can Fight Back, a book serialized in the Daily Mail which proposed, among other things, the appointment of a minister for the middle classes[15]; the moral panic about welfare ‘scroungers’, launched by the National Association for Freedom (NAFF) in the summer and later taken up by Tory MPs Michael Brotherton and Iain Sproat[16]; and the constant newspaper stories about how inflation was eating away at savings accounts, and about selfishly-motivated industrial action (‘a row over just one man will cripple two Leyland car factories today’[17]). 

In the US, where the term ‘middle class’ was largely synonymous with the ordinary working class, right-wing media commentary picked up on this narrative of middle-class anxiety – and this was in turn fed back into the UK media as evidence of Britain’s status as the sick man of Europe. On 29 November, CBS broadcast a special edition of 60 Minutes, presented by Morley Safer, titled ‘Will there always be an England?’, which was widely reported and discussed in the British press. It juxtaposed a series of contentious images to illustrate what Safer called the ‘British disease’: workers queuing to leave a shipyard fifteen minutes early; a Social Services office in which a man was told about the many forms he had to complete to obtain various benefits; well-dressed party-goers drinking champagne at Eton; the crowds at Henley rowing regatta; and (perhaps to suggest Weimar decadence) female impersonators performing in a pub. The film conveyed the impression of an ordinary middle class squeezed between an idle proletariat and a decadent aristocracy enjoying a life of leisure. Safer told his viewers that ‘the rich still eat their strawberries and cream … the workers are lazy … The middle class has nowhere to turn, having been bled white by high taxes and 20 and 30 per cent inflation. … Middle-class values are a joke … Today anything goes.’ Threaded throughout the programme as a talking head, the new Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman argued that if Britain continued on her present course it would become a ‘collectivist, totalitarian state’ and ‘it will mean the end of Britain’s democracy’. Identifying the root of the problem as a lack of incentive to work hard, Friedman stated, ‘If you pay a man to be lazy, he will be lazy.’ In comments clearly aimed less at Britons than his fellow Americans, who had just elected a president, Jimmy Carter, pledging to introduce an incomes policy and socialized health care, Friedman warned: ‘I hope the American people can look at Britain and come to their senses before it’s too late.’[18]

McKibbin argues that in the interwar years this theme of middle-class victimhood came to be articulated through a call for national unity, employing an ostensibly apolitical vocabulary which urged the country to reject sectional antagonism and pull together to preserve the social status quo.[19] On 20 October 1976, in a BBC1 interview with Robin Day, the former prime minister Harold Macmillan employed a similar vocabulary when he argued that ‘we have got ourselves into such a tight feeling of animosity, quite different from the times I remember’ and called for ‘a government of national unity’ like in wartime.[20] Since becoming Tory leader in January 1975, Margaret Thatcher had been skilfully appealing to this kind of cross-class and apolitical unity while drawing more subtly on an undercurrent of middle-class anxiety.[21] Her public speeches at the end of 1976 addressed the ‘sense of despair and hopelessness among our wealth creators … there is a vendetta against success’,[22] but invariably incorporated an appeal to class inclusiveness: ‘Today, we are all working people. Today it is the Conservatives and not the Socialists who represent the true interests and hopes and aspirations of the working people.’[23]

There was of course a specific event which had brought these fears and resentments to a head: the IMF crisis. The autumn of 1976 had seen a catastrophic loss of confidence in sterling, with the pound falling to all all-time low after industrial unrest at British Leyland and a threatened seamen’s strike. On 27 September the Chancellor Denis Healey, due to fly out to a finance ministers’ conference in Hong Kong, had to abandon his trip at Heathrow because the markets were so nervous, go back to the Treasury and apply to the IMF for a loan. Healey then made an unscheduled visit to the Labour conference in Blackpool to make his case for the loan against a recalcitrant left wing which was arguing instead for a siege economy, with trade tariffs and nationalization of the banks. Green’s comment about ‘time, bought with borrowed money’ was clearly a coded reference to the prime minister James Callaghan’s speech at this conference, in which he said that the country had lived ‘for too long on borrowed time, borrowed money, and even borrowed ideas’.[24] The period from October to December was dominated by negotiations around applications to the monetarist IMF, which was demanding £2.5bn cuts in government spending in return for a $3.9bn loan. The final package of cuts was announced in Healey’s mini-budget of 15 December, not as Draconian as some had feared so that the newspapers did not know whether to attack Healey for capitulating to the IMF or for not cutting spending enough. The Daily Mail’s headline was ‘Chicken Chancellor’; the Sun’s was ‘Britain’s Shame’.[25]

The situation was not, in fact, uniquely dire. The government had already made two applications to the IMF at the end of 1975, with far less publicity, and the balance of payments had been in much greater arrears in 1974 and 1975. Wages and price inflation and the growth in the money supply had all slowed significantly since then.[26] But few Britons understood much about this new vocabulary of exchange rates, public spending figures and the supply of money. What was really significant was the crisis’s symbolic quality: Healey’s melodramatic volte-face at Heathrow, caught by the TV cameras, the arrival of the anonymous IMF team in the UK on 1 November with its humiliatingly infantilizing connotations, and the ‘shame’ of the mini-budget. In the middle of the crisis, the right-wing Labour newspaper the Sunday Mirror articulated this mood:

Perhaps the politicians, who have got us into our present mess, would like to know what the British people are fed up with most of all … Not the fall in the pound. Not ever-rising food prices. Not the erosion of their pay packets. Not even the weather. What the British people are fed up with most of all is feeling ASHAMED.

This editorial particularly resented the bumper stickers adopted by Gerald Ford supporters in the south during the recent Presidential election: ‘Don’t follow England down the drain! Vote Ford.’[27]

Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech, with its explicit references to the IMF crisis (‘do we need loans for these?’) brought all these anxieties together into a heady concoction of middle-class disquiet and patriotic indignation, leading up to an orchestral climax which sought rhetorical closure to the traumatic events of the previous few months. His dramatic performance aimed to break through the perceived stalemate of the strained ‘consensus’ politics of the 1970s and appeal directly to the people. Like Margaret Thatcher’s language at the end of 1976, it addressed the nation in a seemingly non-partisan way while subliminally appealing to a certain section of the population: the ordinary, decent middle-class people of Britain had to ‘stand up [for themselves?] and be counted’ but they could also serve as a buffer between the narrow interests of other classes (‘freedom from strikes, better management’) and show the nation how it could pull together through the traditional middle-class virtue of hard work (which ‘costs nothing’) and unite behind the flag.

HUGHIE GREEN, ITV AND THE POSTWAR SETTLEMENT

If it is possible to detect in the ‘crisis’ at the end of 1976 the beginnings of a symbolic renegotiation of the postwar social-democratic settlement, then the long career of Hughie Green offers an enlightening prism through which to read this shift. Ever since the late 1940s he had been at the heart of Britain’s culture wars, a long argument between commercial populism and Reithian cultural enlightenment around which clustered a series of anxieties about social class, American cultural imperialism and the uneasy negotiation between social democracy and consumer capitalism. Green had devised Opportunity Knocks for BBC radio in 1949 but it was dropped after one series, after he was apparently told he was ‘too American’ for British audiences.[28] Green then brought a widely publicized court case against the corporation, claiming that bribery and corruption had stopped his show being recommissioned in favour of another talent show, Carroll Levis’s Discoveries. Green lost, was bankrupted and remained hostile to what he saw as the high-cultural, left-leaning snobs, the ‘sanctimonious bastards’ of the BBC, for the rest of his life.[29]

Green found a new home for the show on the commercial station, Radio Luxembourg, and became a proselytizer for the free market in broadcasting in the protracted and ill-tempered efforts to break the BBC’s television monopoly. He starred in the variety show that formed the centrepiece of ITV’s opening night, and as ‘fast-talking Hughie’ hosted Double Your Money, another show that began on Radio Luxembourg. This was a highlight of the new commercial schedule and had the first cash prize to be offered on British TV, an unrivalled jackpot of £1000.[30] It was a typical ITV show, like Take Your Pick or Beat the Clock on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, in making the public part of the entertainment. Green, along with Take Your Pick’s Michael Miles, was part of a new genre of commercial television star – the linkman whose role was mainly to greet and interact with ‘ordinary people’. Green was an inveterate showbiz ‘mugger’, constantly winking and pulling faces at the audience and looking for good-natured jokes at the expense of the contestants. In his 1973 book Light Entertainment, Richard Dyer identified the tone as ‘a kind of pally, blokeish … cheerfulness … a cross between a verbal elbow nudging and a cosy, cooing interest for the mass individual addressed’.[31] When Opportunity Knocks arrived on ITV in 1964, Green had two shows in the top twenty-rated programmes simultaneously. His populism was heartfelt and uncompromising. ‘People do not want three hours of fucking King Lear in verse when they get out of a ten-hour day in the fucking coal pits,’ he said privately, ‘and fuck anybody who tries to tell them that they do.’[32]

Green’s disdain for what he saw as a paternalistic, snobbish left-liberal establishment was matched by the left-liberals’ disdain for Hughie Green, whom they saw as a symbol of the brashness and vulgarity of ITV. Richard Hoggart might have had Green in mind when he wrote in The Uses of Literacy of ‘a callow democratic egalitarianism’ with its ‘cant of “the common man”; a grotesque and dangerous flattery’.[33] Hoggart was an influential member of the Pilkington Committee on television, which reported its findings in July 1962. It bemoaned ITV’s slender commitment to public service broadcasting and its concentration on ‘vapid and puerile’ mass-appeal programmes. While mentioning no ITV company or programme by name, it clearly had Double Your Money in mind, arguing that quizzes involving ‘party games’ which ‘often humiliate members of the public taking part’, should have only nominal prizes. The present limit of £1000 was far too high, making an appeal to ‘suspense and greed and fear’.[34]

Pilkington’s findings informed the Television Acts of 1963 and 1964, which stipulated that prizes of significant value on quiz shows had to be approved by the Independent Television Authority, which in turn suggested that it would pay closer attention to programme quality when the ITV franchises came up for renewal in 1967. In this franchise round, Association Rediffusion was forced into a merger with ABC and found itself the junior partner in the new company, Thames Television. During the bidding process Rediffusion had taken great pride in the popularity of Double Your Money and Take Your Pick and the sometime Tory MP, Julian Critchley, was not alone in speculating that its compulsory amalgamation was down to ‘the “people’s shows”, built around Hughie Green and Michael Miles, which for so long have brought something of the atmosphere of the second-hand car market to television’.[35] Green was unrepentant when, after the franchise change, Double Your Money came off air in 1968. ‘For thirteen years we have been consistently in the Top Ten,’ he complained. ‘My only crime, apparently, is I have been popular for a long time. They say they want more culture and that “Double Your Money” is too trivial. But do people really want more culture? I very much doubt it.’[36] In 1971 he told another journalist: ‘All my programmes are hated by the critics. That’s why they are always in the Top Twenty. What the hell do critics know about people in Burnley or Glasgow?’[37]

By the mid-1970s, though, it seemed that Pilkington’s paternalistic impulses were in retreat. In 1971 Double Your Money had been effectively revived as The Sky’s the Limit, an ITV show in which air miles and holiday spending money replaced a straight cash prize. In January 1972, all restrictions on broadcasting hours were lifted, which initiated a steady increase in daytime as well as evening programming. Meanwhile Bill Cotton, as head of light entertainment at BBC1 (1970-77), was presiding over an era of high-quality popular television, dominating the Saturday night ratings with programmes like Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game, The Two Ronnies and Parkinson. ITV, meanwhile, dominated Monday nights, starting with Opportunity Knocks at 6.45pm, followed by the soap opera Coronation Street and later the police drama The Sweeney.

The government’s General Household Survey published in March 1976 revealed the extent to which television now dominated leisure time: women watched it for an average of 20 hours a week, and men for 17 hours. ‘TV beats outdoor life for armchair Britons’, declared one newspaper headline. ‘Britain is an armchair nation. Nine out of ten of us watch television as our main leisure pursuit.’[38] The colour television had become a symbol of cross-class affluence – albeit in working-class households it was still likely to be a rented set – in the same way that the three-piece suite had been in the 1950s. In October 1976, the government announced that more than a million viewers had changed to colour sets in the last year and the number of colour licences had overtaken black-and-white ones for the first time.[39] By 1977 there were more homes with a colour set than with a telephone.[40] One of the favourite complaints about dole scroungers, made in particular by Ian Sproat, was that they were wasting their money on colour TVs.[41] As Andrew Crisell argues of this era, ‘the volume of spectacle, entertainment and information that television provided gave a value for money absolutely unprecedented in cultural history’. In the face of an economic recession ‘the cheapness and domestic convenience of a TV set brought great solace’.[42]

But the ubiquity of television also fuelled more anxieties about its role in national life, and this coincided with a growing moral backlash against the ‘permissive society’ which the CCCS had identified as another secondary symptom of the mid-1970s economic-political crisis and its attendant social tensions. Moral protest was no longer ‘a minority and fringe affair, and [won] really massive publicity in all quarters of the press and television’, evident in the much greater credence given to the views of Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, with one senior Conservative politician, Keith Joseph, urging his fellow Britons: ‘Let us take inspiration from that remarkable woman.’[43] It is striking that, while there were no complaints about Green’s speech in the post-Christmas newspapers in December 1976, there was a much publicized complaint from Whitehouse about bad language on the Stanley Baxter Christmas Show on ITV – although she admitted that she had not seen the show herself.[44] Green was a vocal supporter of Whitehouse’s campaign to clean up TV and restore traditional values. ‘Ordinary people don’t want thinly disguised pornography masquerading as art,’ he told an interviewer. ‘Mary Whitehouse is a dear friend of mine. She’s a decent, sensible, middle-aged lady. So what do the clever fellows do? Take the mickey out of her.’[45]

There were two more heavily publicized moral panics at the end of 1976 which it may be useful to read against the apparent indifference generated by Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech – especially since the programmes were both made by Thames, the company behind Opportunity Knocks. In October, Thames cancelled Sex in Our Time, a series of serious, late-night, hour-long documentaries, at the behest of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which was worried that it would cause offence and provoke criticism from moral campaigners like Whitehouse.[46] A much bigger controversy occurred over the appearance of the Sex Pistols on the live teatime magazine programme, Today, on 1 December, to promote their first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’. The two-minute segment of the show – in which the presenter Bill Grundy invited the group to ‘say something outrageous’ and one band member, Steve Jones, responded with ‘you dirty bastard’ and ‘you fucking rotter!’ – now seems resoundingly banal, almost quaint in its juxtaposition of four-letter words with the old-fashioned ‘rotter’.[47] The resulting furore does not seem to have been purely media-created. The Thames switchboard was jammed with thousands of viewers’ complaints and one lorry driver was so angry that his eight-year-old son had heard the swearing that he kicked in the screen of his new £380 TV set. Nevertheless, the tabloids played their required role in publicizing a band clearly seeking notoriety, introducing the Sex Pistols as part of ‘the new “punk rock” cult’ which ‘specialise[s] in songs that preach destruction’.[48] Thames executives responded with an alacrity they failed to show in the Green incident a few weeks later, Isaacs describing it as ‘a gross error of judgment’ caused by ‘inexcusably sloppy journalism’. Thames broadcast an immediate, full apology on screen twice later that day, while Grundy was quickly suspended and his career never recovered.[49]

A common theme of the outrage was the timing of the swearing – at 6.25pm, in the middle of what the Daily Telegraph called ‘happy family viewing’.[50] This frequently reiterated notion of ‘family viewing’ was partly inspired by the unprecedented reach of television at the time – although Today was only broadcast in the London area – and the fact that most families were one-TV households and therefore more likely to be watching together. Opportunity Knocks, broadcasting in the slot after Today, enthusiastically embraced this idea of inoffensive family entertainment. Its traditional acts or ‘turns’, mainly emerging from variety theatres and working men’s clubs, occasionally became national stars, like the comedians Les Dawson, Frank Carson and Little and Large, and the singers Mary Hopkin and Lena Zavaroni. But most contestants, even perennial winners, were quickly forgotten: like Tony ‘Muscle Man’ Holland, who moved his biceps to music, a margarine sculptor, a chef who could cook a dinner in under three minutes, and a percussionist whose act consisted of hitting his head with a metal tray.[51]

The aim, said Green, was ‘to hold auditions for anyone who, by the faintest quirk or suspicion, think they have talent’, and he held true to this principle, auditioning thousands of people for each series, ‘even if it meant listening until our ears shrivelled in tone-deaf agonies or until sheer exhaustion enveloped us where we sat’.[52] But Green also clearly preferred short-haired, clean-cut, traditional performers. Writing about the first auditions he held in the 1950s, he made clear his hatred of skiffle groups, with their unchanging line-up of ‘four rather grubby young men’ and music that was ‘pagan, uncivilised, unmusical, formless, dull, bulldozerlike, discordant or just plain nasty’.[53] If Green disliked skiffle, one can probably assume that he disliked most post-1950s popular music – and this was reflected in the musical line-up of the shows, which consisted of youth brass bands, country and western groups, citizens’ choirs singing ‘Bobby Shafto’, crimplene-clad, Liberace-style pianists and boy sopranos in kilts.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech was that, in every other area of the show, the format never changed and the host’s own performance barely altered, which explains why this act – the lop-sided smile, the expansive hand gestures and the catchphrase ‘I mean that most sincerely’ – was so popular with television impressionists such as Mike Yarwood. Green was always polite and solicitous with the contestants, addressing them as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ throughout. Opportunity Knocks had none of the gladiatorial aspects of the other ITV talent show, New Faces, which ran from 1974 to 1978, in which contestants were subjected to the often disparaging comments of four studio ‘experts’. New Faces, complained Green to one of these experts, Clifford Davis, ‘is more like torment than talent … Why break people’s hearts? … It’s like a cattle market. New Faces isn’t discovering talent. It’s selling raw emotion.’[54] Green’s occasional outbursts of raw emotion on Opportunity Knocks were incongruous when set against the rest of the show, which now seems so staged, so rehearsed and obvious in its patter, so flat and emotionless.   

When Thames announced in autumn 1977 that Opportunity Knocks was to be axed, it was probably for a variety of reasons. Isaacs and Philip Jones, controller of entertainment at Thames, may have tired of Green’s editorializing but, although it still got a big audience, the show had also slipped out of the top twenty programmes and Green’s presenting style was coming to seem tired, as television critics increasingly commented on his corniness. Even before the ‘stand up and be counted’ speech, Thames was downgrading the programme. On 2 May 1976, a Sunday People story headlined ‘Hughie in fury over cuts’ reported that it had been reduced from 39 shows per season to 26, while New Faces was getting more airtime.[55] On the final Opportunity Knocks, broadcast on 20 March 1978, Green scarcely bothered to mask his hurt at the show being dropped and his resentment at ‘the intellectuals’ who were separating him from the ‘little people’ and the channel he had helped to establish. He delivered a highly charged speech reminding the programme’s critics of the number of stars and hit singles it had produced, before ending with a tearful, ‘Thank you, friends. God bless you all.’[56] Then, immediately after the show, Green publicly challenged Jeremy Isaacs to a televised debate to air their differences (Isaacs declined).[57] In a pointed trawl for a younger audience, Opportunity Knocks was replaced in its Monday evening slot by the Kenny Everett Video Show, as different a show as could be imagined. Fronted by a controversial DJ who had twice been sacked from the BBC, it had a cast of risqué characters and a dancing troupe, Hot Gossip, who performed highly sexualized routines. Green blamed his own demise on his down-to-earth populism (‘My crime,’ he protested, ‘is that I always aimed my shows at an audience that lived beyond the borders of Eaton Square’[58]) and denounced Isaacs as a communist.[59] ‘TV’s been taken over by anti-patriots’, he told a journalist. ‘The Reds aren’t under the beds, they’re right in there running programming. Why else did they stop me praising our heritage, and giving viewers good old rousing patriotic stuff to get this country back on our feet?’[60]

THE RISE OF POPULIST CENTRALISM

Told like this, the Hughie Green story seems to have the clear narrative arc of the decline and fall of a television celebrity – his residual, outmoded mode of fake ‘sincerity’ replaced by the emergent, knowing forms of Kenny Everett. But the ‘residual’, in Raymond Williams’s well-known formulation, is not synonymous with the archaic and obsolescent; it is something ‘still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present’.[61] Thatcherism, for example, clearly owed its electoral success in part to its skilful merging of residual and emergent elements – its alliance of social traditionalism and economic radicalism – into a new, resilient contemporary hegemony. Even before Thatcher came to power, in an essay published in Marxism Today in December 1978, Stuart Hall attributed the broad electoral appeal of ‘Thatcherism’ to its ‘authoritarian populism’, its combination of traditionally conservative discourses of the nation, the family, the law and the ‘enemy within’ (such as trade unions) with populist notions of the free market which appealed to the aspirational consumer and homeowner.[62] It was a form of ‘regressive modernization’ – what Raphael Samuel would later describe as ‘modernization in mufti’.[63] Hall pointed out in a slightly later pamphlet that there was no inevitable contradiction between the rise of a ‘law and order society’ and the promotion of the free market:

The new laissez-faire doctrine, in which social market values are to predominate, is not at all inconsistent with a strong, disciplinary state. Indeed, if the state is to stop meddling in the fine-tuning of the economy, in order to let ‘social market values’ rip, while containing the inevitable fall-out in terms of social conflict and class polarization, then a strong, disciplinary regime is a necessary corollary … Make no mistake about it, under this regime, the market is to be Free; the people are to be Disciplined.[64] 

As early as the late 1960s, in fact, Hall and other members of the CCCS were identifying the first stirrings of a return to ‘iron times’ in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell, with its combination of extreme economic liberalism and regressive social nationalism.[65] Green’s wrapping himself in the flag, and his pointed reference to ‘we British – Scots, Welsh, English, Irish’, could be seen as part of this same expression of a narrowly defined Britishness, drawing on an imperial past, memories of the war and perhaps, implicitly, the racial tensions of the post-colonial present. According to Hall, however, the success of Thatcherism was that it did not make these racial politics explicit, reworking them into more respectable and covert forms. At precisely the time that Green made his speech, Thatcherism was beginning to use the economic and political crisis to create a ‘populist common sense’ which forged ‘new discursive articulations between the liberal discourses of the “free market” and economic man and the organic conservative themes of tradition, family and nation, respectability, patriarchalism and order’. Hall argued that Thatcherism had successfully grounded neo-liberal policies in an appeal to ‘the little people’ – ordinary, hard-working, middle-class citizens – against ‘the big battalions’ of the state and the unions.[66] In November 1976, the Tories won two solid Labour seats in by-elections in Walsall and Workington on a swing of 22.5%, the biggest by-election swing for 41 years.[67] In her new year message at the end of December, Thatcher took comfort from the fact that ‘socialism, in all its malice and incompetence, has been so thoroughly rebuffed by the voters’ for ‘peddling the discredited panaceas of their creed of failure’, and that the people had embraced instead ‘our dedication to freedom for the individual and the family; to just law and right order in society; to the encouragement of thrift and enterprise; and to the defence of the nation against its enemies’.[68]

It is possible to read Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech – with its invocation of a strong nation as the defender of an abstract notion of freedom – as an anticipation of the authoritarian populism of Thatcherism; but perhaps we can also see intimations of it in the format of Opportunity Knocks itself. The ‘little people’ was a phrase that Green used all the time on the show, although he meant it in the showbusiness sense of ‘the paying customers, the faces beyond the footlights or the immeasurable applause at the microphone’s end’.[69] Green constantly used the language of consumerism to describe the programme, calling it ‘the people’s show’ and sprinkling each edition with populist reassurances like ‘this is your show, folks, and I do mean you’, ‘remember, it’s your vote at home that counts’ and ‘you are the real bosses on our show’. He constantly referred to both the studio audience and the viewers at home as ‘our customers’.

The final section of each show, or ‘make-your-mind-up time’, was an encapsulation of the phenomenon that Hoggart referred to in The Uses of Literacy as ‘opinionation’: the tendency in the consumerist models of citizenship that had emerged since the war to ‘elevate the counting of heads into a substitute for judgement’.[70] The six acts gave a short reprise of their routine, with the studio applause measured on a ‘clapometer’, a piece of technical wizardry that measured the audience’s response up to 100. The clapometer was ‘just for fun, friends’, as Green reminded his audience every week – it only declared the studio winner and what really counted were the viewers’ votes, sent in by postcard after the show. But the clapometer entered national mythology as populism enshrined. Many parents told their children, for example, that, if they clapped loud enough in their living rooms, it would show up on the clapometer.[71] The home votes served the same function as the clapometer in collating the public’s views into a collective, unanswerable judgment. The number of votes for each act was never revealed, the winner simply being announced at the start of the next show. Green declared that ‘what talent is, how you find it, is what Opportunity Knocks was all about. I found the secret, I think, of making sure that we never made a mistake – by asking the public to make the decisions for us … And you know? Fickle it may be, but the public rarely makes a mistake.’[72] Green commonly affirmed the rightness of the public’s judgments by showing displays of gold discs (an award given to million-selling records) received by artistes made famous by the show. As the conduit for the unquestioned judgments of a uniform ‘public’, Green was a controlling presence. Introduced at the start of every show as ‘Mr Opportunity’ or ‘Mr Starmaker himself’, he dominated proceedings, talking quickly and constantly interjecting in his interviews with the ‘sponsors’, the friends and supporters who introduced each act on the show. It is hard to disagree with Bill Cotton’s assertion that Opportunity Knocks was ‘not really a show for new talent … more a vehicle for Hughie Green’.[73] Its ideal of a meritocracy of talent based on consumerist populism required a mediator or enforcer, the authoritarian master of ceremonies or ‘opportunities’, to realise it.

Although Green was soon the forgotten man of television, his consumerist ideals found new life in the Thatcher era. He headed a consortium that put together a bid for ‘London Independent Television’ to oust both Thames and London Weekend Television in the 1980 ITV franchise round, with General Sir Harry Tuzo as chairman. As an indication of its programme offering, LIT’s bid included a dummy copy of the listings magazine, the TV Times, for January 1982, with Green’s populist instincts in the ascendant. Prospective programmes included Talent Scouts, a new show with professionals and amateurs competing for public votes in the hope of becoming stars; meanwhile, public-service programmes like the flagship Granada documentary series World in Action were to be shunted into marginal slots.[74] The application was rejected by the IBA, who clearly thought that the existing London franchises offered more guarantee of programme quality.[75] But the idea of the ‘sovereign consumer’ was to re-emerge in the report of the 1986 Peacock Committee on Broadcasting, whose suggestion that the ITV franchises should be put out to competitive tender was enshrined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. In 1992, the ITV franchises were sold off to the highest bidder, subject to that company’s programme plans meeting a nebulously defined ‘quality threshold’. Thames was outbid for the London franchise by Carlton Communications, which became a byword for downmarket populism – suggesting perhaps that Green’s bid was simply a decade too early.

If Green’s schtick seemed corny by 1978, the moralistic tone of the Pilkington report was to seem equally passé by the 1980s. The idea of an independent, non-political committee of the great and the good epitomized by Pilkington was seen as outmoded and elitist in a public sphere increasingly subjected to market discipline. The type of consumer populism promoted on Opportunity Knocks – in which the ‘public’ was seen as a single, homogeneous, non-political entity – also came to dominate political culture in the years ahead. David Marquand has referred to this new post-Thatcherite political settlement as one of ‘populist centralism’ – in the sense that its view of the electorate as sovereign, utility-maximizing consumers went in tandem with more centralized government. Populist centralism, argued Marquand, has ‘no place for the civic ideal of open debate and public engagement. In a populist polity, citizenship is hollowed out. The people are passive, not active – consumers of public policy, not participants in shaping it.’ In this more direct negotiation between governments, markets and the people, there was less room for committee consultations, interest-group representations and professional expertise. While the logic of the pre-Thatcherite public sphere was fundamentally pluralist, ‘populism is monist. Populists seek to concentrate the popular will so that it flows into a single channel.’[76]

1976 AND POPULAR MEMORY

Until recently, histories of the 1970s have been dominated by a Thatcherite narrative which sees 1979 as the year zero that swept away the compromises of the postwar years and reversed economic decline with the harsh medicine of market forces.[77] By the 1990s this had become such an orthodoxy of popular memory and political mythology that the Blairite Labour party constantly reiterated this Thatcherite reading of the 1970s. In 1997, shortly before his election as prime minister, Tony Blair wrote an article for The Times on industrial relations headed ‘We Won’t Look Back to the 1970s’, and Labour’s election manifesto of that year contained repeated references to its refusal to return to the mistakes of ‘the 1970s’.[78] The 1970s, in the journalist Simon Jenkins’s words, had become ‘political aversion therapy’.[79] 

A key episode in this prehistory of Thatcherism – rivalled only by the 1978-79 winter of discontent as a moment of ignominy – was the IMF application at the end of 1976, seen as a watershed comparable to the Suez crisis, which ‘suggested that the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution had become a charity case’.[80] As Kevin Hickson points out, the IMF crisis remained a symbolic lodestone for New Labour well into the 2000s, underpinning its emphasis on keeping sterling stable and maintaining the confidence of the global markets.[81] But another way of reading the crisis at the end of 1976 is that it signalled the beginnings of a move towards economic liberalism, and that the rhetoric of ‘Britain on the brink’ was part of this shift. At the Labour Party conference in October, in a section of his speech drafted by his son-in-law, the pro-monetarist economics editor of The Times, Peter Jay, Callaghan had already renounced the Keynesian belief in a ‘cosy world … where employment could be guaranteed by the stroke of a pen … We used to think that we could spend our way out of recession … That option no longer exists.’[82] Healey later said that accepting the IMF’s strictures was a ‘Pyrrhic defeat’, forcing him into the fiscal stringency he wanted to practise anyway.[83] His December mini-budget anticipated Thatcherite economic policy not only in the drastic cuts in public spending but also the £500m raised by selling most of British Petroleum’s shares, thereby effectively privatizing BP.

A useful aspect of Hughie Green’s speech is that it forces us to look at these events through a cultural-discursive as well as an economic-political lens, to see the ‘crisis’ as in part a symbolic and therefore a provisional construction. Green’s patriotic tub-thumping, like the rumours about right-wing paramilitary operations in this period, now seems partly a game of psychological operations, a strategy of creating tension and anxiety rather than merely responding to it. Recent historians of national decline have tended to see it not simply as an objective response to political events like the IMF crisis, but as a subjective response to Britain’s loss of hegemony, ‘a set of discourses which constructed decline as a problem and urged political action to remedy it’.[84] The last few months of 1976 saw many examples of this kind of discourse that Jim Tomlinson calls ‘declinology’.[85] ‘Britain as a topic for comment is getting up my nostrils’, wrote the journalist Keith Waterhouse in January 1977, which named Hughie Green as one of the people, along with politicians and union leaders, who had been producing these state-of-the-nation jeremiads. ‘It’s like hearing someone going on and on and on about his operation.’[86]

This is not, of course, to deny the real problems that Britain faced at this time: rising unemployment, spiralling inflation, a falling pound and a global recession. But much of the crisis talk now seems overstated. The economic crisis did not threaten the survival of the nation in the same way as the Battle of Britain, whatever Green’s speech suggested. Perhaps most significantly, the Treasury had overestimated the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, the key figure used during the IMF crisis, by £2000bn and a 1976 white paper had also grossly overestimated the amount of public spending at about 60% of GDP.[87] If he had been given accurate figures by the Treasury, Healey would not have had to ask for the IMF loan, because public finances were much stronger than feared.

Historians of punk, while temperamentally unsympathetic to neo-liberal accounts, have also pointed to the end of 1976 as a moment of crisis and breakdown, with the release of the Sex Pistols single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, at the end of November, a pivotal event. Jon Savage, for example, argues that the song’s ‘ringing phrases … were powerful enough to insert the idea of anarchy, like a homoeopathic remedy, into a society that was already becoming polarized’.[88] But punk’s success in ‘inserting’ these ideas into society may be exaggerated. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ sold 1800 copies on the day after the band’s appearance on Today but by Christmas it had only reached number 28. The number one record was ‘When a Child is Born’ by the easy-listening singer Johnny Mathis, with ‘Under the Moon of Love’ by Showaddywaddy (a rock’n’roll revivalist band discovered on New Faces) at number two.[89] The atmosphere of moral panic around punk soon abated, reignited briefly during the Jubilee summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ rather improbably described the Callaghan government as a ‘fascist regime’. But the cultural work had begun to incorporate punk safely into the mainstream. An issue of Woman’s Own in October 1977 carried an article, ‘Punks and Mothers’, which showed photographs of smiling punks with their mothers accompanying a text which stressed their benignity: ‘It’s not as rocky horror as it appears … punks as it happens are non-political … Johnny Rotten is as a big a household name as Hughie Green.’[90]

A survey of newspapers and television at the end of 1976 suggests that ordinary life in Britain was more resilient than the talk of imminent chaos implied, despite the many headlines about the economic crisis. There was a great deal of excitement, for example, about an ostrich glove puppet called Emu, worked by the entertainer Rod Hull, who had just achieved national fame by attacking Michael Parkinson on his chat show. Emu’s children’s television programme was attracting eleven million viewers and one newspaper profile suggested that ‘the whole nation … has gone Emu crazy’.[91] There was almost equal interest in the appearance of the newsreader Angela Rippon’s bare legs on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show, the details of which were leaked to the press in the days before transmission.[92] ‘The excitement surrounding Ms Rippon’s perfectly agreeable legs convinced me that everybody had gone mad,’ wrote the jazz musician and critic George Melly. ‘Angela Rippon had – wait for it – legs! Did people really imagine she hadn’t? … She reads the news very well, clearly and crisply, but the secret is out. Under that tidy desk is a pair of legs!’[93]

It is possible to read these preoccupations as a kind of wilful distraction, in the way that much of the now kitsch popular culture of the 1970s is sometimes explained as a product of ‘the stimulus of bad times – seventies Britain as a kind of Weimar Republic, a spooky parallel often invoked under Wilson and Callaghan’.[94] Light entertainment in the 1970s is commonly remembered today as part of British television’s ‘golden age’, when tens of millions of viewers of all generations and classes came together in innocent enjoyment of a ‘parallel world’ in which ‘television provided escapism for ostriches, the national dose of Valium … in fractious, illiberal times, the box became the guardian of our calm, wry, tolerant, self-effacing soul’.[95] But it is also possible that these trivial preoccupations point to a more complex account of late 1976 than the media rhetoric of crisis suggests. The mid-1970s ‘crisis’ was experienced most keenly by opinion-forming elites. The early and influential converts to monetarism – such as Peter Jay and his editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg, and the senior Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan – tended to talk up the possibility of impending national disaster, and to remind readers of the dire predictions about Britain’s future in American right-wing media like the Wall Street Journal and CBS News, which had more than one eye on US domestic politics in seeking to present the UK as a cautionary tale.[96] These moments of banality in daily life in the run-up to Christmas 1976 suggest that not all the UK population was preoccupied with these apocalyptic narratives.

Light entertainment was not in fact a ‘parallel world’ in which the fractious, illiberal, ‘real’ world was simply ignored. Mike Yarwood did impressions of political and union leaders like Denis Healey and Jack Jones, implicitly humanizing them by mixing them with popular TV figures like Frank Spencer and Eddie Waring. Another newspaper leak about the 1976 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show revealed plans to include Jack Jones and three other trades union leaders (Hugh Scanlon, Clive Jenkins and Tom Jackson) marching on in a World War I sketch, dressed as a German Army firing squad. In what anti-union newspapers treated as an allegory of the times, the actors’ union vetoed this appearance by letting it be known that acting work on the show should only go to those with an Equity card.[97] The banned union leaders appeared as photographs in the eventual programme, which included various jokes about the economic crisis: ‘The pound is now worth nothing. This is Ernie Wise, News at Ten, Switzerland.’[98]

The song, ‘Stand Up and Be Counted’, was released as a single in January 1977 and Green embarked on a publicity tour to promote it, but it failed to make the charts. Apart from its absence of musical merit, this may have been because, set against these other light-entertainment examples, Green’s speech and song appeared so humourless and misjudged, favouring pomposity and bombast over what seems to have been the preferred mode of wryness and irony. Another possible factor, however, is that the ‘crisis’ on which Green’s song was predicated so quickly subsided. In the first months of 1977, after Healey’s mini-budget, the pound recovered strongly and both inflation and the unemployment figures fell sharply. The exchange rate stabilized, the budget deficit fell and wages rose at a relatively modest rate until the spring of 1978.[99] During this period of relative recovery, there was little sense that the end of 1976 had been a watershed. In 1977 a Gallup international survey revealed that Britons believed themselves to be among the happiest people in the world. In 1978 the Washington Post’s London correspondent, Bernard Nossiter, argued in Britain: A Future That Works that the ‘voices of doom … the scribes and prophets of disaster’ had been wrong about the UK, that its levels of state spending and taxation were normal by European standards and the overall postwar trend of rising affluence, which had doubled living standards since the war, would survive the world recession. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked, ‘that the whole episode is a case of hypochondria?’[100]

If Britons were not on the verge of following Green into a counter-revolutionary movement, however, we should be equally wary of narratives that suggest they were all happily united around the television set. One event from this period has entered television mythology, a favourite reference point for those who believe that television in the multi-channel era is no longer the force for social cohesion that it once was: the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special for the next year, 1977, which according to some calculations achieved an unprecedented audience for a British television programme.[101] The entertainment historian Graham McCann tellingly begins his biography of Morecambe and Wise with this moment:

It happened one night. It happened, to be precise, at 8.55 p.m. on the night of 25 December 1977, when an estimated 28,835,000 people – more than half of the total population of the United Kingdom – tuned their television sets to BBC1 and spent the next hour and ten minutes in the company of a rather tall man called Eric and a rather short man called Ernie … None of the usual rigid divisions and omissions were apparent in the broad audience of that remarkable night: no stark class bias, no pronounced gender imbalance, no obvious age asymmetry, no generalised demographic obliquities. The show had found its way into dense council estates, lofty tower blocks, smart suburban squares and leafily discreet country retreats – it was even watched with uncommon avidity at Windsor Castle, where assembled members of the Royal Family delayed their Christmas dinner until they had seen the show through to its proper conclusion.[102]

This 1977 show also forms part of a key scene in Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, a bestselling novel set in the 1970s, in which the central character, 16-year-old Benjamin, watches the programme with his parents and experiences a brief epiphanic moment when the nation is brought together briefly in a world that is otherwise ‘fraught, complex and uncertain’.

It came to him that he was only one person, and his family was only one family, out of millions of people and millions of families throughout the country, all sitting in front of their tele­vision sets … all of them laughing at the same joke, and he felt an incredible sense of … oneness, that was the only word he could think of, a sense that the entire nation was being briefly, fugitively drawn together in the divine act of laughter.[103]

In episode two of the television adaptation of this novel, this scene forms a montage sequence in which the three families at the heart of the story are all shown in separate living rooms, joyfully laughing at the same show. In McCann’s biography, this moment of national unanimity ended symbolically with the shock news in January 1978 that Morecambe and Wise had defected from the BBC to Thames, the home of Opportunity Knocks – after which, according to the critical consensus, their careers went into decline.[104]

The story may not be quite so simple. Television ratings before the formation of BARB (the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board) in 1981 were fragmentary and unreliable, and McCann’s account seems to be based on the BBC’s own audience figures, which were in turn based on telephone interviews and viewing diaries. The ITV’s JICTAR (Joint Industry Committee for Television Advertising Research) figures, which the BFI now prefers to rely on because they sampled a number of households using electronic measuring devices attached to TV sets, suggest that the Morecambe and Wise 1977 Christmas special was only the 11th most watched programme of the 1970s with 21.3m viewers, behind less fondly remembered shows like Miss World 1970 (23.76m), a 1977 episode of This is Your Life (22.2m) and a 1971 edition of The Benny Hill Show (21.67m). In fact, JICTAR suggests that Morecambe and Wise were behind even the Mike Yarwood Christmas Special for that year, which directly preceded it on BBC1 (21.4m). According to these figures, far from Morecambe and Wise uniting the nation in laughter, 100,000 people turned off or switched over when they came on.[105]

Hughie Green forms a useful corrective to this popular memory that the British public in the 1970s were united cosily around the TV set. In part this is because he was almost the personification of ITV, and in this pre-remote control era, ‘families were often identified as “ITV” families or “BBC” families, defined … by class. Some households were reputed to never watch the other side, and some “BBC families” were not allowed to watch ITV out of snobbishness because ITV was seen as “vulgar”.’[106] This association of ITV with inferior game shows and talent shows was not entirely fair because after Pilkington there had been convergence between ITV and the BBC on more serious programming: between 1969 and 1976, ITV’s provision of serious programmes at the expense of light entertainment rose – in the case of Thames by nearly 50 per cent – while serious programming on BBC1 was cut by almost 20 per cent.[107] But ITV, according to one author who was a teenager in a lower-middle-class family in the 1970s, was still widely seen as ‘irredeemably common – “a bit council house”’.[108] If, as seems likely, Opportunity Knocks was watched by a disproportionately working-class and lower-middle-class audience, then Green’s apparent appeal to a nascently Thatcherite sense of middle-class grievance in his ‘stand up and be counted’ speech seems initially incongruous – but perhaps it was also indicative of the ways in which Thatcherite discourse was expanding its definition of the middle classes. Thatcher’s middle England was to be a consumer democracy, drained of the class-inflected cultural snobbery that Green also deplored. Opportunity Knocks certainly fitted the caricature of ITV as downmarket and populist. It had none of the slick professionalism of the light entertainment shows overseen by the BBC’s Bill Cotton who, significantly, did not approve of talent shows, believing that only tried and tested acts should reach prime time.[109] Opportunity Knocks survived for so long, according to Jeremy Isaacs, because it was popular and cheap, and in spite of its presenter who was ‘always a pain and got steadily worse’.[110] Unlike Morecambe and Wise, Green is not warmly remembered today, partly because after his death in 1997 he was the subject of unflattering revelations about his private life and partly because his presenting style, despite his famous catchphrase, now seems the epitome of insincerity.

CONCLUSION

Before we consign Green to the dustbin of television history, however, it is worth remembering that the kind of meritocratic populism that his show embodied may live on in surprising forms. The ‘middle Britain’ courted by post-Thatcherite political culture is both populist, in the sense that the electorate is imagined as a growing and largely homogeneous middle class, and competitively ‘meritocratic’, in the sense that these ‘ordinary taxpayers’ and ‘hard-working families’ are encouraged to exploit every educational and career opportunity, particularly for their children. ‘The Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy,’ Tony Blair declared soon after taking office in 1997, draining the word of the satirical intent of its originator, Michael Young. In 1999, Blair reiterated that ‘the old Establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, more meritocratic middle class’.[111] 

Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, often discussed his enjoyment of The X Factor, the most popular talent show on British television, and other similar shows like Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing, and sought to link them to this New Labourite politics of aspirational individualism, his vision of what he has called ‘an X factor Britain’.[112] Hughie Green would have loathed the confrontational aspects of today’s reality talent shows – with their self-consciously rude judges and their filming of the audition process so that viewers are encouraged to laugh at the talentless – but in other ways they borrow from his direct-line, consumerist populism, as voting by phone and text has created new possibilities for the interactive television he pioneered. In February 2008 Brown told a BBC radio interviewer that shows like The X Factor were ‘very enjoyable. It’s one of the good things about Britain that we’re trying to find the best of talent … These shows are saying to people, “Look, if you’ve got a talent you don’t have to know someone. You can just apply and we’ll have a look at what you’re like.”’[113] He used these programmes to promote the idea of unearthing untapped talent as the key theme of his government’s approach to education and skills. In a newspaper article published on the same weekend, Brown argued that the UK needed an ‘opportunity revolution’ if it was not to lose jobs to China and India in the ‘global skills race’. The government therefore needed to redouble its efforts to ‘eradicate failure across our education system’ by replacing ‘failing schools’ and expanding the involvement of private enterprise in the academies programme in order to ‘unlock all the talents of all of the people’. Brown’s meritocratic vision, like Blair’s, involved the use of centralized state power to engineer social mobility by setting targets for schools and other bodies and employing a rigidly hierarchical model of specialist schools promoting ‘excellence’, flagship academies and elite universities.[114] 

The most thoughtful and nuanced of the recent flurry of popular histories of the 1970s, Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out, attempts to ‘restore some of the vivid complexity of that decade as it was actually experienced’, to view each moment of the decade on its own terms, in the hope that ‘British politics in the seventies may come to seem both more fascinatingly alien and more like what has happened since’.[115] In similar vein, I have attempted in this article to analyse a historical moment that does not slot easily into the efforts of popular memory to see Britain in the 1970s as a coherent, homogenous entity, and thus to bring into question some of the unacknowledged continuities and discontinuities between that era and the present day. Clearly New Labourite populism is very different from the morally traditionalist, racially inflected conservatism of the 1970s, and it would be simplistic to suggest some direct lineage between New Labour’s ideas about meritocracy and Hughie Green’s own rigidly centralized meritocratic populism, or even between Opportunity Knocks and The X Factor. There is, however, one striking continuity: the attempt to use the instruments of mass culture to provide a supporting narrative for the increasingly close relationship between the free market and a strong, centralized state. 

The tendency in the type of narrative-driven decadology that has dominated representations of the 1970s, with its attempt to package the decade as a unified entity with a distinctive character, has been to see the past as dead and buried, consigned to history as a cautionary tale (in Thatcherite historical accounts) or a piece of enjoyable retro kitsch, so that its outcomes come to seem inevitable rather than politically contingent. But if we see the recent past as a realm of historical tensions and still-to-be-decided possibilities rather than a story in which we already know the ending, it is possible to detect subterranean cultural shifts that happen under the surface of more recognisable events – and one of these shifts is the way that a meritocratic populism has gradually become an article of faith in itself, displacing ideas of social justice, the eradication of inequality or other forms of an ‘outmoded’ social-democratic politics. Watching Green’s ‘stand up and be counted’ speech today is a more unsettling experience than revisiting more iconic events in political and cultural memory – like, for example, the Sex Pistols’ appearance on Today, which had become so familiar by 1989 that Thames used the ‘bloody battle’ between Grundy and the band as a classic moment to celebrate its 21st anniversary.[116] Perhaps this is because Green’s speech makes the 1970s seem somehow both nearer and further away – a site of alien mentalities and melodramatic discourses about a Britain ‘on the brink of ruin’, but also of emergent elements and unexpected continuities with the present.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Alwyn Turner, Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, London, 2008, pp. 181, 189. For a recording of this programme, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyW7jHjZrrk (site accessed on 15 December 2008).

[2] Jeremy Isaacs, Look Me in the Eye: A Life in Television, London, p. 209.

[3] Peter Fiddick, ‘Losers Weepers – All the Way to the Bank’, Guardian, 14 March 1977.

[4] Turner, Crisis? What Crisis?, p. 104.

[5] Isaacs quoted on ‘The Works – Mr Opportunity’, BBC2, tx: 21 December 1997.

[6] Isaacs, Look Me in the Eye, p. 209; see also Louis Barfe, Turned Out Nice Again: The Story of British Light Entertainment, London, 2008, p. 291.

[7] Andy Beckett, Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History, London, 2002, pp. 183-200; see also David McKie and Peter Chippindale, ‘Mason Condemns Plans for “GB75” organisation’, Guardian, 23 August 1974, and ‘Whitelaw Attack on “Silly Statements”’, The Times, 24 August 1974.

[8] ‘The Works – Mr. Opportunity.’

[9] ‘Hughie Backs Margaret’, Observer, 25 January 1976.

[10] Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Houndmills, 1984/1978, p. 309.

[11] Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, pp. 309-10; see also Peter Chippindale and Martin Walker, ‘The Clearest Indication …’, Guardian, 21 December 1976.

[12] The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, series 1 episode 2, tx: 15 September 1976.

[13] See Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England, 1918-1951, Oxford, 1998, pp. 53-67.

[14] Chippindale and Walker, ‘The Clearest Indication …’.

[15] Patrick Hutber, The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class – and How It Can Fight Back, Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 121; see also Simon Gunn and Rachel Bell, Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl, London, 2003, p. 175.

[16] ‘Paella and Chips on the Dole’, Guardian, 5 August 1976.

[17] ‘Crazy Strike!’, Daily Mirror, 7 December 1976.

[18] ‘Britain, This is Your Life’, Daily Mirror, 30 November 1976; see also ‘Friedman Warning on “UK Road to Disaster”’, The Times, 30 November 1976, and ‘Whole Truth about Britain Not Told’, The Times, 3 December 1976.

[19] McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, p. 98.

[20] ‘Mr Macmillan Calls for Government of Centre’, The Times, 21 October 1976.

[21] Speech at the Young Conservative Conference in Eastbourne, 8 February 1975, quoted in Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power, London, 1995, p. 279.

[22] Margaret Thatcher, ‘Speech to Institute of Directors’, 11 November 1976, in Christopher Collins (ed.), Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements on CD-ROM, Oxford, 1999.

[23] John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, Volume 1: The Grocer’s Daughter, London, 2000, p. 382.

[24] ‘Callaghan Starts Long March to Promised Land’, Guardian, 29 September 1976.

[25] Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, London, 1989, p. 432.

[26] Kathleen Burk and Alec Cairncross, “Goodbye, Great Britain”: The 1976 IMF Crisis, New Haven, CT, 1992, pp. xviii, 215.

[27] ‘Shame is the Word’, Sunday Mirror, 31 October 1976.

[28] Christopher Green with Carol Clerk, Hughie and Paula: The Tangled Lives of Hughie Green and Paula Yates, London, 2003, p. 96.

[29] Green with Clerk, Hughie and Paula, p. 106.

[30] Peter Black, The Mirror in the Corner: People’s Television, London, 1972, p. 93.

[31] Richard Dyer, Light Entertainment, London, 1973, p. 18.

[32] Green, Hughie and Paula, p. 112.

[33] Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth, 1958, pp. 178-9.

[34] Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, 1960, London, 1962, para. 175.

[35] Julian Critchley, ‘Television’s New Look’, The Times, 20 July 1967; see also Isaacs, Look Me in the Eye, p. 120.

[36] Hilary Kingsley and Geoff Tibballs, Box of Delights, London, 1989, p. 24.

[37] Mary Griffiths, ‘Green Sees Red’, Daily Mirror, 7 August 1971.

[38] Peter Fiddick, ‘It is on the Cards that 1976 Will Prove to be the Year the Box Lobby Lost Its Grip’, Guardian, 5 April 1976.

[39] Kenneth Gosling, ‘Colour TV Sets Outnumber Black-and-White’, The Times, 12 October 1976.

[40] Andrew Crisell, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, London, 1997, p. 150.

[41] ‘1-in-5 Dole Scroungers, says MP’, Guardian, 12 July 1976.

[42] Crisell, An Introductory History, pp. 150-1.

[43] Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, pp. 287, 314.

[44] ‘Baxter TV Show Annoys Mary’, Daily Mirror, 28 December 1976.

[45] Griffiths, ‘Green Sees Red’.

[46] Isaacs, Look Me in the Eye, p. 198; Jeremy Potter, Independent Television in Britain, Volume 3: Politics and Control, 1968-80, Houndmills, 1989, p. 150.

[47] Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London, 2nd ed. 2001, p. 259.

[48] ‘TV Fury over Rock Cult Filth’, Daily Mirror, 2 December 1976; ‘Four-letter Punk Rock Group in TV Storm’, Daily Mail, 2 December 1976.

[49] Philip Jordan, ‘Grundy Banned – Today Team Accused’, Guardian, 3 December 1976.

[50] Savage, England’s Dreaming, p. 264; Dave Laing, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock, Buckingham, 1985, p. 36.

[51] Green, Hughie and Paula, p. 114; Syd Little, Little by Little, Norwich, 2004, p. 43.

[52] Hughie Green, Opportunity Knocked, London, 1965, pp. 137, 139.

[53] Green, Opportunity Knocked, p. 142.

[54] Clifford Davis, ‘Secrets of New Faces’, Daily Mirror, 19 October 1977.

[55] Green, Hughie and Paula, p. 169.

[56] Barfe, Turned Out Nice Again, p. 291; Green, Hughie and Paula, pp. 210ff.

[57] ‘Hughie Green Knocks His Boss’, Daily Mirror, 21 March 1978.

[58] ‘Hughie Green’, The Times, 5 May 1997.

[59] Isaacs, Look Me In the Eye, p. 209.

[60] Denis Gifford, ‘Hugh Hughes Green’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition.

[61] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, Oxford, 1977, p. 122.

[62] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today, January 1979, pp. 14-20, rpt. in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (eds), The Politics of Thatcherism, London, 1983, pp.19-39.

[63] Stuart Hall, Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London, 1988, p. 164; Raphael Samuel, ‘Mrs Thatcher and Victorian Values’, in Island Stories: Unravelling Britain; Theatres of Memory, Volume II, ed. Alison Light with Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones, London, 1998, p. 346.

[64] Stuart Hall, Drifting into a Law and Order Society, London, 1980, pp. 4-5.

[65] Hall et al., Policing the Crisis, p. 310.

[66] Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, p. 29; Hall, Hard Road to Renewal, pp. 2, 6.

[67] ‘Hammered!’, Daily Mirror, 5 November 1976.

[68] Margaret Thatcher, ‘New Year Message’, 29 December 1976, in Collins (ed.), Margaret Thatcher: Complete Public Statements.

[69] Green, Opportunity Knocked, p. 168.

[70] Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth, 1958, pp. 201, 180.

[71] Carole Morin, ‘Ma, He’s Still Making Eyes at Me’, Sunday Times, 30 March 2003.

[72] Green, Opportunity Knocked, pp. 223-4.

[73] Ken Irwin, ‘BBC Battle for New Faces’, Daily Mirror, 21 July 1975.

[74] Peter Fiddick, ‘What Happens if Opportunity Knocks for Hughie Green and Sir Harry Tuzo?’, Guardian, 3 June 1980.

[75] Jeremy Potter, Independent Television in Britain, Volume 4: Companies and Programmes, 1968-80, Houndmills, 1990, pp. 82-3.

[76] David Marquand, Decline of the Public, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 128, 103.

[77] For a discussion of this dominant Thatcherite narrative, see Nick Tiratsoo, ‘Preface’, in Nick Tiratsoo (ed.), From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain since 1945, London, 1997, pp. ix-x; Nick Tiratsoo, ‘”You’ve Never Had it So Bad?”: Britain in the 1970s’, in Tiratsoo (ed.), From Blitz to Blair, pp. 163-4, 173-4; and Jim Tomlinson, ‘Thrice Denied: “Declinism” as a Recurrent Theme in British History of the Long Twentieth Century’, Twentieth Century British History 20:2, 2009, p. 235.

[78] Tony Blair, ‘We Won’t Look Back to the 1970s’, The Times, 31 March 1997, cited in Andy Beckett, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, London, 2009, p. 392; New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better, London, 1997, viewable at http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1997/1997-labour-manifesto.shtml (site accessed 24 September 2009).

[79] Simon Jenkins, Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, London, 2006, p. 29.

[80] John Hoskyns, Just in Time: Inside the Thatcher Revolution, London, 2000, p. 89.

[81] Kevin Hickson, The IMF Crisis of 1976 and British Politics, London, 2005, p. 228.

[82] Quoted in James Callaghan, Time and Chance, London, 1987, p. 426.

[83] Roy Hattersley, ‘Leonard James Callaghan’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition.

[84] Andrew Gamble, ‘Theories and Explanations of British Decline’, in Richard English and Michael Kenny (eds), Rethinking British Decline, Houndmills, 2000, pp. 19-20.

[85] Jim Tomlinson, The Politics of Decline: Understanding Post-War Britain, Harlow, 2000, p. 1.

[86] Keith Waterhouse, ‘I’m Blacking Britain’, Daily Mirror, 20 January 1977.

[87] Healey, The Time of My Life, p. 381; Douglas Wass, Decline to Fall: The Making of British Macro-Economic Policy and the 1976 IMF Crisis, Oxford, 2008, p. 330.

[88] Savage, England’s Dreaming, p. 205; see also Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MA, 1989, p. 441.

[89] ‘Record Sales Rocket after TV Row’, Guardian, 4 December 1976; ‘Stop Press Pop 30’, Daily Mirror, 21 December 1976.

[90] Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London, 1979, p. 98.

[91] John Heilpern, ‘Dromaius novaehollandiae’, Observer, 19 December 1976.

[92] ‘Now Here is the Nine O’Clock Knees’, Daily Mirror, 21 December 1976; see also Graham McCann, Morecambe and Wise, London, 1998, p. 262.

[93] Barry Fantoni and George Melly, The Media Mob, London, 1980, p. 81.

[94] Beckett, When the Lights Went Out, p. 3.

[95] Paul Hoggart, ‘All at Sixties and Seventies’, The Times, 29 July 2000; Matthew Sweet, ‘Boom-oo-yata-ta-ta’, Independent on Sunday, 21 October 2001.

[96] ‘Near the End of the Line’, The Times, 8 May 1975; see also Mark Garnett, From Anger to Apathy: The Story of Politics, Society and Popular Culture in Britain since 1975, London, 2008, pp. 18-19.

[97] ‘TV’s New Faces – The TUC Funnymen’, Sunday Mirror, 31 October 1976; Peter Black, ‘Square Vision’, Guardian, 6 November 1976.

[98] Clive James, ‘And Now … Supermind!’, Observer, 2 January 1977.

[99] Burk and Cairncross, “Goodbye Great Britain”, p. xv.

[100] Bernard D. Nossiter, Britain – A Future That Works, Boston, 1978, pp. 1, 9, 74; see also Beckett, When the Lights Went Out, p. 416.

[101] Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume V: Competition 1955-1974, Oxford, 1995, p. 949.

[102] McCann, Morecambe and Wise, pp. 3-4.

[103] Jonathan Coe, The Rotters’ Club, London, 2002, pp. 274-5.

[104] McCann, Morecambe and Wise, p. 270.

[105] ‘Britain’s most watched TV’, BFI website at http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/mostwatched/1970s.html (site accessed on 9 January 2009).

[106] Phil Wickham, Understanding Television Texts, London, 2007, p. 53; see also Shaun Moores, Interpreting Audiences: The Ethnography of Media Consumption, London, 1993, p. 89.

[107] Potter, Independent Television in Britain Volume 4, p. 227.

[108] Brian Viner, Nice to See It, To See It, Nice: The 1970s In Front of the Telly, London, 2009, p. 65.

[109] Ken Irwin, ‘Is This the End of the Road for Talent Shows?’, Daily Mirror, 18 March 1978.

[110] Isaacs, Look Me in the Eye, p. 209.

[111] Francis Wheen, ‘Satirical Fiction is Becoming Blair’s Reality’, Guardian, 14 February 2001.

[112] Ned Temko, ‘Brown Outlines His Vision for an “X Factor” Britain’, Observer, 5 November 2006.

[113] Jonathan Freedland, ‘Inspired by TV, Brown Gets the X Factor’, Guardian, 13 February 2008.

[114] Gordon Brown, ‘We’ll Use our Schools to Break Down Class Barriers’, Observer, 10 February 2008.

[115] Beckett, When the Lights Went Out, p. 6. Other recent histories of the decade not referenced elsewhere in these notes are Dave Haslam, Not Abba: The Real Story of the 1970s, London, 2005, and Francis Wheen, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, London, 2009.

[116] Savage, England’s Dreaming, p. 263.

3 thoughts on “‘Stand Up and Be Counted’: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory

  1. […] Not only was there no Poundland Lord Haw-Haws on hand in the Fifties when people became too politically correct, no Piers Morgan or Iain Dale to whip ‘em in to shape. There were no sweaty-palmed quiz show hosts to yell and scream at celebrities and the general public when they started on fascist leader Oswald Mosley and his Union Movement, or other far-right groups such as the White Defence League, as they do for Trump or UKIP today. (That wouldn’t get started till 1974…) […]

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