Pulling A Sickie: Remembering Crap 80s Daytime TV

Remember how good it was to pull a sicky and watch TV back in the day? No, me neither, it was bloody terrible.
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Mum was at work. My older brother, who had been granted a day off secondary school in order to keep an eye on me, had quickly resigned his duties and headed round his mates house for a spot of solvent abuse. My packed lunch box sat on the table next to me with a steaming cup of Lemsip beside it. I turned the gas fire to maximum, shuffled over to the Granada-rented, teak finished TV set in the corner of the room and pressed the power button. By the time I was back on the sofa, stretched out in my jim-jams and dressing gown, the black dusty screen had slowly awakened from its slumber and I was ready to enjoy my sick-day TV marathon.

The Waltons, The Sullivans, Sons and Daughters, Knotts Landing and, of course, Crown Court. These were the shows that would accompany the malingering school children of mid eighties Britain. While superficially varied in their themes and settings, they were united under the same woozy and depressing atmosphere that prevailed across all four channels throughout daytime hours. Had I watched them under different circumstances, without my senses dulled by viral infection, Lempsip and that gas fire, might I have assessed them differently? No. The daytime TV of that era was, by any objective analysis, shit.

The Waltons? A load of destitute hicks titting about up a mountain. Pa forever fixing the car in those daft dungarees, Grandma Walton with her sanctimonious, homes-spun moralising and John Boy going on about getting one of his rubbish stories published in the local rag. God, I hated that moley-faced spod. He might have fancied himself as a brainbox but, when push came to shove, all he did with his rotten life was enlist to the military and get his plane shot down in the war. I bet he didn’t feel so clever then did he?

Then there was The Sullivans: more of the same dreary accounts of ordinary folk doing ordinary stuff in the olden days, only this time in Australia. Uncle Harry’s got a new job; Kitty’s got a boyfriend; Grace has died in an air raid during her trip to London; Dad’s lost his hat. Who cared? Not me. So why did I watch? Because I was off school, I was lazy, there was no remote control and all that was on the other side was the stupid test card anyway. The Sullivans and The Waltons might have been boring but that demented clown and his strange, grinning girlfriend were just plain scary. So scary in fact, that I would occasionally become a little bit paranoid about being in the house all on my own. If I went upstairs for a wee, might that gruesome double-act be waiting to smash me over the head with their noughts and crosses blackboard and feed me chalk? Probably best I remained in front of the telly and didn’t move until mum got home, just in case.

"Why did I watch? Because I was off school, I was lazy, there was no remote control and all that was on the other side was the stupid test card anyway."

All those shows with their bad acting and wobbly sets might have been crappy but they were at least familiar and comforting. Like The Sullivans, Sons And Daughters was a hit Australian soap that was used to pad out the daytime schedule in Britain. It took the idea of the prosaic, repetitive soap opera to its illogical extremes, featuring loads of unattractive Aussie actors with bad haircuts and clothes in every shade of brown sitting about in tastelessly furnished living rooms having conversations about what to have for tea. Plus, it had the most saddening, mournful titles sequence of any television programme ever made. A montage of sepia-toned headshots of the cast played out to a wailing theme tune which opened with the words “Sons and Daughters, love and laughter, tears and sadness and happineeeessss…” Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. They could have opened the show with an image of a kitten slowly suffocating in a clear plastic bag to the strains of The End by The Doors and it wouldn’t have been any more sad.

Mind you, if it was upbeat, exhilarating opening titles you wanted then the daytime schedule could provide them elsewhere thanks to the American soaps Knotts Landing and Falcon Crest. One was about the Californian wine industry; the other was a Dallas spin off starring a young Alec Baldwin. Both opened with sweeping helicopter shots of vast, glamorous looking landscapes to the accompaniment of frenzied, sax-driven, funk-symphonies. But which was which? Nobody knew. All that mattered was that a woman with an impressive manicure would slap a square jawed gentleman in a sports jacket round his smug face towards the end of every episode and say something like “That baby is mine and I intend to keep it.”

These shows might have been terrible but they were also somehow hypnotic, offering a grim portal into the mysteries of adult life. Was this really the sort of crap they got up to during the day when we were at school? If it was, then I didn’t want to ever grow up. Especially after watching an episode of Crown Court, the bleak, hyper-realistic drama in which genuine members of the public would act as jurors in a dramatised criminal trial. It was a concept far too complex for my juvenile mind to grasp: I just thought it was live coverage from real-life courtrooms. Courtrooms that dealt with murder, rape and kidnap trials. Court rooms in which the guilty would get off scott free and the innocent would be sentenced to life and dragged down to the cells in floods of tears. All this at midday on a Wednesday afternoon! As the spirit crushing theme tune played over the closing titles I would fight back the tears and curse the injustices of the grown-up world. Then I’d look at the clock, realise that playtime was about to start back at school and vow to never, ever pull a sickie again.

This is an extract from 'Shouting At The Telly - Rants and Raves About TV by Writers, Comedians and Viewers.' (Faber and Faber).

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