ITV At 60 box set review

12 discs celebrating the 60th birthday of ITV - with some very rare material contained within...

Independent Television made its debut in Britain on Thursday 22nd September 1955. Though not initially available nationwide, the fledgling service was famously outdone on its opening night by BBC Radio’s The Archers and the death of Grace Archer in a barn fire. A preview of that opening show is included on the first of twelve discs which make up Network’s ITV60, a diamond jubilee celebration of commercial television in Britain. The first commercial to be broadcast, incidentally, was for toothpaste – Gibbs SR. That isn’t included; however, the package, which amounts to well over 2,000 minutes of classic television, contains much to recommend it.

As one might expect from Network, ITV60 is very well presented, featuring a fine selection of programmes – from iconic landmark shows to forgotten gems. Despite what many might think, not all the material is already available. There are several previously unreleased episodes including, perhaps inevitably, Coronation Street and Crossroads. Both are represented by landmark editions: the aftermath of Martha Longhurst’s death in 1964 and the return of Meg Mortimer in 1983, respectively. There’s also an unreleased episode from hard-hitting documentary strand World In Action (albeit one of the lighter documentaries from 1980 looking at manipulation of the pop charts). There is a memorable edition of The Bill from its early 90s twice-weekly pomp and a terrific Whicker’s World from 1982, which sees the globetrotting reporter journey on the Orient Express.

One particular unreleased episode, which will no doubt find a lot of love from Den of Geek readers, is the 1975 Boxing Day edition of Rainbow. Featuring the antics of magician Ali Bongo and singing trio Rod, Jane and Matt (Matthew Corbett). There is also the earliest surviving recording of Tiswas from the same year. Disappointingly it is pre Chris Tarrant and Sally James but it remains an interesting artefact in terms of where the show was headed.

There are some genuine rarities from Associated Rediffusion, the titles of which should gladden the heart of the hardcore vintage television enthusiast: Leslie Philips is Our Man At St Mark’s; the cases of Inspector Lockhart are featured in Mystery Bag; Crane starring the doyen of voiceover artists, Patrick Allen and the influential early crime show No Hiding Place. In terms of picture quality, these programmes haven’t been cleaned up and consequently feel truly vintage. A rule of thumb with this selection box would appear to be – if its been cleaned up then it is most likely already available on DVD or blu-ray.

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Each disc is presented as “an evening’s viewing”, which in itself seems rather quaint. Before dedicated themed channels and boxset binges took hold, television could present the viewer with a real mixture of genres and styles – the idea that someone in 2015 would sit through a whole evening of such variety seems almost alien, viewers tend to cherry pick what they watch these days rather than accept the programmer’s schedule in its entirety.

ITV60 is somewhat skewed to cult programming, which is certainly no bad thing – it’s nice to see The Avengers, The Prisoner, Catweazle, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), Robin Of Sherwood, Space 1999, Thunderbirds and less well known fare such as the truly odd The Strange World Of Gurney Slade. Timothy West stars in a classic Tales Of The Unexpected episode Royal Jelly, which is arguably one of the best of the entire series. There is a treat for Carry On fans with Sid James making a guest appearance on a Sunday Night At The London Palladium from the Jimmy Tarbuck era.

Doctor Who fans will be pleased to see an episode from the antecedent Sydney Newman series Pathfinders In Space included in the collection. The War Doctor, John Hurt turns up as a computer obsessed ex-con in The Sweeney, as the eponymous ‘Tomorrow Man’ and George Cole features alongside Dennis Waterman. John Thaw’s other great detective, Inspector Morse, is represented by the episode Driven To Distraction, whilst co-star Kevin Whately also joins his building site gang for a night of beer and darts in Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Michael Elphick guest stars as the bullying hardman Magowan.

The boxset contains a selection of fascinating documentaries. The respected journalist and filmmaker, John Pilger’s Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia shows the brutality of life under the Pol Pot regime and its aftermath. 21 is the third part of the classic Michael Apted series which revisits a group of people every seven years. It is more commonly known as 7 Up, 14 Up etc. There is an episode of the magnificent series The World At War, famously narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier. Now over forty years old, this landmark documentary stands up remarkably well.

Sometimes fairly innocuous shows are included for reasons which become obvious upon viewing: The Arthur Haynes Show features an early appearance by a young Michael Caine. The Main Chance is heralded by a very rare Trident Colour Television logo to the strains of the traditional Yorkshire TV fanfare. The collection also demonstrates changing attitudes with the inclusion of The Stanley Baxter Moving Picture Show. This contains a controversial sketch based on the current affairs magazine Nationwide, featuring Baxter in blackface.

Classic comedy includes Rising Damp, A Fine Romance, Man About The House and the very first George And Mildred. Curiously, two comedy programmes – Doctor In The House and Nearest And Dearest – bear the same episode title: What Seems To Be The Trouble? which suggests either the writers back in the day were short on title ideas or the boxset compiler could have been more adventurous in the selection process.

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Inevitably, in the case of boxsets such as this, there is the inherent problem of what to include and what to leave out. Let’s face it, ITV could be summed up by sixty completely different programmes. Despite the title, the shows in this selection range from the opening night in 1955 to an episode of Soldier Soldier from 1994. It is quite telling that nothing from the last 20 years made the cut. Whether this says more about Network’s resources or the perceived quality of latter-day ITV is open to debate. Fans of the likes of Broadchurch or Downton Abbey will be disappointed. So too will those who enjoyed The Persuaders, Brideshead Revisited, The Naked Civil Servant, The Jewel In The Crown, Minder, Spitting Image, The South Bank Show, Cracker or Prime Suspect. Also notable by their absence are the myriad game shows with which ITV was synonymous. Despite the lack of some ITV staples this remains a fascinating collection.

It would have been nice to have had a documentary to set all these shows in context, nevertheless this is a solid package representing some of ITV’s best known programmes over the years. It is fair to say that the casual viewer, less likely to have so much of the material, may get more from this than the seasoned collector – who may need convincing there is enough here to make it a worthwhile investment. If one treats it for what it is – as a broad overview of ITV history, then this is a highly recommended treasure trove.

ITV60 Complete Listing

DISC 1: ITV Opening Night Preview | Thunderbirds: Trapped In The Sky | The Army Game: April Fool | Man About The House: While The Cat’s Away | Robin Of Sherwood: The Greatest Enemy | The Prisoner: Checkmate DISC 2: Pathfinders In Space: Convoy To The Moon | The Larkins: Frightful Nightful | Sunday Night At The London Palladium: 28/11/1965 | The World At War: It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow | Callan: Let’s Kill Everybody 

DISC 3: Catweazle: The Sun In A Bottle | The Arthur Haynes Show: 08/12/1962 | The Avengers: The Winged Avenger | Public Eye: My Life’s My Own | An Audience With Dame Edna 

DISC 4: Crossroads: 26/10/1983 | On The Buses: The Strain | The Saint: The Contract | The Tommy Cooper Hour: 21/04/1974 | Auf Wiedershen, Pet!: The Alien DISC 5: Rainbow: 26/12/1975 | Pipkins: Cowboys | Doctor In The House: What Seems To Be The Trouble? | The Power Game: The New Boy | 21 DISC 6: Magpie: 26/11/1976 | Shut That Door! | Space 1999: Breakaway | No Hiding Place:  A Bird To Watch The Marbles | The Sweeney: Tomorrow Man DISC 7: Tiswas: 30/08/1975 | Four Feather Falls: Horse Thieves | The Stanley Baxter Moving Picture Show | Gideon’s Way: The Wall | Tales Of The Unexpected: Royal Jelly DISC 8: The Adventures Of Robin Hood: The Coming Of Robin Hood | Nearest And Dearest: What Seems To Be The Trouble? | Rising Damp: Black Magic | Mystery Bag: Lockhart Finds A Note | Upstairs Downstairs: Miss Forrest | Year Zero: The Silent Death Of Cambodia DISC 9: Ace Of Wands: Peacock Pie 1 | Coronation Street: 18/05/1964 | Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased): Could You Recognise The Man Again? | Crane: A Cargo Of Cornflour | Soldier Soldier: Stormy Weather DISC 10: A Fine Romance: Series 2 Episode 6 | World In Action: The Chart Busters | The Professionals: Blind Run | Inspector Morse: Driven To Distraction DISC 11: George And Mildred: Moving On | Jason King: To Russia With… Panache | The Main Chance: The Best Legal System In The World | Justice: A Nice Straight-forward Treason | Strange World Of Gurney Slade: Episode 1 DISC 12: Our Man At St Mark’s: The Facts Of Life | The Bill: The Short Straw | Man At The Top: I’ll Do The Dirty Work | Whicker’s World Aboard The Orient Express | Armchair Theatre: Afternoon Of A Nymph

ITV At 60 is out on the 26th October from Network and available on general release on the 23rd of November.