On... 80's Saturday Tea Time TV

Glen A. Larson died this week, aged 77. His name bought back a few memories so here we open a new film-related blog section and kick off with a tribute to the man who invented Saturday Tea Time TV in the eighties. At least for us.

On the 14th November 2014, a small piece of my childhood was mercilessly pulled into the void. It’s not the first piece and it certainly won’t be the last and it’s not really a piece in any physical sense but for some reason, five days on, it’s making me think. And has been on and off since the news broke. Glen A. Larson was a prolific figure in TV show creation and writing from the mid seventies well into the mid eighties and his shows have been made and remade numerous times since. His list of hit shows is truly impressive to behold, there is a very small selection at the bottom of this blog, pulled out purely on the basis of those I remember most.

And remember them I do, and not just because they’ve been repeated ad nauseam, nor because they have any real lasting quality as such (don’t attack me just yet, I love them all) but more because they are so utterly pinned to a period and a place in my life that I can’t shake them. I’m also starting to believe that, when I think back to really try and identify when I first fell absolutely head over heels for the silver screen, Larson’s TV shows are very probably where the seed was planted. 

Back when Tea Time was actually tea time, following on from Breakfast and Dinner, rather than Dinner because actual Dinner had been erroneously and inexplicably replaced by Lunch and Tea had been replaced by something that tourists do involving cheap sandwiches cut into pointlessly thin slices and served in expensive cafes at any time of the day, Tea Time was Family Time. And I don’t mean that in some weird aspirational middle class notion of sitting around a glass table, adults sipping wine and nibbling perfectly undercooked vegetables, kids conversing on a level with them. I mean proper, honest family time. Adults on sofas glancing at the TV over the papers, kids sat on the floor, faces pushed up against a bulging, light radiating TV set.

Saturday Tea Times were always special. The week came and went and school intruded on most things, work likewise for the grown ups and Sunday was a bit odd, with the obligatory lie in, followed by a seemingly indefinite period of not much and then Sunday Lunch, weirdly served at some time in the mid afternoon, always sat properly at the table (though certainly not a glass one). But Saturday was the day when seemingly all bets were off. My dad got to listen to football (if he wasn’t out refereeing it) and if memory serves, you could actually watch some on the TV without a ruinous subscription to a viciously commercial station. Football always finished around five and then the real fun began. Flipping over (ie getting up from the floor and walking over to the TV as the huge remote was invariably on the fritz) from the ‘quality’ broadcaster - BBC, to the trashy upstart - ITV (or Central as it was locally known in my part of the country) you could enter a world dominated by four men. 

Stephen J. Cannell & Frank Lupo blessed us with The A-Team, Gy Waldron with The Dukes of Hazzard and Glen A. Larson…. Well, he covered just about everything else. In my era of lounge floor sitting goggling admiration he presented us with Knight Rider, Manimal, The Fall Guy and Magnum PI. Battlestar Galactica was more of a rarity, as was Buck Rogers and it wasn’t until University that I fully came to appreciate the genius of Jack Klugman in Qunicy M.E. (if you think Shatner overacted, rewind to Krugman - an absolute masterclass of astonishing overacting, mostly emoting through three fingers pressed against his thumb). Saturday afternoon nirvana.

My first love on those Saturday afternoons was of course the football. I would sit, transfixed, reading out players numbers and impressing everyone in the family. Lord alone knows how old I was at this point, it’s either an early memory or my family were patronising me for far too long. After whatever live coverage had finished, I would sit in equal rapture as James Alexander Gordon calmly read out every single result in the league, his wonderful Scottish voice carefully annunciating so you already new who had triumphed just by the pitch. We lost James this year too, football results will never be the same. My dad would diligently check the football pools, the favourite method of weekly wish fulfilment, followed by profound disappointment of the working classes when Camelot was still just a fictional castle and not a fourteen million to one shot monopoly.

It’s easy to work out just why, given these two wholly different forms of entertainment just why I fell into almost total ambivalence of one. Surfing a great wave of TV money, followed by an even bigger wave of foreign vanity spending (sorry, investment in the game) football’s wonderfully grubby, meritocratic allure soon dimmed, leaving only a West Yorkshire team that holds any remaining relevance in this world for me. But the impact of the second half of Saturday Tea Time turned out to be far more enduring and difficult to pin down.

Escapism of course forms a massive part of the attraction but at that age, what the hell was I escaping from? It was different back then of course, I wasn’t escaping anything, it was just a nascent rebellion, all be it one in which my family was utterly complicit. It was the one time when watching something, whisper it, American, over something English (I’ve no idea what English shows were on at the time but I suspect something like Bullseye or Blankety Blank or some terrible soap) was okay. And so, along with egg and chips and beans (and with a habit of eating bread and butter with a main course that causes consternation in London to this day) came Night Rider.

Of all Larson’s wondrous shows, it was David Hasselhoff’s crowning glory (except maybe that bit on the Berlin wall) that I remember most. I suspect this is mainly due to my mum having a not insubstantial crush on the Hoff (we all caught up years later) but I’ll give her that. For a kid of my age, seeing this gigantic Yank coming back from the dead and cruising the country in a TALKING car, was an absolute show stopper. I’d simply witnessed nothing like this anywhere before. The car was TALKING to him! And not just barking directions (satellite navigation was probably beyond KITT’s abilities at this stage), he was being sarcastic and knowing and and and…. Probably the most unexpectedly memorable thing for a child watching Knight Rider, and in a world without catchup TV or Youtube was watching episode after episode of a man who came back from the dead without ever seeing anyone die. Saturday Tea Time was a death free zone by and large. Even The A-Team, which expended enough ammunition weekly to slaughter Belgium, only ever featured one death that I remember (I think it was Colonel Lynch but I can’t be completely sure without cheating and googling it). I’m unsure as to whether Michael Long’s death was shown in the TV show or in a separate TV movie but the discovery of that part was a big reveal for me. Not quite up with Laura Palmer’s killer but I still recall being mystified about the event surrounding his death and Michael Knight’s subsequent resurrection.

In absolute truth, I suspect my memories of my absolute favourite of Larson’s shows - Magnum PI have probably mostly been formed in adulthood and the rest of his output never really had the same impact. Manimal was an interesting idea (and autocorrect nightmare) horribly limited by budget and makeup. From memory Jonathan Chase only managed to change into three animals: a hawk, a snake and a panther but maybe that was all he needed. Either way, we’ll call it ahead of its time. The Fall Guy was great fun but I think I remember the toys associated with that as much as I do Lee Majors’ stuntman shenanigans. And that was pretty much just a brown and gold truck.

No, after Knight Rider it was The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team, in that order. Hazzard, (damn you autocorrect) mainly for the theme tune (still amazing to this day and still available from my memory at any time, complete with lyrics) and the fact that for a reason I just could not fathom, they insisted on getting into the car through the windows. I suspect my repeated attempts at doing this in my dad’s company car were a source of some weariness. Oh, and them placing a camera in the ground and having the car drive over it - something I was reminded of more recently when I finally got around to watching Man with a Movie Camera. Whilst Knight Rider was all mysterious plot lines and doing things for the Knight Foundation (and the greater good), Hazzard was literally just the good ol boys, never meaning no harm…. makin’ their way, the only way they know how…. Holy hell, I just found a fifth verse to that song. Maybe I’m not as wise as I thought.

The A-Team was a variation on the Knight Rider theme, good man / men, wronged, going undercover and systematically going about righting wrongs but, unlike the saint-like Knight, these guys always wanted money. Although they got off on the wrong foot with that slippery Amy Allen right at the start and never seemed to recover their business acumen - always seemed to end up defending people with no cash. I suspect they worked on a one for me, one for you basis where every other client was stinking rich and completely amoral but they only let the cameras in for the community jobs, but I’ll never be able to prove that.

There were other pretenders, mostly appearing in the mid-eighties and all following in Larson et al’s footsteps. Street Hawk was a gip on Night Rider but with a motorbike that couldn’t talk but could drive at illegal speeds without ever encountering a pedestrian, a cyclist or a wall. Airwolf was pretty much Knight Rider mixed in with some A-Team or Magmun PI military mumbo jumbo, but in a helicopter. It even stole the A-Team’s brilliant idea of dragging a once respectable actor into what was then, a defiantly second rate career.

And then of course there was Larson’s peak - Magnum PI. I left this one until last on account of my admission above. I know I watched it as a kid but I can’t really say I fully appreciated it as a kid. That there is something to appreciate beyond childhood is probably what makes it stand out. But what makes it stand out most of all is, of course, Tom Selleck’s moustache. That and his ability to somehow come across as macho despite a voice that is slightly too high. Gliding around Oahu in Higgins’ beautiful red Ferrari, swooping along the magnificent coast in TC’s helicopter or finding an excuse to go scuba diving with Rick, Magnum PI must be one of the most complete exercises in wish fulfilment ever committed to any size screen. It also has that bit where Magnum spends ages trying to pick a lock but it turns out the door was already unlocked. I howled with laughter at that as a kid and I’m pretty sure I would again now. Assuming I didn’t confuse it from some other eighties show.

So, to conclude. Well, hell, this is a blog post, I don’t need to conclude. But I’ll give it a shot. I am a child of the eighties and as such will always be influenced by them but there was something wonderful in those conversation free family Saturday Tea Times. Childhood was never a drudge but that doesn’t mean there was no room for escapism and Larson (and Cannell and Lupo and Waldron)’s shows were absolutely perfect for that. They showed the young me what was out there beyond the power station that dominated our town. They showed danger and more prosaically, death. They showed blue skies and Vietnam. They showed shining cars, steadfast men and beautiful, wily women (honestly, Amy duped them A-Team boys good). They showed sweeping, expensive camerawork and no matter how many times the car flipped, they showed people getting out and shaking their heads. They showed cameras IN THE GROUND for crying out loud. Nobody on English TV had come up with that. English TV could manage comedy, drudgery or quiz shows. There was not one single talking car. And no sweeping beaches with towering volcanoes in the background. At an age when the cinema was just out of reach (though to be fair to my parents, it wouldn't be long), Saturday Tea Time was the absolute picture of everywhere I wanted to be and everyone I wanted to be with. So long as they didn’t judge me for having bread and butter with my main course.

So you will always be remembered Mr. Larson, it wasn’t high art but nobody swore and nobody got hurt. And, more importantly, you managed to show kids like me that whether they are on a small screen or on one the size of a small tower block, the moving pictures are there to show us what we can be, where we can go and what we can do, even if we can’t. And that’s art in my book.



Glen A. Larson Selected Shows:

Writer - 1 Episode The Fugitive 1966

Writer - 50 Episodes Alias Smith and Jones 1973

Writer - Movie Battlestar Galactica 1978

Writer / Creator - 29 Episodes Battlestar Galactica 1978

Writer / Creator - 24 Episodes Buck Rogers in the 21st Century 1979

Writer / Creator - 5 Episodes Qunicy M.E. 1978

Writer / Creator - 9 Episodes Manimal 1983

Writer / Creator - 86 Episodes Night Rider 1982

Writer / Creator - 112 Episodes The Fall Guy 1981

Writer / Creator - 158 Episodes Magnum PI 1980