British soap operas broke new ground in the 1980s, one in particular leading the way in technological and artistic innovation. It replaced bulky studio cameras with lightweight over-the-shoulder gear, freeing up directors and actors alike to give a more dynamic, documentary feel to the drama. Most controversially of all, it confronted issues of the day head on, including the casting of openly gay characters. And it did all this at half past one on a weekday afternoon.
Daytime television, in the pre-Kilroy years, was a more inventive beast than critics, dogged by vague memories of watching endless episodes of The Cedar Tree through a Calpol haze, will allow. ITV’s various regions contributed some original drama for the afternoon slot, in between the bouts of cut-price period frippery and rural tweeness of popular memory. Thames Television’s Rooms appeared in 1974, occupying a strange territory of its own between soap and anthology. Self-contained tales unfolded thrice weekly of the variously unfortunate inhabitants of the bedsitting rooms of 35 Mafeking Terrace, West Kensington. Downbeat stuff indeed amongst the Chalmers-endorsed soufflé recipes and Mateus lampshade conversions, but it was good for two long series.
Arguably braver still was Southern’s Together, kicking off on January 24th 1980 with no small amount of hoopla for a daytime show from one of the smaller franchises. Along with Anglia, Southern always felt its lowly status outside the “Big Five” ITV regions was undeserved. This derived, in part, from the nature of its most popular networked efforts: homely rural fodder with a heavy Jack Hargreaves involvement which delighted countless viewers but enabled the urban franchises to patronise Southern as a yokel outfit. (The Express‘s William Hickey column was fond of covering any ambitious project emanating from Southampton with a blithe reference to “that bustling stationette”.) Some upscaling was clearly needed.
So began a miniature wave of increasingly metropolitan programming, which was to culminate in The Diana Dors Show, a late-night, open-ended chat-in hosted by La Fluck in a different custom-made frock each week, plus a million pounds’ worth of jewellery. Together was rather less nakedly aspirational than that, instead offering some genuine televisual ambition. The brainchild of Adele Rose, Corrie scriptwriting mainstay and future creator of Byker Grove, it took as its manse Rutherford Court, a spanking new low-rise block of housing association flats in an overspill suburb. The cast bulged with the regulation famous names (Victor Maddern, Hilda Fenemore) and future stars (Sarah Greene, as a “flighty” 18-year-old hairdresser).
Initially, Together was shot three days before transmission, enabling topical references to Geoffrey Howe’s budget and Chris Bonnington’s Everest expedition to be subtly inserted into the dialogue, Drop the Dead Donkey style. For the second series in 1981, they made slightly cheaper but much more daunting alteration: the show went out live. Scenes had to be carefully co-ordinated, occasional pre-recorded elements played in, and fingers crossed. A solidly professional team under the aegis of Bryan Izzard managed to pull it off with only peripheral fluffing, even though the acting style, perfunctory to begin with due to the tight deadline, became even woodier as fear of live meltdown gripped the cast.
Technological ability proved, storyline controversy was introduced in March with the introduction of openly gay tenant Peter Hunt (Stephen Churchett, later the Mitchell brothers’ solicitor in EastEnders). Peter shared a flat with Trevor, who was torn his affections and those of fellow resident Charlotte, leading to a pioneering daytime depiction of homophobic abuse. Choice phrases like “nancy boy”, “bent as a three-quid note” and “shirley” were hurled around Rutherford Court’s communal areas. Southern readied the afternoon audience with some mollifying words. “Gays are now part of everyday life,” said a spokesman in the vernacular of the period, “but we are ready for a few furious phone calls.” The Daily Mirror forewarned us that “slimming housewives may find themselves choking over their Ryvita and cheese”.
As it turned out, no storm arose. Either the daytime audience was a lot less conservative than was (and indeed still is) assumed, or off-peak obscurity let the plot roll safely under the radar of mass moral offence. Rose would face sterner opposition thirteen years later with Byker Grove‘s CBBC gay kiss, but Together quietly chugged on for the rest of the series, doomed to die off along with its parent company as franchise upheavals replaced Southern with the even more starry-eyed TVS. It would be going too far to suggest that Together made the likes of Brookside and EastEnders possible, but it’s worth remembering that the acknowledged milestones in TV’s history, for all their virtues, are rarely the pioneering one-offs they’re made out to be.