This being my blog and all, I wanted to indulge myself with a detour, but wasn’t sure where it would go. Then I remembered that Stephen Gallagher’s “Terminus” is one of the most boring Doctor Who stories ever and I didn’t want to watch it in the first place, let alone write about it. And it was taped toward the end of 1982, which I think was an important year when you’re talking about the look and feel of a videotape production versus a filmed one.
In the seventies, I think that there was a different perception. Doctor Who was made the way that most British television was made in the 1970s. It was three-camera, as-live videotape in the studio. There certainly were exceptions. All the programs that were made, typically by ITC, with an eye on sales to the United States were made on film, and so were a handful of shows, like The Sweeney, that were made by Euston Films. But the bulk of British programming from the seventies was made on color videotape. I love watching this style of production. It’s my comfort TV, if I may borrow that fine blog‘s title. Who may have been set on spaceships or on other planets, but it still looked and felt more like Upstairs, Downstairs than Battlestar Galactica.
But expectations changed, and I’m afraid that you can thank America for that. One of the first places that younger audiences saw a change in expectations was in the world of music videos. MTV launched in August of 1981 and needed lots and lots of programming. Certainly before MTV, you occasionally saw videos here and there. Broadly, and admitting there were exceptions, the American acts used 16mm film and many of the British ones used tape. Stacked back-to-back on MTV, no matter how popular Duran Duran was to become among its growing audience, their video for “Planet Earth” looks like the cheapest thing in the universe when you play it immediately after even a zero-effort performance clip of the J. Geils Band, which is why EMI shelled out for film for Duran Duran’s next clip, “Careless Memories.”
So during 1982, videotape started vanishing from the pop music world. Much as documentaries might try to convince you that the “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Save a Prayer” clips ushered in a life of lavish overspending, these were exceptions to the rule, and the era of “big budget” productions, usually for Madonna and Michael Jackson, was a few years in the future.
Film wasn’t egregiously more expensive than tape, even with extras, cars, and pretty girls, but it became necessary around 1982. So Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short” was on tape and “Chant No. 1” wasn’t, the Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes” was on tape and “The Hanging Garden” wasn’t, all of Roxy Music’s clips through “More Than This” were on tape and “Avalon” wasn’t. 1982 was the last year Kate Bush did clips on videotape. Bowie was all-tape on RCA and film on EMI. (Incidentally, and bizarrely, the 1980 clip for “Fashion” wasn’t actually videotaped in the UK; it was made in New York City.) Adam Ant’s classic clips were on tape and the later ones that nobody remembers weren’t, and Culture Club had the good sense to never use tape in the first place.
A special note here about the Human League: they had several chart hits that never had videos at all, but they were omnipresent on videotape on programs like Top of the Pops, which is where young audiences learned that the lip-synced performances would be on tape, but the video clips weren’t. When the Human League did make their first video, for “Don’t You Want Me,” they’d “graduated,” in a sense. I’m going on like this because in 1982, this really did matter for the audience that Doctor Who should have been cultivating. Tape was not the medium for music videos any longer, so, in the eyes of the newest generation of TV viewers, it shouldn’t be the format for anything else, either.
Around the same time, the British television industry started taking larger steps away from tape. Again, you might can blame America. There were “prestige” productions, most obviously of Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, but these only reinforced the view of what was achievable. By 1984, even a character as popular and accessible as Sherlock Holmes would be made on film rather than tape. Granada’s very successful series, which starred Jeremy Brett as the definitive Holmes, was made with co-production money from WGBH in Boston, which led every television company in Great Britain to start knocking on WGBH’s door looking for capital. Almost all of the many resulting co-productions were made on 16mm film. It was no longer just the ITC factory looking at American sales; it was everybody. (And can you imagine a videotaped Inspector Morse?)
While there were still many British programs made on tape, even into the mid-nineties, these seemed ever-increasingly cheap and nasty in the face of what the rest of television looked like. There’s a reason why seventies children’s serials like Sky and Children of the Stones are fondly remembered in hushed tones, but people giggle about 1996’s Neverwhere looking “cheap.” Yet Neverwhere honestly looks exactly like its forerunners. Another favorite example: the characters in the hilarious and very meta “Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a Comic Strip Presents episode shown in 1993, dismissively sneer at the police soap opera The Bill because it’s on tape.
Madly, because of the way that its budget changed, Doctor Who doubled down on video in 1986, and stopped using film entirely, even for the exterior scenes. I wonder whether things might have been different had the 1986 season been six or seven individual hour-long episodes, made on film. That fall, Who was getting absolutely killed in the UK ratings by, of all things, The A-Team. The ten year-olds of 1986 knew cheap when they saw it.