Summer holiday television is a thing of the past. Kids these days spend their annual 6 weeks away from school mainly playing computer games and any TV that they do watch is confined to digital or streamed channels dedicated to their age group. It was not always thus. I grew up in the 70s and the average summer break day went like this: awaken early, lounge in front of the TV with breakfast watching whatever was on until about 10am, assess whether whatever film they had dug up was worth watching, play outside in the sun with my brother for the rest of the day (summers in the 70s were always really warm and sunny – 1976 was a corker!) until called in for tea, watch Magpie or something with fishfingers, beans and a beaker of Quosh. It was the same for most kids I knew and that slow-burning lazy start to the day was important, which is why both the BBC and ITV always had something to fill those hours.
However, although the TV channels were keen to entertain the kids, they didn’t want to actually spend any money or anything, so they would dig up whatever was in the piles marked cheap, free or already paid for. Some of this stuff was, even then, pretty ancient: Champion the Wonder Horse, a regular summer visitor, dated from the early 50s and perennial favourites Flash Gordon and King of the Rocket Men were even older, dating from the 1940s. The channels felt a bit embarrassed about showing too much stuff in black and white though, even for the kids, so the main source of summer TV in the 70s were shows from the late to mid-60s, often American and filmed in retina-scorching technicolour. The funny thing is, we didn’t think of them as being dated; we weren’t around in the 60s to see them first time, so as far as we were concerned they were ours.
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will undoubtedly be able to sing numerous songs by the Monkees; not because they ever heard them on LPs or on the radio, but because the TV show The Monkees was endlessly repeated by the BBC during the summer. For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past 50 years, the Monkees were an American band consisting of Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith, who were originally created for a half-hour comedy TV show cashing in on the international success of the Beatles, who went on to become independently successful recording artists for decades after the TV show was canned.
All that was in the future though, the Monkees had split in 1971 on not the best of terms and no-one had any reason to believe they would ever return (they did in 1984, but that’s another story), but the BBC still had the rights to screen their TV show, which was colourful and fun and therefore just perfect for summer holiday TV. The Monkees ran for 2 series between 1966 and 1968 and becomes noticeably more psychedelic in the second series, both in terms of music and stories. Oddly, it’s some of the more surreal episodes that seem to stick out in my mind, such as Fairy Tale in which the band re-enact a bizarre children’s story against minimalist sets (with generous amounts of cross-dressing) and the final episode The Frodis Caper, directed by Micky Dolenz. I also distinctly remember Monkees on Tour, which was a straight documentary about the band performing live.
The inspiration for the Monkees, the Beatles, had also split up very early in the 1970s, but their music never really went away. In an era when copyright restrictions weren’t quite so tortuous, the 1965-67 American animated series The Beatles was still available to be screened in the 70s, despite containing a lot of Beatles music. It’s generally remembered as being quite poor; the animation is cheap and the voices of the fab four by American voice artist Paul Frees and British comedian Lance Percival, are greatly exaggerated and sound pretty ridiculous to anyone in the UK (though probably less so to most viewers in the US). The same production company went on to make the vastly superior animated feature Yellow Submarine. I don’t remember these being shown quite as much as some of the other stuff, so I’m guessing that the music rights issues did eventually catch up with it.
Sticking with 60s music, the BBC also screened The Banana Splits, Hanna Barbera’s first foray into ‘live’ action, which used a vague thread about a musical group of strange animals to tie together various cartoon series. Although they did release singles, the Banana Splits themselves (actually a group of session players, much like the Archies) did not have the chart success of the Monkees – though everyone knows the theme tune, The Tra-La-La Song. The Banana Splits were created by Canadian puppeteers Sid and Marty Kroft, who would go on to greater success in the 70s with H.R. Pufnstuf and the style of the show is very much a kids’ version of that most 60s of comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, complete with characters popping up at doors and windows to deliver random one-liners.
Although it went through a number of cartoon series, the excerpts that I best remember from The Banana Splits were The Arabian Knights and The Three Musketeers, rather earnest adventure stories that would probably be forgotten were it not for their inclusion in the parent show. Cartoons were, of course, a big part of summer holiday viewing; a constant presence on the BBC being Top Cat, which was billed in Great Britain as Boss Cat. The reason for this was that the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, were not allowed to advertise and there was a leading brand of cat food in this country called Top Cat, so even unintentionally the BBC could not be seen to be promoting the product. So Top Cat became Boss Cat on all the credits and listings, even though he’s constantly referred to as Top Cat by every character in the series. Sticking with cats, Tom and Jerry were also a constant presence on the BBC, wherever there were 10 minutes to fill and the Star Trek animated series (which has a vague cat connection because of navigator M’Ress) was also favoured by the Beeb.
1965 Japanese animation Undersea Boy Marine (海底少年マリン) was one of the first animated series from that country to be dubbed into English and widely distributed in the West. As simply Marine Boy, it was a frequent visitor to summer mornings for many years. The cartoon revolves around a young lad who operates as a sort of undersea crime fighter by the use of various special powers and amazing devices; he is able to breathe below water by chewing ‘oxy-gum’ (don’t try this at home, kids) and can communicate with a white dolphin called Splasher. The storylines could be a little repetitive, which is in the nature of anything set underwater, but it was still a damn sight more entertaining than the similarly aquatic The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo, which even at the time I remember finding incredibly dull (and it was made in 1975, so falls outside the purview of this feature).
Japan was not the only non-English speaking country to contribute to summer mornings in the 70s; a couple of French serials from the 60s were regular visitors to these shores. The Flashing Blade was a swashbuckling 1967 French children’s serial originally called Le Chevalier Tempête and loosely based on actual historic events. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s much better remembered for its rousing theme tune than anything that actually happened in the series. Also probably better remembered for its theme tune is the 1964 Franco-German adaptation of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoë) from the classic novel by Daniel Defoe, though few people realise that the theme familiar to UK viewers was a replacement score commissioned by the BBC and not the original score from the French and German versions.
The BBC had never really started producing in colour until 1970, so most of its colour summer holiday material was either American or European. ITV was a different story; Lew Grade’s ITC had been producing material for international sales on film and in colour since the mid-60s and their back catalogue included all of Gerry Anderson’s series. The line-up on independent television varied depending on which ITV region you were in, but I remember Tyne Tees Television (serving North East England and Cumbria) showing Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 as part of their summer line-up at various times. All of the Supermarionation series were broadcast before I was born, so these summer repeats and various Saturday morning screenings were my main exposure the work of Gerry Anderson.
The two Thunderbirds movies, Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6, along with Gerry Anderson’s live action movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelgänger, 1969) were also regulars on the summer film front. The movies they thought of interest to kids in the 70s were an incredibly random bunch, with the antiquated comedies of George Formby and Will Hay often getting a look in, alongside classics from Laurel and Hardy, but 60s family movies were a mainstay; Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150ad starring Peter Cushing as the titular time traveller, the vast output of the Children’s Film Foundation and a whole host of animations from companies that never quite achieved the Disney-like heights they strove for.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the 60s favourites that cropped up during the summer holidays in the 70s; people’s individual memories may differ and, as I mentioned earlier, the ITV regional channels all showed different things (Tyne Tees, for example, inexplicably refused to show Sesame Street for many years) so everyone will have different fond memories. But these are the shows that meant something to me growing up and which I clearly remember from those crazy, hazy days of summer. My fondness for 60s music today is almost entirely down to growing up watching The Monkees and the Beatles cartoons and I would never have been exposed to the wonders of Supermarionation if it hadn’t been for the reruns. So, to misquote the great Marc Bolan: Summer was Heaven in ’77 (and surrounding years).