Tuesday 14 September 2010

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

The older you get, the faster time passes. So it is comforting to have occasional interludes in which the pace slows, the predictable always happens, and one can bask in happy memories of simpler days.

For many years now, Sunday night TV has provided just this in the whimsy of Last of the Summer Wine from Holmfirth, the gentle police drama of Heartbeat filmed in and around Goathland, or its hospital spin-off The Royal set in Scarborough.

To be honest, I have not watched any of them regularly in years. Summer Wine lost much of its appeal when Bill Owen (Compo) died, and Heartbeat was never the same after Bill Maynard had to be invalided out of the role of Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Even so, it was comforting to know that they were still there in the schedules, providing work for British character actors and film crews, income for owners of wheeled bathtubs and classic cars, and a massive boost to the Yorkshire tourist industry.

Now, all of a sudden, they are gone. I have never knowingly missed a final chance to see anything since my father let me stay up especially late one night when I was seven, to catch The Last Night of the Crazy Gang from the London Palladium. So naturally I was glued to the screen on Sunday to watch the very last episode of Heartbeat, which exited not so much with a bang as a groan and a lot of sobs, as cast and audience alike were left wondering whether Oscar Blaketon would survive being impaled on a very large pitchfork. Given the Hitchcock-like appearance of the Grim Reaper in an earlier scene, I did not feel inclined to bet on it.

When Heartbeat started back in 1992, there seemed to be a fairly direct connection between the chronology of the series and real time. But then someone no doubt spotted that they would soon have to move on from the steam trains, Bakelite telephones and pounds, shillings and pence that contributed so much of its appeal. And so it ended up stuck for years in the late 1960s, repeating itself like a cracked vinyl record as the regular actors aged but their characters supposedly did not.

Current television convention clearly required a final, wrap-up episode in which it would have been revealed that Aidensfield had actually been wiped out by a surprise Soviet nuclear strike on RAF Fylingdales in 1965, and that everyone had been hanging around in purgatory ever since. Well, it worked for Ashes to Ashes and Lost.

Instead we got a cliff-hanger that could only be resolved in the next series that is never going to be made. Disappointing, or what?

I turned for light relief to BBC4, and what was billed as “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.” Given that I have never heard of any such person, I had high hopes that this might turn out to be a hilarious spoof. But, in fact, the only fiction proved to be the claim that the man was a Geordie. It eventually emerged that he had been an occasional childhood visitor, escaping from his upbringing in Hartlepool. As you would. The BBC clearly needs to do more work on its geographic understanding of this so-called “deep North” beyond White City.

This, sadly, is the sort of cheap-to-make “fondly looking back” programme of which we can expect to see much more as the old, expensive, period comedies and dramas vanish from the airwaves.

Still, with 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine and 372 of Heartbeat available for endless recycling, why bother making new stuff when we can all wallow in fond memories of the way we used to enjoy our Sunday night fix of nostalgia back in the good old 1990s?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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