20 October 2009

1980: The Axing Of Waggoners' Walk...

Walking the walk... Mike and Claire Nash (Edward Cast and Ellen McIntosh) owned No 1, Waggoners' Walk, centre of a lot of the serial's action, from 1969 to 1980.

BBC Radio 2's sometimes controversial soap opera Waggoners' Walk, which had been on air since April 1969, was last broadcast in 1980 - it ended as part of the BBC's economy cutbacks. Bizarrely, Waggoners' Walk was, at the time of its enforced demise, the highest rated show of BBC Radio's drama output - this was pointed out back then. I couldn't help wondering just what the logic was in cutting this particular show, and wondered if the BBC, piqued at being made to pull in its belt, had decided to take it out on the audience?

And "Auntie" was very snobbish about soap opera at that time anyway. EastEnders was still years away.

The Beeb firmly turned down Capital Radio's request to take over Waggoners' Walk. Boo to the BBC!

Waggoners' Walk had often been fearless and controversial, covering story-lines like cancer, hypothermia and homosexuality.

The first homosexuality story-line had actually been a bit of a cop-out, with the gay man being a peripheral character who later "reformed", married and lived happily ever after. But never mind.

The show had its roots in a one-off radio play broadcast in early 1969, called The Ropewalk. It featured a lonely young woman - newly arrived in the capital from the north of England - prepared to offer her virginity to a stranger in a squalid bedsit, an anti-Vietnam demo, and a bouncer from a Soho clip-joint - where a young prostitute died of a heroin overdose.

And yes, this was in 1969.

Major characters in the Waggoners' saga included Mike and Claire Nash (Edward Cast and Ellen McIntosh) - he the editor of the Hampstead Herald, she a former model. Mike and Claire owned No 1 Waggoners' Walk; Lynn and Matt Prior (Judy Franklin and Michael Spice) - lady-like southerner Lynn and fiery northerner Matt were my two favourite characters. "Bloody wars, Lynn!" Matt would cry as news of the latest sophisticated goings-on in Hampstead reached him. "Matt! Behave yourself!" Lynn would reply. Matt and Lynn owned a restaurant and lived at the Old Bakery in Haverstock Hill. And then there was Liz and Peter Tyson (Ann Morrish and Basil Moss) - Peter was Lynn Prior's first husband. He and Liz lived in Minden Road and Liz worked on the Women's Page at the Hampstead Herald.

To end our round-up of memorable Walk characters, I'm sure fellow fans will remember Peter's father, the horribly grumpy Arthur Tyson (Lockwood West), and his genial friend George Underdown (Alan Dudley), who seemed to have found happiness with a late-in-life marriage, only to have that happiness cruelly snatched from him.

In 1980, Waggoners' Walk got an omnibus edition at last - beginning on Sunday, 20 January. Also in early 1980, the show opted to go down the gay route again, this time properly it seemed, when one of the characters - a restaurant waiter by the name of Rob Pengelly - announced: "Girls don't turn me on at all." This scene was actually rebroadcast as part of one of the first omnibus editions. At SUNDAY teatime, hallowed home of the classic Sunday serial on TV and Stars On Sunday

Cynical teen that I was, brought up on a '70s diet of The Sweeney, The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club, Bernard Manning and George And Mildred, I muttered, "The BBC won't stand for this. They'll have this programme off in quick sticks."

"Queers", "benders", "poofs" or "woolly-woofters" as gay men were called around my district in the 1970s (not that any actually lived there as far as I knew but everybody had an opinion on them and, it seemed, everybody was a bigot) were definitely not the sort of thing you expected to hear about at tea time on Radio 2 - not even in 1980. Particularly at SUNDAY teatime!

I've no idea if the gay story-line actually did have any bearing on the matter, but, very shortly after it began, the axing was announced.

There was uproar, including a debate in Parliament, but the BBC was having none of it.

A friend of mine suggested that Margaret Thatcher's Government was responsible for the show's demise, as the BBC was being forced to make cutbacks. But this simply made me laugh. What company in its right mind decides to ditch one of its most successful products when looking at areas where savings can be made?

The show's forthcoming demise was actually mentioned in the plot by a character called Jessie Brewer to an aforementioned character called George Underdown some time before the final episode. Jessie was having a moan and ended a list of woes with: "BBC cutbacks - have you heard about them taking off Waggoners' Walk?"

"Um, yes," said George, who actually wasn't paying much attention as his mind was occupied by other problems. But George was a character in Waggoners' Walk, and his problems were simply Waggoners' Walk story-lines!

Highly weird.

The scene fused my brain for weeks afterwards.

TV soap opera moved on in the 1980s, gritty social issues were examined, some soaps developed a hefty left-wing subtext, and, in 1987, BBC Radio Four produced a brand new soap called Citizens, revolving around a group of friends sharing a house in London.

I tuned in eagerly, but quickly tuned out again. The show seemed, to my mind, almost desperately topical, and I felt it was tarnished by the then emerging political correctness.

Citizens soon went down the dumper.

What a shame Auntie hadn't stuck with Waggoners' Walk, I thought at the time.

And it was a shame.

The BBC had two widely differing serials on radio - Waggoners' Walk, set in 'appy 'ampstead, and The Archers, set in sleepy Ambridge. Both worked beautifully. One complemented the other. And I loved the way these serials spurred my imagination to form pictures of characters and settings.

I still listen to and enjoy The Archers.

And I still bemoan the loss of Waggoners' Walk, nearly thirty years on. When nostalgia takes me, I have several episodes I taped from the radio back then that I can listen to.

Oh well. The 1980s took away but they also gave us soaps - Brookside, EastEnders, Take The High Road and, of course, the brilliant spoof Acorn Antiques.

Here's what Victoria Wood had to say about her most celebrated creation:

"It was a homage to Crossroads but also to a terrible radio series called Waggoners' Walk which was on then."

"Terrible"? Flippin' 'eck!

Still, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And I loved Acorn Antiques, too!

After Waggoners' Walk ended, a novel was published, Waggoners Walk - The Story Continues..., written by Terry James, one of the show's scriptwriters.

The final episode was heard at the end of May 1980, and it went out with a cliffhanger: middle-aged George Underdown, whose wife had died of a heart attack the year before, asked a girl thirty years younger than himself to marry him - Sophie Richmond, victim of a rape in 1979.

In the final scene, a shocked Sophie told George she needed time to think about it.

The novel took the saga on to September 1980, when Sophie married George. Sophie had decided that marriage to middle-aged George was right for her. The rape had left her afraid of sex, and George had told her that a "platonic marriage", based on companionship, would be all right with him. Sex had never played a large part in his life anyway.

On the last page of the book, Sophie discovered George crying over a photograph of his dead wife and telling it that he'd only married Sophie because he missed her so much.

"I think I may have made the biggest mistake of my life," Sophie told herself.

The End.

Another cliffhanger, this time never to be resolved!

Readers of the "Story Continues..." left Waggoners' Walk for the very last time in September 1980.

And this particular reader was tearing his hair out!


Anonymous said...

An excellent homage to one of BBC Radio's best serials ever. I too loved Waggoners Walk and used to run home from school to listen all those lurid goings-on. And a great theme tune too. Still miss it! Cheers Chris

Yvonne said...

It wasn't Brookside or even early EastEnders, but it was an improvement on The Dales! The thing that always annoyed me about WAGGONERS was the way that southern English people were presented as being cool, reasonable and broad minded, but northern English, Welsh and Scots people were portrayed as being hotheads! It was no surprise to me, during the homosexual story-line of 1980, that Matt Prior (from Lancashire, I think) was revealed as being an ignorant homophobe!

Drew said...

I think you have a point, but the cool reasonable people were usually posh Hampstead types! Debbie Franks was working class, from a poor area of London, and she could blow her stack with the best of them! One of my favourite characters as the show twirled towards its end.

Yvonne said...

The majority of southern English characters were posh though, and portrayed as being thoroughly enlightened. The BBC of the time would probably have keeled over if it had been asked to create a gritty Walford-style scenario, like EastEnders in the '80s.

Drew said...

EastEnders was a very different kettle of fish, far more abrasive and, at the time, shocking than Waggoners' Walk had ever been. But I still loved Waggoners' Walk. I remember in one early EastEnders episode, Lou Beale referred to Margaret Thatcher as "That cow in No 10!" I'd never heard such a strong political statement in a soap before! A shame EastEnders lost its interest in politics!

Anonymous said...

EastEnders will probably regain its interest in politics now that the Conservatives are back in. Of course, New Labour, which introduced Tuition Fees and Foundation Hospitals, could do no wrong!

Anonymous said...

With all that's been happening in Ambridge lately, I think it's time the BBC scrapped The Archers and brought back Waggoner's Walk. How about we get a petition up?

Drew said...

I'd enjoy a return to Waggoners' Walk - but only if we could pick up where we left off in 1980!

Irene said...

Irene March 7th 2012. 17.11pm Eastern Euro Time.

I loved Waggoners Walk so much that I listened to it twice a day. The afternoon episode and the repeated one in the morning. However, my recollection of the newsagent who married Sophie after his wife died was that his name was Gordon and not George.

Drew said...

Hello, Irene! Gordon Turner married Alice Hickey after her husband died. Gordon owned the Waggoners' Walk newsagents, which later passed into the ownership of Kath Miller. Kath married bank clerk George Underdown, but died of a heart attack soon afterwards. In 1980, George proposed to Sophie. Hope this makes things clear.

Henny. said...

Oh, the afternoon edition at 4pm!

My first job was in the 1970s for a terrible company- a low-paying major car dealership with draconian employees' rules in Liverpool- in the stationary stores. We weren't supposed to have the radio on, but we risked it. The opening music to "WW" at least meant we had "only" 90 more minutes of work to endure for the day. In hindsight, I find it incredible that I stayed with this company for 4 whole years before jacking it in for a job with three times the wages and a far friendlier atmosphere.

I beleive "WW" was the last soap to be broadcast by BBC Radio 2.

Drew said...

Thanks for the memories, Henny! You're quite right, R2 has had no soap since Waggoners' Walk ended.

Anonymous said...

I never got over that final cliffhanger in the early '80s Waggoners Walk novel! Sophie saying: "I think I may have made the biggest mistake of my life!" I'd still love to know what happened next!

Drew said...

Me too!

Ulla Jessen said...

I left England at the end of September 1979, devastated that I had to miss Waggoner's Walk. I had listened to it from the very start. It is a small consolation that I did not miss too much, although it's a crying shame it was discontinued.