- 15 Mar 16
From the A-Team to knight Rider via Top Of The Pops and Max Headroom, the '80s truly was a decade of highs, lows and inbetweens
Dodgy fashion, campy overacting and storylines that stretched credibility to the limit – but that’s enough about the Haughey governments. The ’80s may not trouble journalists and pop culture historians when they are running through the list of greatest ever TV shows although, interestingly, there are a couple of links with
the golden age of television that commenced in the late ’90s with The Sopranos.
That show’s creator, David Chase, got his start in TV with a writing job on The Rockford Files, the detective series masterminded by Stephen J Cannell. Los Angeleno Cannell was one of the central players in ’80s television, overseeing such decade- defining shows as The A-Team, Hunter, David Milch, creator of HBO western Deadwood and writing hero of True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto, commenced his TV career authoring scripts for hit cop drama Hill Street Blues. Miami Vice, meanwhile, was produced by Michael Mann, later to find fame as the director of the feature films Manhunter and Heat. Whilst the hit shows of the ’80s
may have given some heavyweight talents a foot in the door of the industry, they weren’t particularly concerned with lofty subject matter. The pleasure of American series such as The A-Team, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy and The Dukes Of Hazzard lay in their inspired theme tunes, iconic vehicles, OTT action sequences and kitsch storylines.
Opening credits were elevated to an art-form, with the weekly intros of The A-Team (a mix of helter-skelter action soundtracked by stirring, string-driven rock) and Knight Rider (moody shots of the KITT car accompanied by icy synths) acquiring iconic status. Following, the runaway success of Knight Rider, a particular formula was arrived at.
This involved giving a show a generic name – usually conjured by pairing a geographical term with the name of an animal – and basing it around a hero who fought crime with the aid of a technological marvel. Thus did we have Street Hawk and Airwolf, two shows beloved by those of us who grew up in the ’80s.
The former concerned a police troubleshooter who tackled urban crime atop an all-terrain motorcycle; the latter, meanwhile, addressed another bogeyman of the Reagan era – Communism – in the shape of two pilots (Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine) who fought international espionage in a high- tech military helicopter. Though the storylines were rarely anything other than straightforward action hokum, though were some notable stylistic elements to the shows – the theme for Street Hawk, for instance, was composed by Krautrockers Tangerine Dream.
Interestingly, thanks to the work of one actor in particular, there was an Irish link in many of the hitUS shows of the decade. Best known as Devon Miles, Michael Knight’s suave boss in Knight Rider, Cork’s Edward Mulhare also starred in Hunter, Hart To Hart and MacGyver. He regularly returned to his home city during the decade, where a neighbour and lifelong family friend was one Billy Morgan, the All-Ireland winning Cork football manager.
Towards the end of the decade, many of the biggest US imports were showing on Sky One, the then new satellite channel. For many of us, the pinnacle of Friday night viewing entertainment was WWF wrestling, which the channel helped to popularise and which now – under the name WWE – has become a global phenomenon.
On the music front, Top Of The Pops was still going strong and producing its fair share of iconic moments, as was Saturday Night Live. An innovative new show which debuted in the decade was Channel 4’s The Tube, fronted by attitudinal presenters Jools Holland and Paula Yates. Focusing on new wave music and alternative rock, the series showcased some of the finest artists of the time.
Less edgy but still popular was RTE’s own MTUSA, which featured Vincent Hanley reporting on musical developments Stateside. Another homegrown hit was Nighthawks, the Shay Healy-fronted show which eventually attained its place in Irish cultural lore thanks to an interview with ex-justice minister Sean Doherty. In it, ‘The Doc’ confirmed that he had shown transcripts of journalists’ tapped phone conversations to Haughey, thus setting in train a sequence of events that would lead to the Taoiseach’s demise.
Children’s TV would enjoy a golden age in Ireland in the ’80s, and The Den, fronted by first Ian Dempsey and later Ray D’Arcy, and featuring the wildly popular puppets Zig & Zag, was essential after-school viewing. Aside from the evergreen Late Late Show, the nation’s favourite show was the rural soap Glenroe, whose theme tune inspired a mortal dread in many of us about it being Sunday night and not having our homework done.
Over in the UK, while there was fine dramas in the likes of Threads and Boys From The Blackstuff, the ’80s were really about comedy, as a new generation made their presence felt on the airwaves. Shows like A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, The Young Ones and Blackadder rapidly achieved cult status, and eventually proved to be among the best comedy programmes the country had ever produced. And in the Thatcherite yob Loadsamoney, Harry Enfield created a character that defined the grotesque greed of the decade as vividly as Patrick Bateman, John Self or Gordon Gekko.
The ’80s was perhaps the last decade that would become instantly recognisable through its pop culture, beforewe all became knowing and postmodern in the ’90s.
It’s impossible to see the character of Max Headroom, for instance, without interpreting it as visual shorthand for the era. And the new wave music and fashions of Miami Vice, for instance, provided the archly gauche aesthetic
of Grand Theft Auto, one of the most successful game franchises ever.
We are surely due an ironic “’80s-style show” from HBO or Netflix any day now...