TV Review, Back in Time for Tea (BBC2): Space hoppers and power cuts? We must be in the Seventies

The time-travelling Ellis family of Bradford arrive in the decade that taste forgot – the 1970s: BBC/Wall to Wall
The time-travelling Ellis family of Bradford arrive in the decade that taste forgot – the 1970s: BBC/Wall to Wall

At some point in around 1976 the Ellis family of Bradford, time-travelling guinea-pigs in this exercise in immersive social history, sit down to a Vesta paella meal. The question is immediately put, rhetorically: “Where do you find prawns so small?”

Where indeed, and even though, like the elder Ellises, I lived through that decade and suffer vivid tangerine dreams about it to this day, I still don’t know the answer to that question. Nor, indeed, why “dehydrated” food was such “a thing” in those days. Maybe it was inspired by the space missions that enthralled us all, or was to do with advances in “food science”, as I think it’s called, or perhaps we all just got a bit ahead of ourselves, as was often the case in those days. Today only the Pot Noodle stands as a living monument to that pioneering work by Batchelors and the other big ready-meal outfits. It’s not the most glorious legacy of the “decade that taste forgot”, but the most apt in a literal sense, I suppose.

Most of the latest episode of Back in Time for Tea was constructed with the usual care we’ve come to expect in this series, and made enjoyable to watch by the enthusiasm of the Ellis family, who have been charming and educating us since 1918 (or three weeks ago, in fact).

Thus, everything was some shade or beige (check); the music sounds as good now as it did then (check) – T. Rex, Bowie, Alvin Stardust, Boney M, The Hues Corporation (geddit?), David Soul and The Bee Gees were all plumbed in via a push-button radio or 45rpm singles (or “vinyls”, as the kids call them, hilariously, these days). “We’ve got Tizer!” the Ellis children cried when they opened their (fitted) kitchen cupboard, which I can vouch for as a welcome treat, and of course there were plenty of jammie dodgers too, by which I mean the biscuits, not the blokes perpetually out on strike.

And there the show did do the right thing. It showed, exactly as I remember it, more than just space hoppers and Buckaroo, but the grimmer side of life, like lights and the telly going off at 10pm during the power cuts of the winter of 1973-74. That was as tough as any Christmas since the end of the Second World War and which, I hazard to suggest, will make anything Brexit chucks at us feel pretty tame.

The show being set in Bradford, the makers also showed some of the racial tensions that built up as a result of the immigration of labour from Pakistan to work in the mills and, more to the point, what happened when the mills started to run out of work and unemployment started to creep up on the industrial North. The National Front (forerunners of the BNP) marched through Manningham, and that historical fact was duly mentioned, and, by way of a sort of balance, the first curry house in Bradford was the scene of a visit and a chat with actor Shobna Gulati about community relations, then and now. Brookside star Claire Sweeney popped round, a bit randomly, to make a bowl of genuine scouse, which I confess I’ve never tried.

Odd things didn’t ring quite true. The family Vauxhall Viva was suspiciously free of structural corrosion; I’ve never heard of “spaghetti hoop puffs”; and the 1977 Silver Jubilee commemorative mugs would never have been used to drink tea out of. While Northern Soul was fully represented, punk was entirely absent, as was the rampant sexism and violent football hooliganism that disfigured the age. Nor how you had to wait six months for the Post Office to put a phone (land) line in, and almost as long for a British Rail train to arrive. Let alone all the sexual abuse we’ve since learned about.

Still, you can’t have everything, and the most poignant moment came when the family had a “farewell to the Seventies” party, complete with Watneys Party Seven, Babycham and cocktail sausages on sticks. They’d not long since learned the result of the May 1979 general election and heard Mrs Thatcher talking about bringing harmony and peace; and the Ellises, for the first time, felt some sadness at leaving the past behind. There was, even allowing for their perfect hindsight, a little trepidation on their faces as to what the 1980s might bring to the North. That was a bit too real.

In the last of this second run, Sea Cities visited Brighton. Many’s the time I’ve had a fine old time down there, and it always was (even in the run-down 1970s) a fun place to be. How the makers of this documentary turned into such a dull old town I can’t conceive.

It was like watching a film made by a BBC trainee who pointed their camera in entirely in the wrong direction for most of the time – out to sea and around the boring stony beach rather than back towards the strange worlds behind – the low life, the high life, the no life, the nutters and the sexually crazed, who you can’t really miss on a night out, even when the Conservatives aren’t in town for a conference and some serious grope opportunities.

A more knowing or arch commentary might have made more of the humdrum material, the whelk stalls, marine biologists and Punch and Judy show, but that too was missing. Filming in the local Sea Life aquarium, quite an impressive place, to be fair, we were introduced to a leathery old girl named Lulu with the deadbeat line: “Not many people would be able to say they’ve been swimming with a 77-year-old sea turtle that weighs 28 stone.” Even I can see the comic potential there. Next time they need to hire Julian Clary or Jo Brand to camp things up a bit. I mean, it is Brighton, after all.