|To launch the Network On Air streaming service, the centrepiece of the entertainment was a set of curated Nights In, fashioned like an evening of television from the 1960s from the ABC region of ITV as was. Original continuity announcer David Hamilton was on hand with the freshly recorded avuncular introductions and goodnatured quips in between the programmes, as were a selection of original adverts. Let's take a look at the first of these Nights In, welcoming us once again to Manchester.
First up was the most famous magician in Britain for at least two decades, David Nixon, with a ten-minute short featuring card tricks with participants plucked from a small studio audience - they even get a nice cup of coffee to sip. The tricks themselves were Nixon's stock in trade, and he pulls them off with his usual affable aplomb, the highlight being the "card emerging through handkerchief" trick, though the "impressive hand at poker" stunt was not too bad either.
Second is the only surviving complete episode of the original 1960s series of Candid Camera, adapted from the American Alan Funt format of course (which Funt made a fortune from selling all over the world) but here introduced by Bob Monkhouse, smoking a pipe for some reason. This was the instalment with one of their most famous pranks, the car driving into the petrol station only to be revealed to have no engine, though there was also the one with regular actor Jonathan Routh with his bowler hat on fire. Routh was a curious chap, not least because his saturnine visage was so distinctive it's surprising nobody recognised him from then on. Nevertheless, a cast iron format that endures to this day.
Third is an episode of the police drama series Dial 999, from the late fifties so one supposes this counts as a repeat, which tried to emulate the American crime shows of the era with fast-paced plots and regular bouts of action. To underline that, Canadian actor (but he sounded American) Robert Beatty was recruited to star, working in a liaison with Scotland Yard and in this entry foiling a gang of crooks who pull off violent robberies. The Great Gold Robbery was its title, and among the cast was Patrick Magee as a police inspector. You imagine this was pretty dynamic stuff in its day, an obvious predecessor of 1970s classic The Sweeney.
Fourth, we go to variety, with another perennially popular format, Opportunity Knocks. The idea was simple: watch a selection of up and coming acts, and vote for your favourite, though rather than phoning or texting this was done with a postal vote, and the winner was announced the following week. The unctuous Hughie Green was the host, interviewing anyone from relatives to agents of the performers before they got to do their act, which here included a Peter, Paul and Mary rip-off, a Russ Conway rip-off and a Frankie Howerd rip-off (complete with dodgy syrup), and also a pair of acrobats, a torch singer, an operatic tenor and a steel band all the way from the Caribbean. No matter the improvements to this style of show down the years, it remains as solid as it ever was.
Fifth was more variety, but this time with those who had made it rather than being hopefuls, as Big Night Out showcased the talents of Mike and Bernie Winters, the comedian brothers who were enjoying their heyday in this decade. They could do it all, sing, tell jokes... well, that's two things anyway, their crosstalk routines applied to sketches like what Noddy and Big Ears get up to at night (drink, apparently) and a gameshow spoof that ends far more alarmingly than you imagine was intended at the time. Their guest were fellow comedian from the clubs Al Read, who does basic "Take my wife - please" stuff, The Three Monarchs, who sing, play a mean Telstar on the harmonica and indulge in daft quips, and actual big stars Matt Monro and Petula Clark, who sing but not together. All in all a typical ITV variety effort.
Sixth in the line-up was the celebratory The ABC of ABC, a special that commemorated the station's ten years on the air by presenting a number of classic clips introduced by presenters Eamonn Andrews, Barry Westwood and actual proper thespian Billie Whitelaw. They served up a rundown of the highlights as the North and Midlands broadcaster regarded them, ranging from the inevitable Beatles on Big Night Out to the relatively highbrow dramatics of Armchair Theatre, which tried to take the advances in theatre and apply them to television, something it did with great success. Other clips seen included Spike Milligan on The Eamonn Andrews Show sparring verbally with Peter Cook, and a concert of Frank Sinatra, quite a scoop, plus the newly emancipated heroines of The Avengers which they are particularly proud of. It's as interesting for 1966's view of the past ten years as it is a collection of extracts, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows are in the studio for a tune, too.
Seventh and last on the list was an instalment of Armchair Theatre, namely A Very Fine Line by C. Scott Forbes which was a tale of murder - or was it? Keeping its mystery very murky until the last couple of minutes when all was revealed, it started with Michael Craig as an American businessman in London who wakes up in a hotel room near the airport and asks reception to call the police to report a murder. The cops duly turn up and are treated to a story about how he lost his temper while drunk and knocked over an escort girl, killing her in the process when she hit her head as she fell. The question is, did this really happen, and if it did not then what did? This was a well-sustained enigma that could have doubled as a very decent episode of your average police procedural series. Leslie Phillips was the detective trying to work out what is going on, and he and Craig shared a tense chemistry thanks to the policeman's inquiring mind.
That's it for the first of Network's Nights In from the sixties, and you can view it among other Nights In and television episodes at their Network On Air site, a must for nostalgists wishing to immerse themselves in television of decades ago. Click here to join the Network website.