A version of this essay originally appeared in the book You And Who Else.
I don’t know what school dinners are like these days; rather nice, I imagine. Campaigns of recent years have shown how it’s possible to provide a tasty, nutritious midday meal, while keeping within stretched education budgets. I like to picture school canteens offering fresh fruit and vegetables and carefully-prepared dishes balancing items from all the major food groups.
It was, as so many things were, different in the Eighties. Our dinner ladies must have paid close attention to the Cold War fears expressed in work such as Threads and Protect And Survive. Everything on the school canteen menu seemed packed so full of preservatives, they could surely sit out a nuclear winter. Hot dog sausages glowing with an eerie pinkness. Angel Delight prepared to a consistency that evoked lamination. Orange squash with top notes of tartrazine and corrosion.
For those of us close enough to do so, going home for lunch was an appealing option. Not only was the food less alarming, but you could watch telly, which as a daytime activity, still carried of whiff of exoticism about it.
Despite ours being a staunchly BBC household most of the time, the Corporation offered little to tempt young audiences at lunchtime. News bulletins, stragglers from the Open University schedule, and Pebble Mill at One were the usual meagre pickings. Pebble Mill at One was a magazine programme that seemed to have been deliberately designed to repulse any younger viewers who might have stumbled across it. Dreary grown-ups would sit in front of a window overlooking a dreary lawn in Birmingham, talking about the dreariest grown-up subjects a young mind could conjure. After what felt like about six hours, the programme would be brought to a close by someone like James Galway, playing his flute to the studio audience, none of who had been born after the cessation of hostilities in The Boer War.
Even in a BBC house, there were times when ITV was needed. Cometh the hour, cometh the network.
At the time, ITV broadcast along regional lines, with differences far more pronounced than today. Outside of prime time, somebody living in the north of Scotland might be watching something entirely different to viewers in the south of England, tuning in to ITV at the same time.
We lived in the region covered by Border Television. Geographically, this was one of the largest ITV regions, but also one of the most sparsely-populated. As the name suggests, Border transmitted to the land where Scotland and England meet, with us in the Isle of Man graciously allowed to tag along. Cumbria and Berwickshire may offer hauntingly beautiful landscapes, but they have few television viewers to form an audience.
Two hours’ drive from Border Television’s headquarters in Carlisle, in the centre of Manchester, sat Granada Television. Five years older than Border, with the urban sprawl of Greater Manchester and Merseyside to provide a plentiful supply of viewers, Granada was an over-achieving older sibling. Granada didn’t just broadcast television, it made television. Big, popular, nationally-networked shows, including the biggest and most popular of all: Coronation Street.
Border Television’s output largely consisted of programmes about crofting, sheep trials and the occasional pulse-quickening episode of Mr & Mrs. If you’re not familiar with this zero-budget gameshow, a quick online search will provide more useful information than my boggling memory of it. On a weekday lunchtime in the 1980s, Border Television output could hardly be more Borderish if it had broadcast a lengthy loop of Alfred Wainwright reading verses of William Wordsworth inside Beatrix Potter’s cottage.
Granada, it will come as no surprise to learn, offered a cooler option. Channel Four’s repeats a couple of years earlier of the colour episodes of The Avengers had given the youth of the Eighties a taste for Sixties spy escapades with a fantastical twist. More vintage espionage was offered by The Champions. Whereas Steed, Mrs Peel et al were ordinary (if very stylish) mortals dropped into situations that lay just outside reality, The Champions reversed the gimmick. Here our three heroes, Craig, Sharron and Richard (and you’d struggle to find more 1960s-aspirational forenames) were agents sent around the world to deal with more prosaic enemy agents, fanatics and assassins. Unbeknownst to both their foes and their curiously incurious boss, Tremayne, our dashing trio had a range of superpowers to assist them in their championing of truth and justice. An unseen man with a booming transatlantic tone would loudly remind us of the central McGuffin in a sequence at the start of each episode, in which one of the trio would perform some act of strength or sleight-of-hand.
Craig, Sharron and Richard owed their superhuman and superconvenient gifts to their plane having crashed in the mountains of Tibet in the opening episode. A mysterious yet kindly community rescued them and healed their bodies, carrying out something of a software upgrade in the process. The shaman representing the miraculous mountain people sent our trio back home, asking nothing more in return than they be allowed to continue their secluded lives undisturbed. The Champions sportingly agreed and emerged from the snows of Tibet to resume their sleuthing, now with added telepathy and girder-bending.
The Champions had to emerge from a different kind of snow, if I was to stand any chance of enjoying their adventures. Our trusty television battled heroically to maintain the Granada signal from the distant Winter Hill transmitter; and with a bit of luck and a prevailing wind, the blizzard of static would resolve into something watchable.
Coming back to The Champions many years later, with the episodes pristine on DVD, it stands up remarkably well. Some of the gender and race politics inevitably sets the teeth on edge and the use of stock footage and back projection to represent exotic locations seems quaint to a modern audience. The pacing however, often seems bracingly up to date, thanks to those mystical Tibetan gifts of theirs. I recently saw an episode of The New Avengers and found myself thinking “This plot could be wrapped up in about five minutes, if Purdey and Gambit carried mobile phones”. With The Champions able to communicate long-distance, thanks to their enhanced senses, a lot of the toing and froing that occupied the plots of programmes of a similar vintage is unnecessary and absent. Even if the cosmic Wi-Fi sometimes hits an area of poor reception, when a dramatic cliffhanger is needed. Watching Granada from the Border region, I could easily empathise.
However sharp the images may be now, The Champions will always have the snowy haze of nostalgia for me. The stirring theme tune, the lovely Sixties design and the wide-eyed storytelling transport me back to those distant dinnertimes. There were no superpowers used to keep our television tuned into faraway Granada. Just bits of wire, favourable prevailing winds, and my youthful determination to escape scary lunch dishes and bucolic Cumbrian scheduling.