The Showbiz Set was a wonderful look back through the golden age of British television, the bitter battle between the BBC and ITV. and the footsoldiers on either side. Starting with the launch of ITV in 1955 and ending with the death of Eric Morecambe in 1984, the series looked at a age when The Tom Jones Show could be trumpeted into Britain's living rooms as being part of "a £20million contract", as that be taken as an amazing thing, rather than merely causing a lot of frothing at the mouth and bilious comments on message boards. The fact that the £20million figure had been completely invented by Lew Grade just before meeting the press only made moments like that all the more interesting.
Much more than just your average delve into the archives, The Showbiz Set played host to a brilliant depth of knowledge, with much of the show being made up of new interviews with entertainment legends like Bob Monkhouse, Ned Sherrin, Denis Norden, Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, Barry Cryer, Sir Bill Cotton, Bruce Forsyth or Ronnie Corbett, alongside TV historians and off-screen employees of the main broadcasters, coupled with archive interview footage of figures all the way from Hugh Carleton Greene to Mary Whitehouse. In short, throw a dart into any copy of the TV Times from the sixties or seventies, and there's a 70% chance the name it'd hit was involved in this programme, providing they're not dead or an advert for P&O Ferries.
As might be expected from the names contained within, it didn't restrict itself to the more obvious topics - as much time was spent covering Gilbert Harding, Eddie Braben and Simon Dee as on Benny Hill. It also took in the fortunes of the stars once they fell from the limelight, such as Barry Cryer's tale of how Tommy Trindler went from being the most famous face of ITV's early years to pottering about as a warm-up act, purely because he wanted nothing more than to remain in showbusiness. The less glamorous side of things was given due prominence in general, with Babs Windsor, Max Bygraves and nightclub owner Johnny Gold reflecting on how faces from the London underworld were as likely to turn up to cabaret nights as talent-spotters from ATV, and how, with the 1950s being the decade before pop music exploded, it was the showbiz set who pre-empted their lifestyle. As Denis Norden brilliantly puts it, "fucking did not start in 1963, despite what Philip Larkin might have said."
Even for hardbitten TV spods like us, the series threw up a hefty barrowful of information we hadn't previously been aware of. For instance, Lionel Blair and the marvellous Bob Monkhouse remarked on the times they'd (individually) visited drug-fuelled orgies at Diana Dors’ place. Meanwhile, the BBC's most famous face of the era, Gilbert Harding, a quick-witted blustery colonel type, struggled to balance his homosexuality - in an age when it was still illegal in Britain - with being the most famous man in the country.
There are come glaring omissions. The medium of radio barely gets a look in, and the programme claims Steptoe & Son was the first hugely popular sitcom in the UK, clumsily forgetting to mention Glaton and Simpson's previous offering, featuring a certain Anthony H from East Cheam. However, if the more well-worn tales are to be left out in favour of interesting revelations, such as John Lennon spiking Jimmy Tarbuck's drink with speed, or Mary Whitehouse being able to fund the NTA with money she'd won in a court settlement with the Daily Mail, which had published a comment from Ned Sherrin suggesting (in a roundabout way) her previous job was as a 'lady of the night', then all the better.