I watched Tightrope. This originally run in 13 episodes of about 25 minutes, with a break, on ITV from 19th January 1972 – 12th April 1972. It was originally shown in colour but only black&white recordings have survived. It was aimed at younger viewers.
The opening titles have a noodly jazz theme tune as the title swivel in and out of view, rather like the turning of a key in a lock.
Victor Pemberton worked on many different TV series as a writer and producer, and he created the Doctor Who story Fury From The Deep which is notable as the first appearance of the Sonic Screwdriver.
Tightrope is set on land, and is definitely in the present reality of early 70s Britain: inflation, strikes, and disillusionment are rife, and any intelligent schoolboy will make dismissive comments about “politicians”. We meet plenty of them in the village of Redlow, which is close by Redlow Airbase (we can hear the jets coming and going regularly). We later find out we’re in East Anglia, not too far from the sea.
Much of the action takes place at Redlow Comprehensive, one of the exciting new brutalist centres designed as part of the new educational revolution sweeping the country.
We learn that the new Comprehensive was created by a merger of several other schools, including an old Grammar School, and some of the older, more traditional staff carried over from the previous paradigms don’t enjoy all the new progressivism. The hippie Polytechnic yobs are taking over the country with their left-wing nonsense, and at this point in history nobody realises most of them will end up becoming horrendous UKIP bores like Rod Liddle and Peter Hitchens. The Sixth Form are allowed to wear their own clothes, grow their hair long, and hang out in their groovy Common Room which has a few vaguely radical posters in it.
The kids love their Common Room and there’s an endearingly silly moment later when they decide to hold a sit-in, but luckily give up and go home before they have to address the unspoken issue of toilet breaks. Our progressive headmaster also allows “discos at lunchtime”, it’s not clear if this is purely for the 6th formers, but we do see them grooving along at one point – they seem to favour hard rock, which is also on the jukebox of the local pub. Though we never see any of them smoking, it’s not hard to imagine some of these children of the Space Age rolling a special herbal cigarette and sitting down to enjoy a Hawkwind LP.
The Common Room also doubles as a teaching space and that’s where they get their share of TV-based lessons. These seem to be national broadcasts, so there must be some other schools around the country following a similar model. Our young Eng.Lit. teacher Mr Harvey has Bowie-length hair but his suits are a bit square. We’re still writing the main points on a blackboard for the kids to note down, the curriculum follows traditional authors such as Jonathan Swift and T.S.Eliot. The structure must still be quite new as one of the young wags quips “What have we got this afternoon, sir – Z Cars or Crossroads?” What we hear of the broadcast about Swift is a thoroughly academic overview by a man with a posh voice who probably does more detailed versions for an Open University audience as well.
Whilst class has been setting up, another 6th-former has been delayed by trouble, knocked off his bike by a mysterious car new to the area, that he saw pulling away from the local Post Office. Martin Clifford (played by Spencer Banks) angrily notes down the registration and makes it to class just in time for a momentous event.
Somewhere far away in the school, a mysterious unseen figure gets hold of the coaxial cable feeding the signal to the 6th Form Common Room TV, and connects it to a video tape unit.
This immediately interrupts the lecture on Swift and switches it to a consciousness-raising broadcast by The Voice Of Truth (which has a distorted electronic affect) including images clearly taken around the school recently.
REDLOW COMPREHENSIVE. I HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU. I AM TALKING TO YOU: THE YOUTH OF TODAY, THE CITIZENS OF TOMORROW. YOU IN THE UPPER SIXTH WILL SOON EMBARK ON THOSE VITAL EXAMINATIONS THAT WILL DETERMINE YOUR FUTURE. TO WHOM DOES THIS FUTURE BELONG? WHAT IS REDLOW SCHOOL? IS IT JUST A PLACE THAT YOU GO TO EACH DAY TO STUDY FOR EXAMINATIONS, OR DOES IT PERHAPS SERVE SOME OTHER PURPOSE? HAVE YOU EVER CONSIDERED THE POSSIBILITY THAT YOUR PRESENCE AT SCHOOL COULD BE USED TO GREAT ADVANTAGE? QUESTION AND ANSWER: HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR TEACHING STAFF? WHO AND WHAT ARE THEY? CAN YOU TRUST THEM? QUESTION AND ANSWER. WHO IS THIS MAN? MICHAEL JOHN HARVEY, TEACHING ENGLISH LITERATURE FOR A-LEVELS, BUT IS THAT ALL? QUESTION AND ANSWER. ALL OVER THE WORLD YOUR GENERATION IS DEMANDING ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS. WHO, WHY? QUESTION AND ANSWER. I AM THE VOICE OF TRUTH.
Mr Harvey doesn’t like have his integrity called in to question, not when he’s put on a suit and tie and come in to work at teaching these scruffs about 18th century satire and modernist poetry. Everyone instantly decides the whole thing was an elaborate “prank”, and that’s also the consensus when it’s discussed at the staff meeting.
But meanwhile Martin has met up with the mysterious car driver, and he introduces himself as Mr Forrester. He warns him that there is a traitor active at the school and they need to work together to unravel what’s going on.
Things get serious very quickly – the Headmaster is found dead in the school’s pigeon loft, and he seemed to recognise his glove-wearing attacker.
Over at the local pub, officers from the airbase mix with locals and there are important secret meetings in the back room. But the cool kids can’t get involved as they’re not supposed to be here, as young Mr Harvey tells them when he comes in one evening.
Martin’s home life is unhappy: mum died a few months ago, and that’s why he’s had to sit his A-levels later than expected. Dad is in a low mood, drinking a lot and fed up with his minor job at the Airbase. Some men from Special Branch come to question him about what he was doing talking to some other strangers after leaving the pub the other night, in addition to inquiries from Martin’s new chum Mr Forrester.
Our local postmistress isn’t a harmless old lady either. She has a hidden room full of secret technology behind the counter.
When it’s holiday time Mr Harvey tries his luck with Chemistry teacher Jane Walker, who is cleaning the blackboard of “the usual end-of-term obscenities”.
We never hear any glam rock in this series, but it would be the most appropriate soundtrack for the mixture of heavy beats (deportation, booby-trap bombs, shootings, interrogations with truth drugs, the bereavement and depression of the Cliffords) with camp jollity (every scene with Mr Forrester, including ones where Martin calls him out for not seeming to take anything seriously). Forrester turns out to have a private battalion of happy-go-lucky spy-kids, including Joanna, played by young Sue Holderness.
In the end we seem to be getting near to Major Sverdlov, the remote Karla-like spymaster behind the whole conspiracy, and one of the Soviet agents explains that The Voice Of Truth will continue elsewhere (the signals we saw were only local interruptions at Redlow):
The Voice Of Truth succeeded in everything it set out to do, and will continue to do so. The Major predicted a long time ago that British youth was on the threshold of a social revolution and was determined to see that it was given the right encouragement.
The final confrontation, in which the last agent is found out, is a rather Hitchcockian pursuit in a hall of mirrors.
Tightrope wasn’t the only example of high-level espionage getting into TV for younger people. The Jensen Code (1973) also had innocent youngsters getting mixed up in top-secret events. Young Terry Connor is amongst a group of lads at an Outward Bound activity centre in the Peak District. This just happens to be near to the top secret MoD research base where the telepathic Dr Jensen is working on his special code to encrypt the vital communications link to the new SpaceLab, about to be launched in to orbit. Any outsiders who possess the Jensen Code will be able to hold the world to ransom, as they have access to the detailed locations of all missile bases and so on. There is a conspiracy afoot, led by spooky old Milton Johns as a master hypnotist, and 2 henchmen, one of them working on the staff of the OB centre. The plan is to mesmerise a few helpless stooges to assist in the kidnapping of Jensen, get the secrets out of him, then make everyone forget. Weirdy electronic music and spinning images occur when the mind-control is underway, and the victims are having key trigger-words impressed on them. The blasted world of ruined farm buildings and crooked trees also adds to the eeriness, where half the characters spend half their time unsure who they are or what’s going on.
In 1981 we had Codename Icarus, in which brilliant but unappreciated young maths whizz Martin Smith is contacted by the mysterious Icarus Foundation, whose special school for brainy teenagers turns out to be running its own anti-missile laser programme, aiming to put both superpowers in their place.
Spencer Banks had also been in a few other weird conspiracies already by 1972, and there’s a sly reference to one of them hidden inside Tightrope if you watch closely: the revolving display of cheap paperbacks in the Post Office includes the Pan tie-in paperback for Timeslip (1970-1), also made by ATV:
Still available on ebay, though not 20p any more:
That “computer type” font was ubiquitous in anything to do with high-technology up till the 80s, until everyone found out real computers didn’t use it. It appears on Mr Forrester’s monitor however:
Spencer as Simon:
Timeslip has some interesting ideas going on about children meeting alternative versions of their adult selves, as well as speculations about the future. Fun fact: Adult Simon in 1990 is played by David Graham, who is also credited as “Big Brother” in that famous Apple Macintosh advert from the 80s.
Spencer also appeared later in The Georgian House (1976) which was also aimed at children but used its time-travelling premise to raise questions about slavery, privilege, heritage and representation. But before that came out, he had started to move towards adult roles, and the show that he is most famous for: Penda’s Fen (1974). It’s not true that his TV career ended after that (he turned up in many minor roles, for example the weirdest episode of Wilde Alliance). But I can’t help wondering if it would have been the perfect climax of a career of increasingly complex children’s dramas that played with conspiracies, secret powers and secret installations, to play in a David Rudkin/Alan Clarke production about maturity through coming to understand the secrets of the soul written over the secrets of the English landscape. As if Daniel Radcliffe had moved on from Harry Potter to make a Peter Strickland film about a fit young gardener having a relationship with Tilda Swinton, who composes hauntological soundtracks, and had then retired from acting.
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David Munro, who played English teacher Mr Harvey, also had an interesting later career. He actually did quit acting altogether after “Tightrope” and moved over into directing and producing, and worked with John Pilger on his influential documentaries. Here is his obituary from 1999: