Saturday 25 March 2023

Regional Oddity: Sit Up & Listen

Much like the concept of ringing our friends on a landline for a chat, the TV closedown is another archaic reminder of a very different landscape where the rudimentary constraints of technology limited what was available to us. It was a world which, quite simply, went to bed when the evening’s programming finished.

This all started to change in the 1980s with LWT first pushing their closedown back to 2am in 1983 and then, in 1986, Yorkshire Television experimenting with 24-hour schedules. Before this, however, most channels went off the air around 12.30am.

The BBC would sign off in decidedly patriotic fashion by blasting out the national anthem as any remaining night owls shed a tear of unabashed pride. Meanwhile, many of the regional ITV networks followed a similar suit, often playing the music over a still of the Queen. There was also time, just before the closedown, for ITV regions to slip in a final scrap of programming. These were often peculiar, gloriously British and always low rent. An example which ticks all these boxes is Sit Up & Listen.

Launching on the 18th of August 1980, Sit Up & Listen was a Thames Television production which aired from Monday to Sunday. The episodes – which could only be picked up in the Thames/LWT region – went out just before the service closed down for the evening and lasted roughly three minutes. These canapés of late-night viewing were easily digestible thanks to their simplicity and ensured that late night viewers weren’t left scrambling for the Gaviscon in the wee hours.

Produced and directed by Margery Baker (who had been working for ITV since the dawn of the 1960s) Sit Up & Listen gave way to any high falutin gimmicks and, instead, simply invited personalities to read a personal selection of poetry and prose or, occasionally, share their thoughts. Each guest was allocated a week to make their contributions before making way for a revolving door of guests which included Anita Harris, Quentin Crisp, Brian Blessed, Delia Smith, Siân Phillips, Johnny Morris and dozens more. The series ran for large stretches of the year up until 1983, when it was replaced by Night Thoughts, a similar production but one with overt religious overtones.

I first discovered Sit Up & Listen whilst digging through YouTube to – hold on to your hats, ladies – investigate the finer points of LWT continuity. One such clip featured a still of the LWT Tower which soon segued into a curiously titled show called Sit Up & Listen. As the delicately plucked acoustic theme tune faded away, I was confronted by the welcoming sight of bearded national treasure Brian Blessed. But rather than bellow cartoonishly, Blessed was here to share a light night reading of a Walt Whitman poem from the comfort of an armchair in a set which redefined the concept of austerity. And, within mere minutes, he was gone.

Thankfully, several episodes of Sit Up & Listen have made their way on to YouTube, no doubt the result of countless video recorders being left to run after the evening’s film. These episodes find Siân Phillips reading the poetry of RS Thomas, writer Anthony Storr dispensing literary advice on behalf of Anthony Trollope and, most surreally, broadcaster Steve Race detailing his method for getting to sleep: imagine you’re a bumblebee exploring the inside of a tulip with, depending on your taste, either a Robert Redford or Anne Ford bumblebee curled up beside you. Unfortunately, the series of episodes featuring Delia Smith reciting the Scriptures haven’t made their way online yet, but I live in hope.

Despite their ephemeral nature, there’s something fascinating at the heart of Sit Up & Listen’s episodes. Hindsight, of course, shows us this was a very different era. Once television closed down for the evening, your options were limited – even in the metropolis that was 1980s London. Perhaps you could read a book, maybe flick the World Service on or, if you were particularly lucky, stick on one of those new-fangled Betamax tapes. Most likely, though, as the words of Sit Up & Listen were still ringing in your ears, you would slope off to bed. As such, the programme positions itself perfectly as a charming gesture from Thames. A bedtime story, of sorts, but one which delivers sage advice and wisdom on that curiosity known as humanity.

The result of today’s 24-hour society means something like Sit Up & Listen is virtually impossible to incorporate into our lives now, we’re much more likely to fall asleep at our laptop whilst watching YouTube videos at 3 in the morning. But Sit Up & Listen is out there – and if anyone reading has access to more then please get in touch – so it may be worth setting some episodes up for the occasional bedtime indulgence. It may just, even if only for a few minutes, make life feel wonderfully uncomplicated again.

If you have any editions of Sit Up & Listen nestling on old video tapes then please get in touch!

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