Tightrope: First Impressions

Once again I veer off from posting about The Avengers series 1 to write about a series which is completely new to me, and which I bought from Amazon on the offchance. Mitchell Hadley of itsabouttv.com will be very pleased to hear that this definitely comes into the category of ‘Our Sort of Television’, despite not having the right pedigree at all on the surface. For a start it is a 1970s show, but seems to have escaped the slough of hopelessness I found myself wading through when I did a series of posts on 1970s television a few years ago. This is 1970s television, but of a quite different quality from what we expect. I would go so far as to say that I am formulating a theory that on the whole the better-preserved 1970s TV shows are the lesser-quality. Tightrope, like Spyder’s Web, is one which survives only in black and white recordings despite having originally been broadcast in colour, and the junking of the masters seems to be a sign of quality. Watching the show in black and white also gives it a much more 1960s vibe (more on the milieu of this show below, in which I will lavish uncharacteristically high praise on this show) than 1970s. It is nonetheless of its time completely, and certainly those unaccustomed to vintage TV would think it required too much work and was overly slow.
Like so many of the shows I write about here, Tightrope was never designed for the sort of scrutiny I subject these programmes to. Rather, they were intended for the sort of viewing of schools TV featured here – you turned on the TV at the time the show was on and if you missed it, tough. This is by no means a criticism but there are a number of ways in which this show requires the suspension of disbelief if you are to watch it repeatedly. A comprehensive school in a village, for a start. What is depicted is actually a tiny community, and I don’t believe that this community could ever have sustained a comprehensive school. I also don’t believe that a largely agricultural community (since bizarrely, none of the children of people employed at the American air base nearby go to the school) could have provided a school with enough pupils with the luxury of studying A-levels. I have a feeling that at this time those new-fangled CSEs would have been the height of achievement, since conflict between staff of a previous grammar school which became comprehensive, with the trendy staff, is mentioned.
Of course I am only talking about the somewhat incredible background to the story as a warm-up to talking about the incredible story. Once again, I must stress that this is in no way a criticism, although it may put anyone off who likes their TV to be realistic. Personally, while I do watch some shows renowned for their gritty realism, my favourite designators for TV are real and unreal, and there is a very real sense in which this show is unreal. In fact, fantastic. Even in the 1970s, it would be fantastically unlikely that the sort of goings-on shown in this school. High-level espionage, high-level policing, government interest in things going on, plunging a sixth-former into the world of espionage (not even allowing for the school for spies which Mr Forrester is running in a rather shoestring way in the village)… All of it is frankly incredible, and this is this show’s great strength. Not forgetting that Tightrope started off life as a children’s show, what is depicted here is in many ways the material of teenagers’ dreams. It contains the ultimate act of rebellion – a dream of being taken on as a spy (so that your parents can’t be told) and deliberately failing A-levels (which is guaranteed to have them foaming at the mouth). Combine that and the unreality with the setting of Cold War-era espionage, and we know exactly where this show is set. Still in any doubt? The illustration to this post gives it away – the simple fact of *that* bridge appearing in the show indicates to the cult TV fan that this show takes place in Avengerland.
The plot is worthy of The Avengers as well. Since Tightrope consists of thirteen episodes I was expecting there to be episodes where nothing much happened, but no such thing. It is so tautly plotted that it starts straight in with none of that ridiculous scene-setting some shows do. It also manages to maintain interest throughout the thirteen episodes, not least because it is impossible to tell who is on which side at various points. This may seem like a positively antique plot device, but as used in Tightrope it manages to maintain interest to the end. My only criticism of the plot is that the end is rather predictable: anyone familiar with the visual language of The Avengers will be familiar with the sort of role played by John Savident, and the role these English eccentrics always play. At this point I have either given away the ending or if you are not familiar with The Avengers you will be scratching your head still! In fact the very situation (English village, population 250) already spells a hotbed of intrigue in Avengers terms. The eccentrics, while not perhaps as numerous as in the final series of The Avengers, come think and fast, and I am particularly impressed with the publican’s moustache, very reminiscent of the fake Piggy Warren in The Town of No Return. I thought at the beginning of the first episode that there was going to be a conflict between the trendy teachers (in patterned shirts and kipper ties) and the more conservative teachers, but of course that was a cunning red herring, or more likely a possible plot device which was not used. In fact the whole series and the village itself feels very like Town of No Return, which I would nominate as one possible influence on the writing of this show.
I am frankly racking my brain to find valid criticisms about this show. It is very obviously studio-bound, and I feel that the apparent cheapness of the sets and fewness of the cast show up at various points. John Savident presents a certain problem for me because whenever I see him and think of his name, toothpaste comes to mind first and foremost, but of course this is a purely personal idiosyncrasy. He is of course wonderful as the outrageously flamboyant (considering he’s supposed to be a secret…) agent, and I cannot fault Spencer Banks in the role of Martin Clifford. All in all I would recommend this show to anyone who likes Our Sort of Television, with the one proviso that if you like realism you are in for having your credulity stretched beyond breaking point, but if you like your television on the unreal side, this will suit you down to the ground.