Skip to content

Satire, spies, Monkees and space odysseys: the 10 ultimate ’60s TV shows

January 31, 2012

Bubble trouble: Patrick McGoohan unsuccessfully eludes his psychedelic balloon-esque pursuer, ensuring decade-defining drama The Prisoner continues, befuddling and delighting viewers

Last summer and autumn, across a trilogy of posts, this very blog treated its visitors (read: allowed me to indulge in sharing) my thoughts on the essential films released in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And now this winter it’ll be bringing you three posts along exactly the same lines, except this time they’ll all be focusing on offerings from that slightly smaller screen: the gogglebox.

So, kicking us off then, let me present to you, dear readers, my dectet of ultimate TV shows from the decade of The Beatles and civil rights; Swinging London and flower power; the Profumo Affair and spy-fi – yup, it’s the ’60s, peeps, and here’s their 10 ultimate televisual delights…


CLICK on the TV show titles for video clips


The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71)

Why not start this list with perhaps the greatest TV moment of the 1960s?  It occurred on February 9 1964, was broadcast on the US network CBS and was watched by an estimated 73 million people – that’s 45 percent of all US households at the time. It was of course The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, an event that has gone down in the annals of Twentieth Century cultural history. The Ed Sullivan Show will be forever remembered because of, nay defined by, this individual night in its long run, but in fact was really a product of the ’50s rather than the ’60s, its first edition being broadcast way back in June 1948. Originally named Toast Of The Town, it became an immovable object in its Sunday night slot (8-9pm ET) – the variety show to appear on if one wanted to make it as a national star. And so it was that The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was only too eager for his charges to appear on the show on three consecutive Sunday nights (February 9-23) during their first US tour. It’s said there wasn’t a crime committed anywhere in the US during their first appearance – a rather ridiculous urban myth, but a wonderful one. No question, The Ed Sullivan Show was far from the most groundbreaking TV programme of the ’60s, but its ubiquity ensured that with The Fabs’ appearances, the ‘British Invasion’ of pop music truly took place in the States. And acts no less than The Supremes, The Beach Boys, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and, yes, The Muppets would follow their lead and guest on the show in order to launch themselves across the US as well.


The Avengers (1961-69)

Many would assume it was James Bond’s fault and in many ways it was, but the TV drama genre that gave rise to the term ‘spy-fi’ (a portmanteau of ‘spy’ and ‘sci-fi’) actually hit small screens a whole year before Bond hit the big screen. It all started with Brit adventure series The Avengers, which debuted on ITV in January 1961. Yet, to begin with, the ABC Television-produced show was quite different to the inimitable hit sold to 90 different countries it evolved into. Although  it featured Patrick Macnee from the off as series hero John Steed, the character then was a tough guy rather than the impossibly debonair, bowler hat and umbrella-packing toff he indelibly became. And, at first, his co-star wasn’t a woman; it was a vengeful male doctor. Surviving his first series, Steed was joined by a female sidekick thereafter: Honor Blackman’s judo-kicking, leather-clad Cathy Gale in series two and three, Diana Rigg’s unforgettable proto-feminist Emma Peel in series four and five and Linda Thorson’s curly haired heroine Tara King in the final series). It’s the Emma Peel era that’s most fondly recalled, though, and rightly so, for this was when the show hit its stride. Coinciding with the Swinging Sixties – and the show going colour in the States thanks to US money – the chemistry between Macnee (channelling Edwardian nostalgia) and Rigg (decked out in Mod fashions) was electric; their old-meets-new collision complementing the increasingly zany plots (invading alien plants and pet cats becoming vicious killers) and the incorrigibly self-referential, off-kilter, witty tone. A glut of spy (or spy-fi) TV drama followed in the ’60s, of course, and all of it was inspired by The Avengers – and even some in the ’70s, an example being The New Avengers (1976-77), the successful follow-up in which Macnee returned for more hokum with the lovely Joanna Lumley as his new sidekick Purdy.


That Was The Week That Was (1962-63)

It seems rather an odd notion, but there was a time when British politicians were unthinkingly respected, nay deferred to. That all came to a crashing end in the early ’60s and one of the game-changers was a new breed of unrepentant satire. With former Cambridge Footlighters Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller making waves in Soho theatre revue Beyond The Fringe, the cosily conservative BBC took an uncharacteristically bold step and got in on the act. The brainchild of producer Ned Sherrin, That Was The Week That Was (or TW3, as its sort of abbreviation went) showcased many of the hottest satirists working the cabaret circuits. Fronted by now legendary TV behemoth David Frost (but then a fresh-faced, prickly wit), it also featured bright young things Willie Rushton, Lance Percival, Millicent Martin – who performed the show’s opening theme tune – and provocative political brain Bernard Levin. Fortuitously arriving just in time for the nation-gripping ‘Profumo Affair’ (TW3 debuted in November ’62; the scandal ran throughout the following year), the live show enjoyed huge audiences for its Saturday night timeslot – more or less the equivalent of Match Of The Day‘s today – as around 12 million people tuned in each week for its blend of entertainment and scathing attacks on the Establishment penned by everyone from Keith Waterhouse (author of Billy Liar) to Dennis Potter (soon-to-be TV dramatist par excellence) and Gerald Kaufman (future Labour MP) to Graham Chapman (who’d be a Monty Python before the decade was out). Quite simply, the style, format and tenor of every satirical TV/ radio broadcast since has owed an inestimable debt to That Was The Week That Was. However, like so many great artistic ventures, it didn’t last long; the Beeb pulled the plug months before the February ’64 General Election claiming the show could be seen to jeopardise the corporation’s political impartiality and affect the result.


Ready Steady Go! (1963-66)

Not everyone in the early to mid-’60s was moving to the beat drummed by satire, though; increasingly, young ‘uns were moving to the beat drummed by, well, Beat music. Driven by the – more or less – Liverpool-hailing ‘Merseybeat’ groups (The Beatles, Gerry And The Pacemakers) and their contemporaries from in and around London (The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces), it was the white-hot new face of rock ‘n’ roll and thus was prime for promotion/ exploitation by the TV people. This time, however, it was ITV rather than the BBC that struck gold. Ready Steady Go! first hit screens in August ’63 and immediately became hip, must-see viewing up and down the country. Going out on Friday early-evenings with its tagline ‘The weekend starts here!’, it helped boost the careers of up and coming pop/ rock artists, while making others’, as they performed chart hits in a cramped-looking studio space filled with lucky fans. The show also made a star of its best recalled host, a girl named Cathy McGowan who was plucked from obscurity. McGowan quickly became a favourite with viewers, as she was clearly just as much a fan of the acts as the audience at home, lending her an authentic air and natural appeal. She would go on to become one of the icons of Swinging London; her ordinariness but good looks ensuring she was perfect as a model of the latest Mod fashions. In 1965, the show’s producers took the smart move of insisting acts should perform live, which only made it even more essential viewing, but by the end of the following year Ready Steady Go! was no more; ITV bosses decided its time had passed as the ‘Beat boom’ was now over and the show was cancelled at the height of its popularity. Still, its legacy is obvious and unquestioned – in January ’64 the Beeb had taken the plunge and launched Top Of The Pops… and the rest, as they say, is history.


Till Death Us Do Part (1965-68 and 1972-75)

By the mid-’60s, the cultural and political landscape satirised in That Was The Week That Was had changed. Harold Wilson’s Labour was in power and, like in the States (but to a lesser extent and to a lesser furore), civil rights legislation was being passed, reflecting a society that seemed to be becoming more liberal by the day. Yet, although in reaction the Tories had now ditched the toffs at the top for the grammar school-educated Ted Heath, far from all Tory-leaning folk were changing with the times. To dramatise this fast changing and confused Britain, the BBC made a surprising choice – it made a sitcom. Admittedly, with the wildly popular Steptoe And Son (1962-65 and 1970-74), the Beeb had already used a sitcom to explore the divide developing between the generations in political and social views, specifically when it came to the working class, and this it did again in Till Death Us Do Part, but the difference between the former and latter is that the latter made its point with a sledge-hammer. In the shape of middle-aged, right-wing and racially bigoted East-Ender Alf Garnett, ace comedy scribe Johnny Speight created a central character for his sitcom that was so well observed by actor Warren Mitchell that some in society (those who, well, agreed with his views) didn’t realise the show’s intention of showing him and his views up. But the majority, even if they felt his language and no-holds-barred depiction went too far (such as ‘Clean Up TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse notoriously did), still realised the joke was always on him. Till Death Us Do Part was hugely successful, its original run comprising three series until it returned for four more in the early ’70s, after which came two cinematic escapades in ’69 and ’72 and a relaunch by ITV in 1981 under the name Till Death…, before Alf returned to the Beeb in follow-up In Sickness And In Health (1985-92).


Batman (1966-68)

Unlike their British counterparts, the US TV networks weren’t quite adventurous enough yet to represent ‘reality’ in their dramas and comedies. Instead, reacting to an ever growing youth consciousness and the counter-culture, they turned to youth-driven escapist fantasy and three shows of this nature became not just hits but iconic cultural gems whose popularity has far outlived the ’60s. The first was based on classic comic book character Batman. Nowadays, thanks to the darkness of his ’80s, ’90s and ’00s movies, we tend to think of Batman as a social misfit avenger operating in a cruel, violent world, but back in the day ABC’s Batman TV series presented the caped crusader and his youthful sidekick Robin inhabiting a universe perfectly defined by a single word: camp. Conceived by ABC as an answer to NBC’s hip spy-fi series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68), Batman originally was intended to balance its comedy and drama, but the result was a cocktail of OTT characters in boldly coloured costumes and spouting witty, satirical dialogue in incredibly hammy plots. Yet the camp didn’t end there. Not only did each half-hour episode conclude with a cliffhanger in which the heroes were caught in a ‘deathtrap’ (complete with a voice-over: ‘Tune in tomorrow – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!’), but the fight scenes were embellished by comic book-esque, superimposed onomatopoeic words (‘POW!’, ‘BAM!’, ‘ZONK!’). Batman was a big ratings hit for the first two of its three seasons (for its third it became even more surreal and topically referenced hippies and Mods), ensuring a ‘Bat-craze’ broke out across America – the toy ‘Batmobile’ led a huge merchandise drive – and a movie was released in the summer of ’66. For today’s Christopher Nolan fans, this Batman may be anathema, but Adam West’s antics still hold a soft spot in the hearts of millions of others.


Star Trek (1966-69)

The legacy of the second of the three youthful US fantasy dramas on this list is indisputable (it’s the most influential sci-fi TV series of all time), but ironically, unlike Batman, the ‘original series’ of Star Trek wasn’t an unflappable, Vulcan-like ratings winner. Conceived by creator Gene Roddenberry as ‘Horatio Hornblower in space’ (referencing the Napoleonic-era naval hero of C.S. Forester’s books), the show may not have pulled in the high audiences hoped for by its network NBC, but built up a dedicated following among educated teenagers and young adults – so much so a highly organised letter campaign led by Californian university students secured the show its third and final series. This fanbase would grow during the ’70s, of course, to create the phenomenon of ‘Trekkies’, ensuring Star Trek enjoyed numerous repeats on TV making it the cult, nay enormously popular, TV show that would spawn blockbuster movies and follow-up small-screen series. However, despite its discovery in the years after its original broadcast, Star Trek indefatigably remains a product of ’60s America. For, while Roddenberry produced a naval-esque space adventure show, he also deliberately used the futuristic sci-fi setting to push the envelope of American TV drama. For the escapades of the unforgettable trio Kirk, Spock and MCoy (and their fellow crewmates) actually explored hot topics of the time such as racism, sexism, nationalism and global war – a fact clearly not lost on the show’s cerebral audience demographic. Indeed, Star Trek is famous for featuring American television’s first fictional interracial snog (between Kirk and sexy comms officer Uhuru), an event that made waves at the time. Yup, it was one show that pretty much did boldly go where no other had gone before.


The Monkees (1966-68)

The last of the trio of youth-oriented US fantasy shows was just as popular as the other two and remains as ground-breaking and influential as any other on this list. Inspired by The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Hollywood wannabes Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider conceived a sitcom featuring the anarchic antics of a make-believe rock ‘n’ roll quartet, who’d perform songs in each episode and whose members would be played by unknowns (Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesbit, Peter Tork and Englishman Davy Jones). With its avant-garde production techniques – loose narratives, improvisation, jump-cuts and those song breaks (which, as in The Fabs’ own films, prefigured the music video) – The Monkees was a huge success with the youth audience with which its makers (and NBC) had hoped it would strike a chord. The Monkees themselves were striking chords of another kind too, as backed by Columbia Records the would-be band became a real one off the back of the show, scoring hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic. All seemed sunny in manufactured-band paradise (the show’s first season picked up a pair of Emmys and The Monkees clearly had genuine musical talent), but the stars soon tired of the rigours of TV production and wanted more artistic freedom, ensuring the second season was the last. The band’s time in the sun set soon afterwards too, but not before they’d starred in a psychedelic ‘head film’ called, er, Head (1968) that deconstructed the show’s universe. Also made by Rafelson and Schneider, it wasn’t a success; unlike the two’s next project together: producing iconic counter-culture flick Easy Rider (1969). After which they teamed up again for the multi Oscar-nominated Five Easy Pieces (1970). And, to this day, Rafelson says all he threw into making these classic ‘New Hollywood’ movies, he learnt, yes, from making The Monkees.


Cathy Come Home (1966)

In stark contrast to the hottest dramas on US TV, back home the Beeb was still pushing naturalistic and social issue-led drama to new levels. And in 1966, it broadcast a drama that pushed the genre so far it may never have been topped since. Cathy Come Home was a one-off piece shown that November in The Wednesday Play anthology. This strand had already gained a reputation for featuing prevalent social issues, but by ’66 its new controllers producer Tony Garnett (now a UK TV legend) and young director Ken Loach decided to push it further still – as The Wednesday Play followed BBC1’s evening news bulletin, they wanted each new drama to feel like a continuation of the news rather than a work of fiction. Cathy Come Home unquestionably fulfilled that aim, as it followed the fall of a couple into poverty, eviction and homelessness. But what really made it hard-hitting and revolutionary was its unorthodox filming style. Many of its scenes were improvised, featured documentary-esque voiceovers, were captured using hand-held cameras and employed quick editing, ensuring a current affairs programme-style. It was viewed by an enormous 12 million people and the moment every single one of them remembered was its ending, when Cathy has her children taken away from her by social services. To say this scene, filmed in a railway station and featuring unwitting on-lookers as extras, is powerful is a genuine understatement. Unlike the on-lookers, though, the general public did at least intervene – following its broadcast, Cathy Come Home caused such a sensation it was discussed in Parliament and its notoriety helped launch the homeless charities Shelter and Crisis. It didn’t do Ken Loach any harm either, as three years later he went on to make the acclaimed feature-film Kes and, to this day, remains Britain’s foremost issues-driven filmmaker.


The Prisoner (1967-68)

And so to this list’s final entry – and it’s surely the quintessential ’60s TV show. Despite being popular, The Prisoner wasn’t among the most viewed TV shows of that decade, nor was it the longest running or the most ubiquitous. What it was, though, was a fantasy drama (produced by UK television company ITC for ITV) that tapped into many themes prevalent in ’60s (counter-)culture: collectivism versus individualism, identity theft, hallucinogenic drug experiences and control through internment, intimidation, indoctrination and mind control. Conceived by its star Patrick McGoohan and – to a greater or lesser extent – by writer George Markstein, it may or may not have been a sequel to Danger Man (1960-62 and 1964-66), a series in which McGoohan starred as a similar character. In the latter the protagonist was an active spy; in The Prisoner he’s a former employee of the British government (most likely a spy) who after resigning is imprisoned in a village, seemingly for the powers-that-be to break him and discover what secrets he may know. However, during the show and even following its final episode, all that’s up in the air. The thing with The Prisoner (and no doubt one of the reasons why it remains so popular) is that what’s going is never clear. Throughout, the audience is no wiser – or even less informed – than The Prisoner himself (or ‘Number 6’ as he’s known). It’s surely safe to say, though, that The Prisoner was a 1984 for the pop culture-informed, spy-fi-entertained 1960s generation, what with its Mini Mokes, big white escapee-chasing balloon and lava lamps. Spread across two series, 17 episodes of the show were filmed, mostly in the Italianate Portmeirion village resort of North Wales, which for decades now has been beseiged by Prisoner fans obsessed with the show’s Orweillian themes, Mod-ish designs and Penny-farthings. Most other peeps aren’t obsessed with The Prisoner, but almost all of them have at some point revelled in trying to work out just what the hell it’s all about – much like with the 1960s themselves, you might say.


Five more to check out…

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68)

Mentioned above, America’s take on 007 (whose protagonist Napoleon Solo – fact alert – was invented by Ian Fleming, inventor of 007 himself)

Not Only… But Also (1964-70)

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s popular post-Beyond The Fringe sketch show, famous for its musical interludes and guest appearances from John Lennon

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

Gerry Anderson’s puppet-based hit fantasy adventure series – read more here

Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-67)

The Beeb’s answer to The Avengers, featuring an Edwardian hero in surreal, oh-so Swinging Sixties, crime-fighting adventures

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73)

US sketch comedy fondly recalled for introducing Goldie Hawn to the world and so popular that, by not appearing on it when his Republican rival Richard Nixon did, Democrat candidate Hubert Humphrey claimed he lost the ’68 Presidential Election


… And five great TV shows about the ’60s

Happy Days (1974-84)

Whimsical sitcom revolving around the lives of late ’50s/ early ’60s Milwaukee adolescents

The Wonder Years (1988-93)

Nostalgic dramedy set in the late ’60s and early ’70s focusing on the growing pains of everyday American kid Kevin Arnold

Quantum Leap (1989-93)

Time-travel drama in which Scott Bakula’s Dr Sam Beckett jumps in and out of others’ bodies in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s

Our Friends In The North (1996) (Warning: this link contains strong language)

Excellently observed, epic drama serial following the lives of a quartet from Newcastle, beginning in the mid-’60s

Mad Men (2007-present)

Universally acclaimed drama set in the early to mid-’60s world of New York’s Madison Avenue advertisers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: