Knocking On Doors, Opening Windows…

Tina Heath in The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).

Sunday television – or at least how it used to be in the days before it became wall to wall celebrity cookery shows, repeats of How Your Home In The Country Escaped A Property Hammer Or Something and Andrew Marr sort of half-chortling at Michael Gove claiming that he isn’t actually sitting in a chair in the Andrew Marr Show studio at all and this is just another example of BBC ‘bias’ in action instead of shoving him face first through a letterbox – has always been a source of great fascination to me. Archaic and long-withdrawn regulations forced the BBC and ITV alike to carry a certain amount of instructional and devotional programming on the seventh day, and above and beyond that the general contemplative tone of the wider public and their nominal demand for at the very least a day of rest placed further restrictions on just how entertaining the small amount of entertainment-related programming could be anyway. They had to indulge in some pretty ingenious lateral thinking to get around this, resulting in such memorable innovations as the BBC’s ‘Sunday Classics’ slot, almost surreally upbeat devotional shows like Highway, bizarre attempts at jazzing up heavyweight political discussion whether by giving Weekend World a blastingly loud prog rock theme tune or applying the very latest CGI technology to try and fool viewers into watching that thing where the Houses of Parliament turned into a crocodile, the invention of the phrase “that’s all from This Week Next Week for this week, we’ll see you again on This Week Next Week next week, so until next week – from This Week Next Week – goodbye!”, and of course ITV’s late-night edgy comedy slot, when it was technically almost Monday and all good decent religious folk would have been safely tucked up in bed instead of being exposed to Clive James chuckling at Pace microwaving the Spitting Image puppet of David Steel. Sadly, even the most dedicated theologians have been unable to determine whether Jesus was allowed to stay up for D.C. Follies.

This look at the BBC’s Sunday Morning children’s show The Sunday Gang was originally part of a bigger project looking at Sunday television in all of its many and varied – and frequently downright weird – forms, which ended up being sidelined for a number of reasons but a couple of extracts from it were used in a couple of places; originally this was pretty much taken out as was and as such doesn’t read that well in isolation now so I’ve taken the opportunity to rework it a little here. You can hear me talking about The Sunday Gang on My 70’s TV Childhood here, and you can also find another heavily reworked extract looking at the history of the ‘Sunday Classics’ slot, in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here and from the Kindle Store here.

Television – and the BBC in particular – was always intent on foisting what was to all intents and purposes extra school onto unsuspecting younger viewers under the radar courtesy of the ‘improving’ likes of Blue Peter and The Song And The Story, but it didn’t stop there. Early on Sunday mornings, you could count on finding a quick Sabbath-starting outbreak of moral instruction cunningly disguised as ‘fun’ hidden away in the likes of Dana-fronted look at life Wake Up Sunday, singer-songwriter contemplation in tranquil locations singalong Knock! Knock!, and – most notoriously of all – The Sunday Gang.

While Saturday mornings were a riot of sensory bombardment courtesy of gaudy imported cartoons and action comedy serials and haphazard magazine shows barely held together by regional ITV anchors losing their notes and then tripping over them while trying to find them, Sundays – due to a legal obligation to dedicate the day to a certain mood and mode of programming – offered decidedly less thrills. Even over on ITV, you were lucky if you could find a thinly disguised thickly entertainment-free educational cartoon that it looked like somebody had used to wipe their feet on like The Wonderful Stories Of Professor Kitzel or Max, The 2000-Year Old Mouse in amongst the endless documentary series like Land Of The Lapps. Over on the BBC, they were at least a little less dishonest about it and would usually stick on one of the more cerebral Watch With Mother shows liked Camberwick Green or Mary, Mungo And Midge before one of these efforts led by aspirant youth pastor types, which if you were especially unlucky you would get to go through again with actual youth pastor types in church a couple of hours later.

The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).
The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).

You might be forgiven for assuming that The Sunday Gang was some form of weekend-based spinoff from the similarly ‘lang’-equipped school holiday mornings hobbies and interests show Why Don’t You…?, but it wasn’t. This particular gang had little time for making ‘Squashy Grannies’ and evading invading model sheep in stripy socks, as they were a clean-cut do-good assortment of trainee youth group leaders types, operating out of a Bible-festooned clubhouse, handily kitted out with a handle-operated ‘computer’ composed of a tape spool face and a piano keyboard, and a screeching puppet mouse called Mackintosh that called everyone ‘sassenachs’.

The gang’s lineup would shuffle a couple of times over the programme’s run – clocking up an impressive sixty eight instalments between 1976 and 1981 – but the most enduring featured John Dryden as fresh-faced trainee teacher type J.D., Glen Stuart as ‘zany’ – i.e. his glasses were at an angle – inventor Boff, Jill Shakespeare as hard-of-thinking country bumpkin who had to have every parable explained to her twice Dodo, and Tina Heath as gobby cockney loudmouth and friend’s-girlfriend’s-best-mate-who-everyone-thinks-you-should-‘get-together’-with incarnate Teena; it’s not entirely clear who voiced Mackintosh and in all honesty, it’s probably best left that way. The rowdy cast-belted theme song’s declaration of intention towards “taking a trip through God’s creation” pretty much said it all about the show’s combination of post-Godspell trendiness-fuelled consideration of ‘issues’ and hastily commissioned watercolour-accompanied readings of Daniel In The Lion’s Den and so forth, though where the accompanying dance that somehow involved “knocking on doors, opening windows, up and down and round” fitted into all this is anyone’s guess.

The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).
The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).

Quite how the BBC hoodwinked youngsters into watching all this was a masterclass in parable-undermining cloak-and-dagger chicanery, dressing it all up in Crackerjack-level gag trading, youthful presenter straight-to-camera exuberance, gaudy graphics and animation, and the illusion of puppet anarchy set against pretentions towards pseudo hi-tech ‘computer age’ nonsense. What’s more, positioning it immediately after one of those zenned-out Mindfulness-aligned Watch With Mother shows more or less designated it as a regular children’s show in all but name, and it’s not as if there was really much else in the way of alternative distractions on a Sunday morning in those days.

Well, maybe you met your very own Teena at church, but that’s another story… and probably one that J.D. wouldn’t be in quite such a hurry to recount on television.

The Sunday Gang (BBC1, 1976-81).

Buy A Book!

If you’ve enjoyed this, then you’ll find plenty more about Sunday Mornings, television and – uh oh – church in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Listening

You can hear me on My 70’s TV Childhood talking to Oliver Colling about The Sunday Gang here.

Further Reading

Time Will Crawl is a feature on The Sunday Gang’s decidedly less devotionally inclined counterparts in Why Don’t You…?; you can find it here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.