Whatever happened to..?

By Ian Jones, MSN UK News Rex Features
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Elaborate digital watches

Ventriloquists, green shield stamps, oversized digital watches, people smoking on television… When did these once-ubiquitous cultural touchstones fade from our lives? See gallery

Maybe you had one that was water resistant to depths of 100 metres, or a keypad that allowed you to use it as a calculator. Perhaps you had one that looked like a Transformer, with bits of plastic that could be rearranged to turn the whole thing into a robot. Whatever your preference, for a time in the early 1980s the least important thing about a digital watch was time itself.

Dave Thompson/PA Wire
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Free school milk

It came in blue-topped and red-topped bottles and one third of a pint was available free of charge for all pupils at state schools to sup and slurp at break times from 1946 right through to the early 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, decided the government could no longer afford a whip round for the white stuff. Final deliveries were made in 1986, by which time the Milk Snatcher had become prime minister. Free school milk still exists in some areas, but hasn't been universally available for almost 25 years.

Rex Features
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Pages from Ceefax

Not Ceefax itself, which still exists (although it's due to be switched off for good in 2012). This is Pages from Ceefax, the name given to those hours and hours of BBC1 and BBC2 airtime that used to be filled with a slowly-changing selection of "the best" of the eponymous teletext information service. Ceefax has been broadcast between the lines of the analogue television signal since 1974. Before the BBC had the means - and the inclination - to broadcast proper programmes round the clock, Ceefax was its default choice of filler material, set to a soundtrack of inoffensive easy listening music. Cheap, informative, and strangely comforting while taking a sick day off school or work.

PA Archive
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The Radio One Roadshow

What's not to like about an ageing DJ in satin bomber jacket and shorts prancing around a stage to the sounds of Ryan Paris, Baltimora or Let Loose while throwing handfuls of promotional fluffy bugs and signed postcards into a giant crowd of seaside holidaymakers who've spent just a little bit too long in the sun? You can mock, but for several generations a visit to a Radio One Roadshow as a child was the formative experience of summer.

Ian Jones
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TV tie-ins

It was once the case that you could own a slice of your favourite TV drama to keep on your bookshelf forever. All the big shows of the 1960s through to the 1980s enjoyed a second life in print. These novels disclosed hitherto escapades in the life of The Prisoner or the kids of Grange Hill, revealed histories behind the giants of Howard's Way or Secret Army, and even offered readers supplementary yarns starring the cast of EastEnders or Brookside. Surely the BBC is missing a trick by not marketing spin-off novels for Ashes to Ashes or Spooks?

Rex Features
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The Top 40 used to be graced - or, depending on your point of view, bloated - by numerous records that weren't songs as such but more a patchwork of other people's hits. Music producers churned them out under such half-inspired names as Stars on 45 and Jive Bunny that were enormously popular and regularly topped the charts. Modern day mash-ups and remixes are the closest we now get to tasting the aural delights of a genuine medley.

PA Archive
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Mature people presenting children's television

At some point in the last 20 years it was decided that the hosts of children's programmes must no longer be kindly uncle and auntie figures but as close as possible in age to the target audience. As such, old people - from veterans such as Tony Hart, Rolf Harris, Valerie Singleton and Fred Dineage to thirtysomethings like Philip Schofield and Sarah Greene - were more or less banished from kids TV. With them went a tradition for blessing children's telly with voices and faces of reassuring experience and gentle authority.

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Let's pass over the way having a puppet on your arm allowed you to get away with groping, insulting and even spitting on fellow human beings in a manner utterly unacceptable in any other walk of life. Let's remember instead the way ventriloquists such as Ray Alan (with Lord Charles), Harry Corbett (Sooty), Shari Lewis (Lamb Chop), Rod Hull (Emu) and others became national treasures and enjoyed massive audiences on primetime television. What hope for ventriloquists nowadays, other than five minutes on Britain's Got Talent?

AP Photo
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The wonder of space exploration

Perhaps nothing, not even the incredible sight of a giant rocket on its way into the mysterious, uncharted vastness of the galaxy, is immune from the old adage of familiarity breeding contempt. Or at the very least, of novelty wearing thin. Once upon a time the world held its breath as human beings set off on their latest journey into space. Now it barely shrugs its shoulders.

PA Archive
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Strikes on TV

Not news about people going on strike. Rather, actual strikes of television, strikes that shut down channels for days, sometimes weeks. In 2010 people get terribly worked up about train drivers staging 24-hour stoppages or British Airways' cabin crew deciding to stop work for a couple of days. But once it was commonplace for programmes to disappear from screens with almost no warning - and, in the case of ITV in 1979, an entire channel for two and a half months. Although given the state of ITV today, such a hiatus might now be celebrated rather than cursed.

Rex Features
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Blacking up

For 20 years one of the most popular programmes on BBC1 was The Black and White Minstrel Show. It ran from 1958 to 1978 and its format never changed. A group of singers and dancers performed popular songs from the last 100 years in front of a studio audience - something that sounds innocuous in itself, except all of the men had blackened faces and wore black wigs. The tradition of "blacking up" originated with minstrel shows in the US in the early 1800s. 150 years later, defenders were still insisting it was harmless fun while detractors said it was institutionalised racism. Since the 1970s nobody has blacked up on television save for "ironic" reasons.

Rex Features
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Fax machines

Their cultural peak was in the late 1980s and 1990s, when every self-respecting organisation boasted a fax number printed just under its telephone number at the top of all official correspondence. The first fax machines took six or seven minutes to transmit a single page, a marvel that quickly became a limitation as the pace of society picked up and people started to treat faxes as a dialogue rather than a one-way delivery of information. They're still with us, rendered almost irrelevant by email and the internet save for those occasions when only a genuine signature at the bottom of a document will do.

PA Archive
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Public information films

Think once, think twice, think bike. Learn to swim. Clunk-click every trip. Play safe. Save it. Always use the Green Cross Code. If you're of a certain age (probably 30 or above) these and many other slogans will be burned indelibly into your consciousness - which was precisely the point. Public information films, imparting their celebrity-endorsed messages of safety and security via unsettling live action or animation, used to pop up in almost every commercial break or interlude. Now they're virtually absent from TV screens completely, as if the country is somehow a less dangerous place.

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Cartoons on primetime television

"And to begin this evening's line-up of programmes on BBC1, more cat-and-mouse fun with Tom and Jerry!" Teatimes used to be the cue not for lightweight celebrity gossip or fluffy soap opera, but a brief burst of cartoon chicanery courtesy of Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester and co. By way of a sort of whimsical overture to the main event, prestigious real estate at the start of a TV channel's primetime schedule was for many years handed over to these 10 or 20-minute animations. They are much missed.

Rex Features
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Conceptual savoury snacks

Bored of crisps that look like, well, crisps? There was once salvation to be found in packets of savoury nibbles wherein lurked objects shaped like alien body parts (Monster Munch) or intergalactic flotsam (Space Raiders) or grisly dismemberments (Horror Bags) or, erm, parachutes (Sky Divers). But despite perennial revivals, to the ad executives' chagrin it was to be snacks of a simple crinkle-cut or hoop nature that ultimately won this survival of the saltiest.

PA Archive
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Presenters smoking on television

The sight of TV presenters, reporters and personalities sucking on a cigarette in front of a camera was something that disappeared from our screens long before the smoking ban. But it was still common late into the 1970s, especially on live programmes involving lengthy outside broadcasts or round-the-clock election coverage. And it wasn't until the 1980s that venerated BBC interviewer Robin Day appeared on television without his trademark cigar to hand.

Rex Features
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Green shield stamps

The closest the UK has come to a bona fide alternative currency, green shield stamps were dished out by petrol stations and supermarkets from the 1950s to the 1980s, usually at a rate of one for every six shillings or three new pence spent on produce. The diligent shopper would then stick the stamps in a special album, waiting for the day they had enough to claim their free hot plate, heated towel stand or hedge trimmer from their local "redemption centre" or via a catalogue through the post. A simple way to maintain consumer demand during hard times, a 21st century green shield stamp would surely be ideal for the new coalition government's much-promised age of austerity.

PA Archive
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Speaking the Queen's English

Received Pronunciation (RP) was once insisted upon among all broadcasters, announcers and public speakers. Newsreaders would pride themselves upon their clipped tones and cut-glass timbre. But news bulletins on both TV and radio were bastions of the Queen's English long past the point when regional accents had threaded their way into the fabric of popular entertainment. RP seems to be rarely heard nowadays, other than during royal engagements or self-consciously exclusive events such as the State Opening of Parliament or Cowes Week.

PA Archive
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Sweet cigarettes

One to file in the "never-get-away-with-it-nowadays" cabinet. Back when smoking had yet to be universally accepted as a cause of disease, let alone a social taboo (we're talking as recent as the 1980s), fag-shaped lookalikes were marketed to kids as confectionery. They had no carcinogenic properties, of course, being chiefly stuffed with sugar and gelatine. Nonetheless they allowed for much underage posing with pretend ciggies, much to the ire of parents and teachers alike, and often came branded as merchandise for everything from Dad's Army to the latest James Bond film.

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TV channels closing down

"...and don't forget to switch off your set." Getting to staying up late enough to watch a TV channel go off the air used to be a real treat when you were growing up, but thanks to the arrival of 24-hour broadcasting in the 1990s it's a thrill forever denied to more recent generations of youngsters. Now there is no respite from the television's harsh probing eye, and the idea of the government rationing TV, just like it once rationed petrol and eggs, seems to belong to an impossibly long time ago.