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Rock Follies / Rock Follies of 77 (1976-77)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia

Main image of Rock Follies / Rock Follies of 77 (1976-77)
Thames Television for ITV, 24/2/1976-8/6/1977
12x60 min episodes in 2 series, colour
DirectorsJon Scoffield
 Brian Farnham
 Bill Hays
ProducerAndrew Brown
Script/LyricsHoward Schuman
MusicAndy Mackay

Cast: Charlotte Cornwell (Anna); Julie Covington (Dee); Rula Lenska (Q); Jeffrey Gardiner (William Bishop); John Blythe (Sheldon Markie); Emlyn Price (Derek); Michael J. Shannon (Carl)

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A trio of actresses from different backgrounds are encouraged to form a vocal pop group, and progress through a series of adventures (growing then shrinking in number, and undergoing several image changes) in the world of mid-1970s London and its predatory music scene.

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At a time when the appeal of much ITV drama was rooted in nostalgia, with series like A Family at War (1970-72) and Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), Rock Follies engaged with contemporary culture and society, capturing the mid-1970s zeitgeist better than any other series of the period. This was a time when sociology was the subject to study, male lecturers could bed their female students with impunity, and British cinemas regularly screened sexploitation films.

Rock Follies is shot on video and much of it plays like a stylised theatre piece. 'Q' and Harry's visit to a cartoon cinema leads to a Looney Tunes-style video sequence, just one example of the use of pioneering video effects that won the series BAFTA TV awards in 1977 (design) and 1978 (special lighting effects).

By series two, the focus is more on the music business (with extended scenes in a recording studio and TV show), and the ladies' exploitation by female American promoter Kitty Screiber. Andy MacKay's clever pastiches of musical styles met with public acclaim, and the soundtrack album topped the UK LP charts.

That'll Be the Day (d. Claude Whatham, 1973) and Stardust (d. Michael Apted, 1974) both featured the roots, rise and fall of a pop star. But it is the emphasis on the female rock performer (shared with Breaking Glass (d. Brian Gibson, 1980)) that makes Rock Follies distinctive. Compared with today's teenage pop idols, Dee, 'Q' and Anna are 30-ish and real women, and the female bonding of the group empowers them. These factors give Rock Follies a strong feminist angle: 'We've got the power, we will survive,' goes their song.

Rock Follies' presentation of gay relationships and soft porn films on peak-time television caused controversy. But the series was at TV's cutting edge, creating the climate for Pennies From Heaven (BBC, 1978) to get the green light, and bringing the influence of fringe theatre (Julie Covington, Tim Curry and Beth Porter had all worked there with writer Howard Schuman) into mainstream television.

Episode 5 of Series 2 concludes with a Broadway-type production number, 'Welcome to the Follies (of 77)', complete with showgirls, and Schuman (a New Yorker) was clearly referencing Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical 'Follies' and the ambiguity of its title (both a spectacular show and a 'folly'). The end credits of Rock Follies confirm this as they jumble the letters of the title to read ROCK LIES.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
1. Broadway Annie (4:43)
2. 'I can mould you' (3:28)
3. Stairway (3:08)
Complete episode: 'The Show Business' (53:28)