In a BBC documentary about the making of Blackadder, a cult comedy from the early 1980s, Director Richard Curtis admits something that’s very rarely discussed in TV circles. It’s in a conversation with Ben Elton, the writer who joined the show between seasons one and two, and was critical to its later success. As an aside to the context of their first meeting, Curtis says:
“This was before the days of ratings […] I still don’t know how many people watched any episode of Blackadder. I used to wander round Shepherd’s Bush [the location of BBC TV offices in London] looking in people’s windows, particularly people with basement flats, to see whether or not anyone was watching. I was looking to see if anyone was watching because one didn’t know whether it was a success or otherwise.”
Of course, this anecdote isn’t completely true. TV Ratings were collected in the 1980s, but there was a lot less competition for attention — the UK only had three TV channels. Ratings were estimated, and shared amongst executives, but Richard Curtis is right that they were rarely passed down to the people actually creating the shows themselves. They just didn’t matter as much as they do now, and so creatives operated in a vacuum, with only newspaper reviews and award ceremonies as measures of their success.