Rewind: ‘Highway to Heaven’ revisited

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‘If an angel can’t handle it, who can?’


What’s it about?

The wayward human race is frequently in need of a helping hand or slap on the arse to get them back on the straight and narrow, and in this hirsute, hyper-moral 1980s drama series, such guidance comes in a spiritual form.

Each week, Jonathan Smith – an actual angel, albeit with flyaway locks and a tight t-shirt instead of halo and wings – is dispatched by ‘The Boss’ (not Bruce Springsteen but God, although some may argue the two are indistinguishable) to help the needy, cure the sick and deliver a beatific boot up the backside to the greedy, the cruel and the selfish.

Assisted by a grumpy, C&W-loving former policeman, Jonathan’s saintly patience is frequently tested by humanity’s lack of kindliness, but his virtuousness and belief that really, people aren’t that bad, after all, remains unwavering to the end. Thanks to the miracle of hairspray, so does his hefty mane.


Who was in it?

Michael Landon starred as Jonathan (‘No jokes about the name …’) Smith while his former Little House on the Prairie co-star Victor French played the angelic altruist’s human (not to mention decidedly more cynical) ex-cop buddy, Mark Gordon.

Throughout the show’s five year run, many well-known or latterly famous actors guest-starred, including Leslie Nielsen, Josh Brolin and Helen Hunt. Renaissance man Landon also wrote, produced and directed the majority of episodes.


Best moment?

Although the righteousness occasionally sinks into saccharine sanctimony and the bad guys are often stereotyped beyond belief – the boxing gym in The Return of the Masked Rider is probably named ‘The Racial Stereotypes Sports Club’ – there’s still a lot of mileage in Highway to Heaven.

The superficial spikiness in the relationship between Smith and Gordon (‘It’s easy to be cool when you’ve died once,’ the latter remarks after one of their frequent brushes with danger) masks an enduring and unique friendship that remains enjoyable viewing even in the super-cynical twenty-first century. There are also some genuinely touching resolutions. At the end of To Touch the Moon, when a sick kid gets to do precisely that, Landon gets visibly teary – and it’s difficult not to feel similarly moved.


Last seen?

The show was axed by NBC after five seasons and last aired in the summer of 1989. By the time the final episode was screened, tragically Victor French had literally taken the highway to heaven after a short battle with cancer. Michael Landon followed him two years later.


The future?

We unfortunately used to confuse this show with Highway, a concurrent religious affairs programme hosted by Harry Secombe. Whereas this mistake was once a bit embarrassing, it now strikes us that any modern remake of Highway to Heaven should embrace such a blending of religion and action rather than shy away from it.

With its original stars now long dead, the new show could feature three Songs of Praise presenters – Diane-Louise Jordan, Sally Magnusson and Pam Rhodes – being given assignments by a mysterious, unseen ‘Boss’ voiced by Eamonn Holmes that involve danger, suspense, and the singing of a few uplifting hymns. Eamonn’s Angels, as we’re calling it, will undoubtedly be a smash hit. ITV1 drama commissioners, you are welcome.


> Buy the Season 1 boxset on Amazon.

What are your memories of Highway to Heaven? Let us know below…

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