For many decades, Maclean Rogers’ Hammer the Toff (1952) staring John Bentley was a lost film. Unlike some others of its era, it had not been completely forgotten. For years it appeared on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted List of lost films. Contemporary audiences, by all accounts, had loved it. One review called it ‘lively, easily-assimilated strong-arm stuff with a whiff of comedy and a dash of romance’. Produced by one of the archetypal ‘B’ studios, Butcher’s Film Services, the BFI noted that it was passed from the BBC to Thames and then to Carlton/ITV and then vanished. Like many films of Britain’s past, it had simply disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Except, luckily for Hammer the Toff and fans of vintage British film, it had not disappeared – it had simply been misplaced. The long lost film was patiently in sitting in an archive, along with many other British films from its era, collecting dust. If one were to consider the sheer amount of films created in Britain in the 20th century –thousands upon thousands – projected across cinema houses from Aberdeen to Eastbourne, it is perhaps not surprising to consider how many of these films were, for so long, lost to public view. And not only films – from the 1950s onwards, hundreds of television shows and telefilms were produced – all for an eager pre-internet era audience with nothing better to do with their spare time than to sit in a dark cinema or in front of a television set and watch. However, except for the most critically and popularly acclaimed work, and that content which by fortune passed into the right hands, much of this material was, until recently, simply not available.
It is perhaps not difficult to understand why. Before VHS there were only so many hours of broadcast television that could be devoted to a selected range of archive content, only so many repertory cinemas – mainly in cities – that could afford to show content from the past. Even in the 1980s and 90s, with the advent of VHS and then DVD, only a small range of publishers had been willing to publish and re-distribute archive British film, and that content that was published was often only content that was seen as ‘a sure bet’. And so, a film like The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953) was easily sourced, one like They Made Me A Fugitive (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1947), popular in its day, took some years before being re-released by DVD publisher Odeon Entertainment as part of their ‘Best of British’ collection. They Made Me A Fugitive is a film with a growing reputation that may one day take its place in the canon of established classics.Accessibility is the key to making this happen. Before a film can be evaluated in this way, it must build up a consensus of support and that means it must be visible to anyone with the desire and perhaps a few pounds to see it. For many decades, thousands of films and television shows have been invisible but that is now changing.
Hammer the Toff is another example of a film that has moved from the realms of the lost and invisible and back into public hands – mainly due to the efforts of a company whose history, restoration work, broadcasting, and impact will be one of the main focuses of this study: Renown Films/Talking Pictures TV. A sea change has occurred, and is still occurring, to lift archive film, in great numbers, out of obscurity and back into audience hands, using the tools and platforms available to us now in this new digital age. At the forefront of this change are two companies, Network Distribution and the already mentioned Renown/Talking Pictures, whose particular efforts to search out, restore, and make public previously unavailable British film and television are leading a growing movement to re-watch, re-appreciate, and re-evaluate these films. It isn’t just the new availability of this content that is interesting; it is the very fact that there are audiences – significant audiences – waiting and eager to receive it.
But why has this growing enthusiasm for archive content emerged, and how does this new availability affect both public and scholarly perspectives on British cinema and television of the past? To answer this, we will discover first who these companies are, how they started, and what efforts they have each undertaken to rescue and restore British film and television, both from material deterioration, and from their relative, or absolute, obscurity. We will examine what content it is they are broadcasting or selling – by category, origin, era and genre – and how it differs from what are considered the ‘mainstream classics’. This will also include a brief analysis of the scope of re-released content from two studios, the aforementioned Butcher’s and also Ealing Studios – whose catalogue, we are now able to see, is far greater than the handful of well-loved comedies already comfortably established in the canon of classics.
Finally, and most importantly, we will explore the impact of this newly available material – in terms of scholarship and audiences. What do some established film scholars think of the rising tide of rediscovered British film and its impact on wider scholarship? Who are the everyday audiences for this content, and why is it so popular, with millions of viewers every day and fans ranging from older viewers who remember watching it as children, young people who are fascinated by the era it portrays, and celebrities like Danny Baker, Vic Reeves, or the Queen? How are they interacting with it, and what is changing for the future? The re-release of these films and televisions shows has not been inconsequential, it has been something more wide-ranging, provoking enthusiasm from the press, from copycat companies looking to replicate Network’s and Talking Pictures’ success, and from consumers, eager to trade their money and time for films and television shows, often produced half a century or more ago. It has been, truly, nothing short of a phenomenon.
The emergence of Network and Talking Pictures has not only expanded the availability of hitherto ‘lost’ British films, it has also opened up a new world of directors, actors, studios, and films, previously unavailable, that can now be evaluated, appreciated, and studied. As part of this examination, and besides quoted works from supporting scholarship, studies were conducted via personal interview with the founders of both companies, along with email interviews of noted film scholars, collected social media from audience members, and a statistical analysis of content shown on each channel.
Discovering all this, and speaking with those involved both in restoring and participating in the revival of this phenomenon has been an exciting journey. These films and television shows, once lost and locked away in attics and vaults, are at last being unearthed and received with the delight and enthusiasm of long-buried treasure. That they exist again in public consciousness, and that they are being treasured by audiences, is a testament to the long enduring appeal of much of the varied output of the British film and television industry in the 20th century.
Part 1. Raiders of the Lost Archive
It is necessary to reactivate forgotten films by actually looking at them – Raymond Borde, founder of the Cinémathèque Toulouse
Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is hard to remember – and for younger generations, to even imagine – a time when the only way to watch a film was on a cinema screen, or to wait for it to be scheduled on television some years later. Under these circumstances, viewers had no choice but to experience a film ‘in the moment’, drawing conclusions based on an initial impression. The invention and mass adoption of VHS, beginning in the early 1980s, brought about a profound change in the way the public consumed media. For the first time people could watch and re-watch film and television in their own time at home. Content could now be paused, slowed down, re-wound, and studied in greater detail. Additionally there was more content suddenly available, so viewers could choose from thousands of films, both contemporary and classic, and were no longer at the effect of decisions made by movie studios, cinema exhibitors, and TV networks. This democratization of the viewing experience ushered in a new era of cinephelia, allowing access and study of a wider range of material than ever before, from established classics to genre obscurities.
Yet, despite its popularity, VHS was an imperfect format for those wishing to replicate the cinematic experience. Image and sound quality were relatively poor, and videotape was prone to deterioration over time. The advent of LaserDisc offered a better quality alternative, but most people were put off by the cost of both the recorders and the discs. The format did, however, appeal to discerning film buffs willing to pay extra for high-quality versions of their favourite titles. In a bid to cater to this market, brothers Robert and Aleen Stein set up Criterion in America in 1984.
Their first two titles – Citizen Kane and King Kong – proved a success, leading to the release of a string of revered film classics on LaserDisc, until the advent of DVDs in the late 1980s made that the preferred format.
From the start Criterion pioneered practices that would become the norm for other DVD publishers. One key innovation was the once controversial practice of preserving the original aspect ratio of a film’s framing through the use of letterboxing. They also became known for the often-lavish extras included with each release, such as film trailers, behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, and audio commentaries from directors and scholars. Perhaps Criterion’s most important contribution to cinema-culture, however, has been its work in film restoration. Always seeking out the best available source materials, the company has for decades now applied the latest in technology to create the finest quality versions of any given work. This restoration work and their other activities show the role an independent home video distributor like Criterion can play in, not only defining the world’s cinematic heritage, but also in preserving it for future generations.
And yet Criterion are not the only distinctive publishers of classic cinema. The UK, in particular, has been and still is home to a number of specialist VHS, DVD and Blu-ray labels, including Artificial Eye, BFI, Second Run and Arrow. In recent years, Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line, with its high-quality restorations and plentiful extras has perhaps come closest to rivalling Criterion’s excellence in the field. But when it comes to specialists in archive British film and television, one company, in particular, has taken a leading role.
Network’s founder, Tim Beddows, began his career in DVD distribution when in the mid-1990s he stumbled upon a hoard of old, unwanted public information films made by the Central Office of Information (COI) in the vaults of Central Television. These films, dating mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, were intended to advise the public on such topics as road safety and environmental hazards. Beddows, like many, had grown up watching the films as a child and sensed there might be an audience, who, like him, would enjoy revisiting them. He did a deal with the COI to acquire the prints and then licensed them for home video distribution. He later recalled:
That was a grounding for me because I did everything. I did the editing, I did the sleeve design, I did all the research, I wrote the sleeve notes. It was an early effort but it kind of saved my life really. It got me going in the industry.
Emboldened by the COI video’s popularity and sales, Beddows approached Virgin Records, for whom he had worked previously, with the idea of setting up a video label. With their financial backing, he set off for Paris where he purchased the rights to The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a Franco-German co-production that originally aired on the BBC in 1965 and subsequently became a staple of the summer TV schedule for generations of British children. Once again Beddows’ instincts proved correct when the video sold thousands of copies. He then used the income from this venture to finance the company’s next project – a video release of the 1983 HTV series Robin of Sherwood. Always, ‘driven by the way that I wanted to see these things as if I was buying it myself,’ Beddows created new, high-quality transfers of each episode. He also commissioned a five-part documentary film about the making of the show, creating what he hoped would be the definitive a version of the series.
This modus operandi of reinvesting profits from one successful release into the next, of finding best extant prints and restoring them to the highest quality standards, and of recognising the cultural significance of work previously ignored, soon made Network a leading player in the DVD publishing field. They started working with the BBC, licensing such well-loved television series as Michael Palin’s and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns in complete editions, often, as in this case, with the collaboration of its original makers, and with a host of additional extras.
In 2004, when Granada merged with Carlton to form ITV, and some of its extensive library came up for licensing, Network – still a relatively minor player – pulled off an audacious multi-million pound bid and secured the contract. Included in the deal were mainstream British TV classics such as Upstairs, Downstairs and On the Buses, cult ITC series such as The Persuaders and The Prisoner, and iconic films such as The Ipcress File. They then went to Freemantle and agreed another deal, this time one that gave them access to the Thames library, including such classics as The Sweeney and The World at War. A further deal with Alliance Atlantic broadened their scope further with a cache of more recent international series like Due South. These three major television archive libraries have given Network enough content to keep up a steady flow of releases until the present day. Their website now includes over 1000 television titles for sale – including many shows unseen since first transmission – and the catalogue continues to grow.
In 2012 Network secured a deal with Studio Canal, the major French film production and Distribution Company, that would see them acquire the rights to a large collection of vintage British films. Since forming in 1988, Studio Canal have acquired the third largest film library in the world, either from studios who went out of business like the American independent Carolco, or through merging with other companies like the UK’s Optimum Releasing. Their library now numbers over 5000 titles and includes probably the single most important collection of British film archives in the world, encompassing the productions of such iconic studios as: Ealing (including Associated Talking Pictures and Associated British Film Distributors); EMI Films (including British Lion Films); Anglo Amalgamated; Associated British Picture Corporation (including Associated British Productions, British International Pictures, and Welwyn Studios); and London Films.
The fact that the rights to such important British film archives are held by a French company which was not set up until 1999 might be considered indicative of the random, if not precarious, nature of film archive ownership in the commercial marketplace. And, as Tim Beddows commented, not all consider preservation of their holdings to be a high priority:
When EMI owned this library, that was one long continuous reign for them, and then they sold it to Lumiere, who then became UGC, who ultimately got swallowed up by Studio Canal. Now, those owners in between either had no interest or they undervalued what they had.
Though Studio Canal retained the rights to most of the established classics and better-known titles in their library, their deal with Network included some 450 films, mostly dating from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Network’s involvement meant these films – comprising mostly ‘quota-quickies’, second features and other rarities – could be restored and made available for the general public to see. Tim Beddows explained:
It suited Studio Canal to licence them out to us and enabled them to then concentrate on other things like their big theatrical releases, whilst they were going to get some revenue from a catalogue that would otherwise just be dormant. And the chances are that no-one else is ever going to come along and say: what’s in that can of film? Whereas that’s what we like doing.
Like any good archeologist, Beddows believes that one needs to ‘get your hands physically dirty doing this stuff because it’s just been on a shelf gathering dust.’ This means opening cans of films to see what’s inside to check whether it matches up to the label on the outside (it often doesn’t), and whether it is a copy or an original print. This process of excavation is essential when searching for the best available versions of a production and can often result in welcome surprises. Once Network’s team discovered an original 35mm print of the original cut of the first episode of The Prisoner, when, up to that time, there had only been a poor-quality 16mm print available. Without Network’s intervention this might never have been found and a significant cultural artefact would only have been available in an inferior version.
Once the best quality version of a film or programme has been found, the Network team then restore the work at their in-house studio. As an illustration of the kind of challenges this can entail, and the level of deterioration some archive films can suffer, the company’s recent restoration of the 1973 six-part ITC drama series The Zoo Gang makes a good case study. Based on the book of the same name about four World War II resistance fighters who reform years later to fight criminals, the series came to Network through their deal with ITV/Carlton. After much searching the original negatives for the show were found in a storage facility in America and sent over, but were, according to restoration producer Mark Stanborough, ‘to be in one of the worst states of all the ITC subjects so far tackled by the Network team.’ Signs of corrosion included, ‘fluid marks manifesting as purple spots on the scanned image, multiple dirt spots showing up as white specs, and cyclic marking throughout entire reels.’ Other problems included, ‘buckling and heavy marking around many joins’, sections in which the negative had been ‘replaced by intermediate stock’, and even a vertical rip through several frames of one sequence. All these issues require specialist attention and can be time consuming, but this effort is essential for Network if they decide to re-release a film or TV series, as Tim Beddow’s explained: ‘We can’t do everything, but the pictures that we’re preparing now, that should be it. Our ambition is that those pictures will never ever need to be messed with again.’
Once the essential repair work has been completed, the restorers begin colour correcting. Unusually, The Zoo Gang was shot on location in France rather than in a studio like the majority of ITC’s productions, resulting in factors such as ‘fluorescent lighting, variable weather, and under-lit night-time exteriors’, which can affect the consistency of the image. Archive colourist Jonathan Wood worked through the series improving these discrepancies, and regarding the colour for HD, to create a better quality picture than the series had when it first aired. When it came to the soundtrack, it was discovered that the original 35mm magnetic tracks had disintegrated. Newer copies of the dialogue, effects and music tracks were found but were in poor shape. These were improved and a new, better quality remix was created, including the memorable title sequence music composed by Paul and Linda McCartney.
Like Criterion and other quality home video labels, Network’s restoration efforts have been key to both the preservation and rescue of content that might otherwise have been lost, or at the very least left in an unfit state for modern audiences to view and enjoy. This task, once the sole responsibility of national and museum archives, makes the preservation of film a commercial concern. Companies like Network preserve what they think they can sell. They curate content, but their rescue efforts are driven not only by posterity, but also as a response to what audiences want, and their preservation efforts are appreciated for exactly that reason. Their Zoo Gang release, for instance, includes ‘before and after’ comparison footage to demonstrate the restoration work. This close engagement with the public is a defining characteristic of Network, and a trait they share with Talking Pictures, whose story I will come to next.
Television in the Digital Age
The 1980s saw the advent, not only of VHS, but also, by the end of the decade, the launch of subscription satellite television in the UK – Sky in 1989, and British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, which later merged to form BSkyB. Suddenly audiences, whose viewing options had previously been restricted to four terrestrial channels, had access to a far wider range of choice. This choice broadened further with the switch from analogue to digital in the UK beginning in the late 1990s. The digital signal was sent down new fiber optic cables which had a greater bandwidth and could carry a far greater amount of data than had been possible with the older copper cables which they replaced. This increased capacity has led to an explosive growth of new channels – 480 by the latest count – many of them targeted at niche audiences.
Among this abundance of new television channels available in the UK are those predominantly showing curated archive content rather than newly produced contemporary programming. Some of the best known of these are Turner Classic Movies (classic American movies from the libraries of Warner Brothers, MGM and other Hollywood studios), UK Gold (vintage British television comedy) and Yesterday (history documentaries, comedy and travel). All of have proved popular and successful business models. However, recently, one new channel, in particular, has emerged as the torch-bearer for classic British film and television, ostensibly similar in appeal, yet distinctive in its own right.
Talking Pictures TV
On May 17, 2015, an article in the Sunday Express heralded the imminent arrival of a new television channel with the headline: ‘Classic British Films Reborn.’ The new channel would, the newspaper announced, show long-lost British classics ranging from 1930s crime dramas like When London Sleeps (1932), to classic horror movies like Blood of the Vampire (1958), to 1960s musical comedies like Every Day’s A Holiday (1965), as well little-known B movies like Blind Spot (1958) featuring an early appearance by Michael Caine, and Honey West, a rarely seen 1960s TV show about a female private detective.
Enthusiastic though the Express journalist may have been, it seems unlikely that this story about a new channel dedicated to black and white rarities stirred much interest in the fast-moving, commercially competitive world of the 21st century television industry (no evidence exists of any other press or trade articles about Talking Pictures from this early date). Yet, three years after its launch on May 26, 2015, Talking Pictures has become something of a cultural phenomenon, with audience figures now estimated at 2.5 million a week. Its popularity has not gone unnoticed by the media with a number of further newspaper articles, a piece in Sight & Sound, and a feature on Radio 4’s The Film Programme, all attempting to analyse its appeal. Yet, for the team behind Talking Pictures – Sarah Cronin, her father Noel Cronin, and husband Neill Stanley – success has been anything but overnight.
Noel Cronin’s career in the film industry began in 1963 when he started working as a post-boy at the Rank Organisation. From there he graduated to assistant and eventually editor at the Central Office Information where he worked on the kind of public information films that Tim Beddows would eventually release on his first DVD. Cronin then began working in film distribution. Through this experience he got to know the owners of many of the older libraries of British film, but rather than act as a middle-man for their archives, he persuaded a number of them to sell him their rights outright. At first this meant only small parcels of films, but over time he amassed a collection that now numbers some 30,000 films. Most of these were B features produced by now largely forgotten studios such as Butchers Film Services, New Realm, and Grand National Films, and according to Cronin, some had not been well-looked after:
No one was showing these films any more, so we were able to acquire them for reasonable amounts. I bought a massive BBC library and all of the Butcher’s Film distributors stock, which was literally rotting in Brentford and would have been lost forever.
In the 1970s, Noel set up distribution company Dandelion Films to sell his burgeoning film collection to television channels. At the same time he set up Renown Films to look after the rights and restoration side of the business. In 2000, Sarah Cronin, who by then had gained some experience herself working in TV news, persuaded her father that they should sell their own films as DVDs under the Renown label. Their first release, The Glass Mountain (1949), sold 50,000 units. Its success and that of subsequent releases – often packaged in box sets under such titles as Reel Love Stories, Crime Collection (4 volumes), or Films with a Beat – led to the setting up of the Renown Film Club whose 5000 members receive a monthly newsletter with feature articles about films in the company’s library and the restoration work being done on them.
While Renown Pictures were successful selling to their niche audience, the Cronins had ambitions to expand their reach beyond just DVD sales. Their ambition was to set up their own television station showing films and series from their own library. They drew up a number of business plans and approached various potential backers but all believed it too risky and turned them down. Finally, Noel and Sarah decided to go it alone. They launched Talking Pictures on the Sky network on May 26th 2015 with an ambitious 24-hour schedule, showing films and television episodes interspersed with ‘Glimpses’ – vintage factual shorts spotlighting aspects of national life. The first promotional trailer’s voice over set the irreverent tone:
Secrets, mysteries, lies and spies, pitfalls and pratfalls, slapstick and banana skins, horror and chills, and features with creatures, cops and robbers, spies and assassins, frolics with fun, and fantasy with fear. The world’s a stage and all these are here. Talking Pictures TV – bringing it all back.
A bold declaration, though the Talking Pictures team were far from confident that the channel would attract an audience, and with very little in the way of a marketing budget, they relied on their Renown film club membership to put the word out. Then, almost immediately, the phones started ringing. Sarah Cronin recalled: ‘People were calling to say: “You’ve no idea how much you’ve changed our lives”.’ As the calls continued, hundreds of letters and emails started arriving that were similarly grateful and enthusiastic in tone. The channel got an additional boost with the endorsement of celebrity fans such as Danny Baker, Vic Reeves, Mark Gatiss and Mark Kermode. Reeves confessed that he ‘jumped up and down when he discovered it.’ In July 2017 he took over the channel for a day to show some of his favourite films such as Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and Hell Drivers (1957). Interviewed by the Radio Times, Gatiss commented: ‘The whole channel is an absolute joy. It’s sensitively curated and features just the right balance of classics, lost gems, and wonderful schlock. The only danger is you’ll never leave the house again.’ Even the Queen was revealed to be a fan.
Three years on from its launch, Talking Pictures is now available not only on Sky, but also on Virgin, Freeview, Freesat and YouView, and attracts some 2.5 million viewers a week, who watch, on average, three or four hours a day. There is a strong sense of community between the audience and the channel with continuous daily interactions on the Talking Pictures’ Facebook and Twitter pages. They also run outside events including the annual ‘Renown Pictures Festival of Film’, which began in 2015 and is now in its fourth year. Held at an arts centre in Rickmansworth, the festival features celebrity guest interviewees – film stars Rita Tushingham, Shirley Anne Field and Derren Nesbitt were amongst those reminiscing in 2018 – as well as cinema screenings from the Renown catalogue, musical performances, and stalls selling film memorabilia, books, magazines, and DVDs.
Events like these, and the daily social media two-way dialogue on the Network and Talking Pictures online community pages, suggests the emergence of an alternative grassroots cinephelia outside the traditional realms of public institutions and academic conference halls. The fact that so many people are willing to buy, watch, discuss, participate in events, and generally generate ongoing enthusiasm for content that has often been ignored or dismissed for decades indicates a kind of evolution in terms of what is worth watching, remembering, and why. In the next section I will explore in more detail what that content is.
Part 2: Exploring the Lost Continent
One suspects that if the institution of the British cinema could be radically reconceptualised and wrested from the grasp of the still tenacious realist aesthetic, then films discussed in this chapter would look less like isolated islands revealing themselves and more like the peaks of a long submerged lost continent – Julian Petley, professor of film studies
In his article ‘The Lost Continent’ published in Charles Barr’s 1992 book of essays on British cinema, All Our Yesterdays, Julien Petley writes in praise of the less celebrated, and often critically ignored strains in the nation’s cinema, citing Gainsborough melodramas, film noirs and Hammer horror as authentic alternatives to the critically approved realist tradition. Though this subject is largely tangential to the theme of this paper – we will return to it in part three – the idea of a lost continent of British film and television seems an equally appropriate metaphor for the abundance of content, much of it now available due to the efforts of companies like Network and Talking Pictures, that has yet to be thoroughly explored. As we discussed in the last section, it is important, not only that these films and television shows exist, but that they are now, for the first time in decades, being watched, discussed, and enjoyed with great enthusiasm by millions of people. The lost continent is at last emerging.
While a visit to Network’s website or a flick through Talking Pictures’ schedule might give us a broad overview of what they are selling or showing, a more rigorous analysis is necessary to discover exactly what this is. It is worth noting that Talking Pictures have the potential to show a lot more than they are currently able to do, often due to the absence of the original film material itself. To put the figures into perspective, consider Sarah Cronin’s revelation that Renown Films/Talking Pictures now own the rights to approximately 30,000 films – a number that would be hard to watch in one lifetime. Network, too, own the rights to work that, for budgetary reasons, they are not able to release. Yet even based on what they have already have available, Tim Beddows admitted that: ‘If I was going to start watching everything that we’ve released over the years, from day one up until now, I’d be dead before I could do it.’
Note: the following statistical charts are based on: Network’s library as catalogued on its website, which lists 1792 DVDs and Blu-rays for sale. As we have seen Talking Pictures own an extensive library that is continuing to grow, but the purposes of this study I have limited my analysis of their programming to a study of their broadcast schedule over a one-month period (March, 2018).
Network and Talking Pictures: content by category
Figure 1. Network Categories
Figure 2. Talking Pictures Categories
In Figure 1 we can see that Network’s television series make up the greater part of their catalogue. Television also accounts for the majority of the company’s sales and the most discussion on their social media platforms. On Talking Pictures, as Figure 2 shows, the lion’s share of their programming is made up of feature films as might be expected, though, as posts on the company’s Facebook pages indicate, there is considerable enthusiasm for their television series as well. From this we might conclude that the success of both companies is as much about telephelia as cinephelia, and for those grassroots enthusiasts exploring the aforementioned lost continent, both art forms appear to be on an equal footing.
Network and Talking Pictures: content by country of origin
Figure 3. Network: films and television by country of origin
Figure 4. Talking Pictures: films and television by country of origin
Figures 3 and 4 confirm, unsurprising, that Network’s catalogue and Talking Pictures’ programming is overwhelmingly British in origin. However, the fact that both companies have found success at selling this content suggests that audiences are hungry for British content even if it was once considered by some – and often still is – inferior to content made in American.
Network and Talking Pictures: films by decade
Figure 5. Network: films by decade
Figure 6. Talking Pictures: films by decade
Figures 5 and 6 show that the 1940s, 50s and 60s are popular eras for both Network and Talking Pictures’ respective content. In fact, over 80% of the films showing in March 2018 on Talking Pictures were made in these three decades. This helps to explain the channel’s popularity with an older demographic who may have remembered seeing these films the first time around, or for whom the world depicted is still a familiar memory. Network’s film releases are more spread with the 1930s the most popular single decade (as many of the 1930s releases are collected in boxsets this figure would be much higher if each film were counted separately). While Network’s releases are largely dependent on what came to them in the Studio Canal deal, their curation of much of this 30s material into collections such as the The Jessie Matthews Revue (6 volumes), British Comedies of the 1930s (11 volumes), and British Musicals of the 1930s (6 volumes) appears to have helped put these films in context for audiences. All volumes in all three series are rated on average 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon, accompanied by both appreciative, and often detailed reviews. The fact that very few people alive now would have been old enough to see these films when they were first released indicates that the interest in these older British films is driven less by nostalgia and more by curiosity.
Figure 7. Network: television by decade
Figure 8. Talking Pictures: television by decade
Network and Talking Pictures: television by decade
Figures 7 and 8 show that Network’s television library is fairly evenly spread over the decades since the medium was first adopted by a mass audience in the 1950s, though the 1970s is the most popular decade with almost a third of all the television releases made in that decade. Talking Pictures television programming (in the month of March 2018), dates exclusively from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with the 60s being the most popular decade. The 1960s and 70s are often described as a ‘golden age’ in television, and these stats and the enthusiasm expressed on social media indicates much of the telephenia is focused on television series made in this era.
Figure 9. Network: films by genre
Figure 10. Talking Pictures: films by genre
Figure 11. Network: television by genre
Figure 12. Talking Pictures: television by genre
Network and Talking Pictures: films by genre
Figures 9, 10, 11 and 12 show that the most popular genres in Network’s and Talking Pictures’ film and television libraries are dramas, comedies and thrillers. Budgetary considerations almost certainly played a part in making these genres more popular with producers than the higher budgets associated with Science-Fiction, Musicals, War and Adventure films which make up most of the other percentage along with children’s films, horror and documentary. But it is interesting to note that comedies, whose jokes one might have expected most people today to find dated are still being enjoyed with such enthusiasm, suggesting that, for many, the British sense of humour transcends time. Similarly, the fact that people are still engrossed by so many crime/thrillers, indicates there is a quality to this work that may not have been fully appreciated at the time. In this case, one might draw parallels with the ongoing fascination with American film noir, which similarly took time before receiving its critical due.
As we have seen, Network sells more than 1000 television series on DVD and Blu-ray on their website. The majority of these series were originally produced by ITV and the various regional franchises on its networks, including ATV, London Weekend Television, ITC Entertainment, Granada, and Yorkshire Television. Other key sources include the BBC, Channel Four, Canada’s Alliance Atlantis, and the Thames Television library through their deal with Freemantle. Network’s television DVDs range from the mainstream (Coronation Street, On the Buses, Birds of a Feather, etc), to celebrated classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Upstairs, Downstairs, Thunderbirds, etc), as well as cult favourites (The Prisoner, Space 999, Children of the Stones, etc). Many of their releases are not widely known, but almost all, according to Network MD Tim Beddows, find an audience:
You know, if you ask most people if they’ve heard of most the things in our catalogue, most people would never have heard of them, and yet people are buying them. We can guarantee that we’ll sell at least 2000 copies of anything we put out.
Beddows cites Gideon’s Way, a police show made in 1965, as an example:
When we released it people said: ‘What the hell’s Gideon’s Way? Why are you releasing this?’ And it’s expensive to put out because you have to get it classified – twenty-six hours is not cheap to classify. And on paper that should not have worked. It’s a series that hasn’t been seen since 1968, and yet we sold 12,000 box sets within a couple of years. Now I can’t explain that. I can’t explain who went out and actually bought that series, but it was an instinct I had.
It might seem surprising that a series like Gideon’s Way, based on a series of books by renowned crime writer John Creasey and starring the well-known, big-screen actor John Gregson (Genevieve, Above Us the Waves), had been forgotten. However the same could be said for many of the TV productions that Network has rescued from obscurity. Even a random browse through the Network web pages throws up once esteemed, but now rarely referenced titles, such as secret service drama Callan, children’s sci-fi drama Timeslip, and 80s comedy series Shelley. Like the DVD of Gideon’s Way, which has 116 reviews on Amazon and rates 4.5 stars out of 5, comments from customers demonstrate that these shows are being sought out by an audience eager to rediscover forgotten gems. The following Amazon review of Callan – The Monochrome Years by an anonymous customer is typical:
I was born in 1970 so this was not my era, but my late father would sing its praises when any modern “Hard man” would appear on later tv. Well he wasn’t clouded in nostalgia he was spot on. Anthony Valentine is superb as Meres, Edward Woodward is mesmeric in a career defining role as the assassin with a conscience, and Lonely is wonderfully benevolent. The dodgy sets people have mentioned I couldn’t care less about, acting doesn’t come any better than this.
As a way of gauging where Network’s television programmes sit in relation to the established canon of British TV, one might contrast and compare them with the BFI’s TV 100 poll. This list, compiled in 2000 from the votes of 1,600 industry professionals, is dominated by the BBC (70 out of 100), and topped by such iconic shows as Fawlty Towers, Doctor Who and Blue Peter. Of the more than 1000 shows listed on the Network website, only 7 feature on the list (The Naked Civil Servant, The World at War, 28 Up, Coronation Street, Tiswas, World in Action, Thunderbirds, Spitting Image). Yet as sales of Network’s DVDs and Blu-rays indicate, the appeal and enduring interest in these shows persists regardless of critical approval.
‘The British Film’ section of the Network website includes some 413 DVDs and Blu-rays for sale. As detailed previously, the majority of these films came from British film studio archives owned by Studio Canal and date from the 1930s through to the 1970s. Although the collection includes some well-known classics such as The Ghost Goes West (1936), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Ipcress File (1965) – most of the films could be described as little-known rarities. If we take one page (page 5) at random from the list we find:
Thrillers: The Small Voice (Fergus McDonell, 1948), Nightbeat (Harold Huth, 1947), Wide Boy (Ken Hughes, 1952), Deadly Record (Lawrence Huntington, 1959), Model for Murder (Terry Bishop, 1959), Mr. Denning Drives North (Anthony Kimmins, 1951), Crime on the Hill (Bernard Vorhaus, 1933), Deadlier than the Male (Ralph Thomas, 1967), Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936), Violent Moment (Sidney Hayers, 1959), Guilt Is My Shadow (Roy Kellino, 1950), Someone at the Door (Francis Searle, 1950), Walk a Tightrope (Frank Nesbitt, 1964).
Dramas: White Cradle Inn (Harold French, 1947), The Rat (Jack Raymond, 1937), The Tenth Man (Brain Desmond Hurst, 1936), The Outsider (Paul Stein, 1939), No Trees in the Street (J. Lee Thompson, 1959), A Man About the House (Leslie Arliss, 1947), Manuela (Guy Hamilton,1957), Biddy (Christine Edzard, 1983), Silent Dust (Lance Comfort, 1949), The Good Beginning (Gilbert Gunn, 1953), Waterfront (Michael Anderson,1950);
A Musical: The Dancing Years (Harold French, 1950).
A horror film: The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunt, 1933).
Adventure films: Campbell’s Kingdom (Ralph Thomas, 1957), Thunderstorm (John Guillermin, 1956).
War films: Tower of Terror (Lawrence Huntington, 1941), Warn that Man (Lawrence Huntington, 1943).
Comedies: Our Man in Marrakesh (Don Sharp, 1966), Into the Blue (Herbert Wilcox, 1950).
The directors of these films range from the most acclaimed in film history (Hitchcock) to forgotten names (Bishop, Gunn, Hunt), from B movie specialists (Comfort, Huntington) to journeymen who went on to bigger things in Hollywood (Thompson, Anderson, Guillermin), as well as the progenitors of James Bond (Hamilton), and the Doctor series (Thomas). Similarly, the producers and studios range from the prominent (London Films, ABPC, Rank), to second feature specialists (Merton Park, Eros), and obscure independents (Hemisphere Films, Peak Films). When it comes to cast members, we find a few star names – Boris Karloff (The Ghoul), John Mills (Mr. Denning Drives North),Dirk Bogarde (Campbell’s Kingdom), Trevor Howard (Manuela), Sylvia Syms (No Trees in the Street) – but more often these films star actors such as Anne Crawford (Nightbeat), Stephen Murray (Silent Dust), or Yvonne Owen (Someone at the Door), who only dedicated aficionados of British cinema would still remember. In other words, a single page of Network’s ‘British Film’ section gives us a revealing insight into the British film industry in the broadest sense over a significant period of its history.
As this sample demonstrates, the majority of the titles in Network’s British film catalogue would, at the time, have been considered second features or B movies and are rarely referenced today. Indeed, if we were to compare the Network library selection with the BFI’s choice of the Top 100 British films of the 20th Century, only three films sold by Network feature: The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938), Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947) and The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965). The new availability of so many titles from Network and their rediscovery by both the public and film scholars has the potential to challenge this established hierarchy.
One example of the way Network is shedding light on the British film industry is through its Ealing Studios Rarities series.
Network Case Study: Ealing Studios Rarities Vols 1 to 14
The ‘Ealing Comedies’, made at Ealing Studios between the late 1940s and the early 1950s, are amongst the best-known and best-loved film brands in British cinema. Under the inspiring leadership of producer Michael Balcon, such classics as Passport to Pimlico (1949), Whiskey Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955) came to epitomize a certain kind of British humour. Yet the 10 or so films that actually fit that description only represent a fraction of Ealing Studios’ total output. From 1930, when Basil Dean took charge of the company (then under the name of Associated Talking Pictures), to Balcon’s tenure in charge from 1938 to 1956, Ealing produced nearly 150 films, and as film historian Charles Barr states on the Network website, ‘very few of the pre-Balcon Ealing films have ever been televised.’
As we have seen, Network inherited the Ealing Studios archive through their deal with Studio Canal. Working their way through the full collection the company have now released 14 volumes of Ealing Rarities. Each volume contains 4 films on 2 discs and showcases the sheer variety of Ealing’s output over the course of its existence. Thus volume 1 contains Escape! (1930), an adaptation of the John Galsworthy play about an escapee from Dartmoor prison; West of Zanzibar (1954) a drama set in Africa; Penny Paradise (1938) a comedy about a Liverpool tugboat captain who wins the football pools; and Cheer up! (1936), a musical about two struggling composers trying to win backing for their shows. Such variety of era, genre and setting is a common theme in the Rarities collection and belies the prevailing impression most people might have of the studio from watching the classic comedies of the post-war period.
The films in the Rarities series also reveal a much wider pool of contributors than those most commonly associated with the studio. For instance, few would associate director Carol Reed with Ealing, yet the collection features three early films (It Happened in Paris, 1935, Midshipman Easy, 1935, Penny Paradise, 1938) he directed there. Other famous names include the producer/director team of Michael Relph and Basil Deardon (Frieda, 1947, Cage of Gold, 1950, I Believe in You,1952), the silent film veteran Maurice Elvey (A Honeymoon Adventure, 1931), and editing contributions from David Lean (The Fortunate Fool, 1933, The Secret of the Loch, 1934) and Thorold Dickinson (Loyalties, 1933, The House of the Spaniard, 1936). Among the actors we find such unexpected names as Basil Rathbone (Loyalties, 1933), Anne Sheridan (Honeymoon for Three, 1941), and Peter Finch (The Shiralee, 1957). Considering the caliber of these directors and actors, these films must be counted as essential artifacts for study by those wishing to build up a full picture of Britain’s film history.
While Ealing will almost certainly remain best-known for the aforementioned comedies of the late 40s and early 50s, Network’s Ealing Rarities series, which now amount to 14 volumes and over 50 titles, helps us, in the words of Charles Barr, ‘to build up a fuller and truer history of Ealing than we get from cherry-picking the old familiar titles.’ They are literal lost treasures from a lost continent.
Talking Pictures TV
Since its inception, Talking Pictures TV has shown films from their existing catalogue of films for which Renown holds the copyright, and a wider range of films and television series that they have licensed for broadcast. The channel’s playlist features mostly British feature films, many of them relatively obscure, but also includes classics of British and Hollywood cinema such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943), Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944), and The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), American drive-in exploitation movies such as Blood Mania (Robert Vincent O’Neill, 1970), The Pom Pom Girls (Joseph Ruben, 1976), and Malibu Beach (Robert J. Rosenthal, 1978), and television series such as Honey West (1965-66) about a female private eye, The Big Valley (1965-69) set in the American west, and British Wartime drama series A Family at War (1970-72). Any given day will also include at least one documentary short, ranging from Humphrey Jennings’ World War II-era classics such as Fires Were Started (1943), to The Great Milk Bottle Mystery, a 1950s short made by the British Milk association.
Taking a day at random – let’s say March 15th 2018 – we find a schedule that includes:
Comedies: The Fast Lady (Ken Annakin, 1963), Where There’s A Will (William Beaudine, 1936), The Balloon Goes Up (Redd Davis, 1942), Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957)
Dramas: Lena Rivers (Phil Rosen, 1932), Two Thousand Women (Frank Launder, 1944); war films: Nine Men (Harry Watt, 1943), Desert Mice (Michael Relph, 1959)
Thrillers: Clue of the Silver Key (Gerard Glaister, 1961), The Spaniard’s Curse (Ralph Kemplen, 1958), Mine Own Executioner (Anthony Kimmins, 1947), The Good Die Young (Lewis Gilbert, 1954), Action Stations (Cecil H. Williamson, 1957);
Television shows: The Big Valley (Joseph H. Lewis, 1966), The Tom Ewell Show (1960), Saints & Sinners (1965).
On paper such a disparate selection of programming might appear to lack a cohesive theme, and yet anybody watching the channel is likely to be struck by it’s strong sense of identity. From the black and white vintage-style company logo to the light-hearted promotional trailers and old-fashioned voice-over announcements, the channel evokes a congenial sense of nostalgia by matching the style and character of content itself. It is worth observing that this identity has evolved over time and is one that the audience strongly identifies with as feedback on the channel’s Facebook page confirms. By providing context around the films one might conclude that Talking Pictures are giving them a legitimacy that encourages audience engagement, and thus a wider acceptance of content that might otherwise be sidelined.
Returning to the typical day’s schedule listed above we find nothing that would qualify as a widely known title, or a recognized classic. Indeed, if we were to compare and contrast the films and television showing on Talking Pictures in a typical month (March 2018) against the 2000 BFI polls of the 100 greatest films and 100 greatest TV shows of all time, there is only one title, A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961), from either list that features in the schedule that month. The fact that Talking Pictures is still popular despite showing mostly lesser-known material shows that audiences are finding enduring quality and engagement in archive films that established critics have mostly ignored.
While Talking Pictures does show content from well-known directors and actors, it is also widely recognized for its curation of lesser-known B pictures, some of which are worth re-evaluating. One of the many studios whose output has been hitherto largely ignored, but whose productions have been successfully revived by Renown Films and Talking Pictures is Butcher’s Film Services.
Talking Pictures Case Study: Butcher’s Film Services
Second features, programmers, or ‘B’ movies as they’re better known today, were a staple of an evening’s entertainment at cinemas in Britain up until the end of the 1950s. At a time when television ownership was rare, people expected to sit through two features – along with trailers, newsreels, cartoons and commercials – as part of their evening’s entertainment. A number of small British studios and independent producers found a niche producing these low-budget second or supporting features, among them: Anglo-Amalgamated, Highbury Studios, Hammer, Tempean, The Danzigers, Merton Park, and Adelphi. Of these only Hammer has received in-depth critical attention, and that chiefly focused on its later horror film output rather than its earlier thrillers, dramas and comedies. It is worth noting too that Hammer’s horror films were once dismissed as trash, but were subsequently critically reassessed, and are now firmly ensconced in the British cinematic canon.
Set up by a Blackheath chemist named William Butcher during the Boer War, Butcher’s – or Butcher’s Film Services – to give it its full name, was another leading producer of ‘B’ pictures. From its production base at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames, Butcher’s supplied cinemas – typically independent establishments in working-class industrial areas – with a steady supply of uncomplicated genre entertainment. One of its biggest successes was a series of four films (Send for Paul Temple (1946), Calling Paul Temple (1948), Paul Temple’s Triumph (1950), and Paul Temple Returns (1952)), based on Francis Durbridge’s novels about Paul Temple, a professional crime writer turned amateur private detective. Other examples of their varied output at this time include horror films (The Monkey’s Paw, 1948); an adaptation of a West End play (The Story of Shirley Yorke, 1948); action dramas set in the worlds of motorcycle racing (The Black Rider, 1954); comedies (Assignment Redhead, 1956); and spy thrillers (Operation Diplomat, 1953). All of these films are now available on Renown Films’ DVD releases and show regularly on Talking Pictures TV.
The rise of television in the mid-50s coincided with a drop in cinema attendance and subsequently less demand for second features. At the same time the quota system was dropped meaning even less demand for second features. Butcher’s continued to produce work capitalizing on contemporary issues with the Cold War thriller Mark of the Pheonix (1957), and rock ‘n’ roll saga The Golden Disc (1957). Even after Nettlefold closed down, Butcher’s continued the production of second features, most notably in a series of superior thrillers directed by Lance Comfort, including the outstanding Tomorrow at Ten (1962).
The studio eventually closed down production in 1964. As Noel Cronin was quoted as saying in Part 1, when he originally bought and took possession of the Butcher’s archive it was in a state of serious neglect. As a result of his intervention the work of this small, but somehow essential studio was saved, and, one might conclude, is now being studied with more attention and enthusiasm than it was at the time that it was originally released.
But what does this enthusiastic audience reception to this content all mean? In the next section I will look at the ripples that have been forming across social media, academia, and in the media industry as the impact of this content is felt.
Part 3: Return to Yesterday
I have always believed that lavish sets, huge crowds and great stars in expensive costumes are no substitute for originality, visual imagination and a good script – Alfred Shaughnessy, writer/director
One could easily imagine that many of those involved in the making many of the films and television under discussion in this essay, such as Alfred Shaughnessy quoted above, might be surprised, if not bemused, to discover their work had found an appreciative audience a half-century or more after first release. Certainly the veteran actors and actresses I heard speak at this year’s Renown Festival of Film were amusingly self-deprecating about their achievements. To them it was just another acting job; for their makers largely a commercial proposition. Furthermore, very few critics of the time, particularly in Britain, accorded film or television the kind of serious analysis routinely given to other art forms. Little wonder then that so much material has remained inaccessible to the public for so long.
As we have seen, the development of consumer video formats and the opening up of the television network as a result of digital technology has allowed real enthusiasts to open the keys to the archive and bring it out into the open once more. The impact of Talking Pictures TV and Network Distribution has not simply been about increased availability. Audience reaction and enthusiasm has also meant that both critically and commercially these films and television shows have reentered the popular British consciousness. If we look at the audience, critical and commercial impacts what we see begin to emerge is the gradual expansion of what we think of as noteworthy film and TV.
To gain an insight in to the kinds of people who are watching this material and what they feel about it, social media offers a revealing insight. Here are some recent comments on the Talking Pictures’ Facebook page:
Thanks for showing this wonderful film, a forgotten gem – Sue Gough
Good old Talking Pictures – they really have become the channel of choice for people who prefer older films, and these titles have not had screenings in the UK for decades – Christopher Walker
Talking Pictures are spoiling the nation with great classic British films, we can’t thank you enough – Darren James McMullen
I absolutely love, love, love Talking Pictures! So many films I remember seeing when I was young, plus loads of others I have never seen before. The BEST channel on TV – Jean Hughes
Getting to see some films I was too young to watch or appreciate before, and so many stars. Even some in films before they were famous, but it is so much better than all this modern so called reality TV they are showing nowadays. Keep up the good work Talking Pictures and remember, Nostalgia never goes out of fashion – Steve Luxton.
And some recent posts taken from the Network Facebook page:
Wow. I am one of the lucky early orderers to get the Goodies autographs with the AMAZING DVD BOX SET with every BBC episode (except the one the BBC recorded over) as well as a 3cd box set including lots of Bill’s music they used behind the chase scenes (plus two detailed books.) Possibly. Probably. Definitely my highlight of the year. Thank you Network for all your goody work. Late September’s delivery cannot come too soon – Steve Rigsby
I remember Zodiac from its original transmission and was delighted when Network released it. It is a DVD well worth getting. I hope that Network release some more classic drama from the 1960s and 1970s soon – Ian McLachlan
Having got this DVD the other day I have watched the above play and the one starring Leslie Phillips. Both were excellent and well worth seeing. I really enjoy 60s TV drama. It treats its audience as intelligent and there is great acting, direction and scripts every time – Michael Keene
While not every post is so positive, the negative comments tend to be about technical issues: problems with channel reception, incorrect screen ratios, lack of DVD extras, discontinued titles, etc. There is rarely, if ever, criticism of the content itself, for which there is almost uniform affection, even reverence, as the quotes above affirm. We can therefore conclude, that at the very least, the availability of this content is giving a lot of people a lot of pleasure.
It is intriguing to consider why audiences are having such a reaction to content that they have not seen in decades or, in many cases, have never seen before at all. It is a trend that has become increasingly prevalent in the current, post-modern age as Simon Reynolds observed in his recent book Retromania:
Not only has there never before been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its immediate past, but there has never before been a society that is able to access theimmediate past so easily and so copiously.[77) This helps to explain Sarah Cronin’s observation that younger people are a key part of the Talking Pictures audience:
That’s where our social media side really shows the younger audience. And it’s not just film students. It’s the whole vintage wave where people want to watch us just for the music, the cars, the fashions – they may not know who the stars in it are, but they watch it anyway.
Perhaps, less surprising, is the emotional attraction of nostalgia for many older viewers, as Tim Beddows noted when he observed: ‘We’re selling people back their memories.’ But why do people prefer to watch, or rewatch, older material when there’s so much contemporary content on offer? In a study for The Journal of Consumer Research, Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney Levy interviewed people who liked to re-watch movies, re-read books, or revisit places and discovered that they did so for four specific reasons:
- Firstly, people revisit works of art simply because they like them. The more familiar they become with them, the more their affection grows.
- Secondly, there is the nostalgic reason – the warm glow some people feel for the way things used to be, or, on an individual level, for their own past.
- Thirdly, there is the therapeutic reason, by which people use favourite songs, movies, etc, to help themselves feel better.
- Finally, there is the reason described by Russell and Levy thus: ‘The dynamic linkages between one’s past, present, and future experiences through the re-consumption of an object allow existential understanding.’ In other words, people revisit work to gain an insight into how they got to where they are today.
You can see all these examples within quotes from the Network and Talking Pictures Facebook pages:
Escape Route like many of your films are now a brilliant historical record of what London used to be like just after ww2. They bring back visits to London with my father in the early 50s which really cheer me up as well as watching great acting and storylines – Dave Dunk
After lunch viewing organised, rescuing me from Doctors. Thank You, thank you – Bernard Price
This just has to be the best channel in the UK. Like so many peeps here, I am finding this to be a unique insight into filmmaking and society in days gone by. Long may this continue – Anne Carey
Had this arrive today! Talk about excited! Very much looking forward to watching it. I literally thought it would be one of those childhood favourites I would never ever get to see again – Jamie Anne
Even just the music from a popular show like Network’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe can be evocative for many as these responses taken from an upload of the music on YouTube show:
Transports me back to a time when life was simple, gentle, fun and exciting. Nothing lasts forever of course and while this song has turned into a lament for me, I’m also happy that I have my treasured memories. We grew up in a magical decade – Captain Snork
If only there was a time machine to go back to those innocent days – Alan Gilber
Remember watching this after school on BBC tv in the sixties. Never forgotten the haunting music, and hearing it again takes me back to those days. Where have all those intervening years gone? – Trevor Dance
This makes me long for better times, it makes me so sad listening to this, getting very emotional at the moment – Peter Wareham
Social media comments are enjoyable to read, not only for personal insight, but also to observe the interaction between audience members who are all the more excited to share the experience of watching this content with others who understand. While all modern content may be communally experienced in this way in the age of the internet, what is especially interesting here is that this is content that was created before this was possible. People who felt alone in their enthusiasm for this material now feel they are in the company of many other kindred spirits. These are not just ‘anoracks’, they are people who are suddenly aware of 2 million other souls a week who like the same things that they do. One of Sarah Cronin’s observations underlines this point: ‘A lot of people say to me: “When I tune in I feel like I’m watching with lots of people. I don’t feel like I’m on my own”.’
The Critical Perspective
I was curious as to whether audience enthusiasm for much of this rediscovered content was shared by the academic community. I contacted via questionnaire: Professor James Chapman of the University of Leicester, Dr Lawrence Napper of Kings College London, and Dr Sheldon Hall of Sheffield Hallam University – all of whom were chosen because they are experts on British film and television history.
Firstly I asked whether they had noticed any recent changes of thought or opinion on British film and whether there were any particular directors, films or categories of films that seemed to be on the verge of reassessment. All were agreed that there had been an increased interest in what James Chapman described as those films that have ‘been marginalized in academic histories that privileged realism and quality.’ Examples given by all three included, ‘genre films and exploitation movies’, ‘lesser known comedies from the 1950s’, and the careers of such unheralded directors as ‘Marcel Varnel, or Val Guest, or Vernon Sewell or Montgomery Tully.’The work of these directors and the genres mentioned are, of course, all staples of Talking Pictures’ schedules and Network’s output.
I also asked whether lack of access in the past might have led to a neglect of the full scope of Britain’s cinematic heritage. Again, there was agreement that this had indeed been the case. Lawrence Napper cited, as examples of neglect, ‘the work of émigré directors, low budget quota quickies and cheap comedies.’ Sheldon Hall suggested, ‘early sound cinema in Britain.’ James Chapman pointed to ‘the dearth of older films on terrestrial television.’ It is this latter situation, again, that has been addressed by the advent of Talking Pictures, which is bringing this tradition back to British television. Their schedule, like the Network catalogue, also does include the work of émigré directors such as E.A. Dupont and Monty Banks, quota quickies such as The Ghost Camera (1933), and The Phantom Light (1935), and early British sound films such as No Lady (1931) and Fascination (1931).
Most importantly, I asked them to consider what impact the redistribution and rebroadcast of so much lesser-known archive material by Network and Talking Pictures might have on the collective public awareness of British film and television? James Chapman acknowledged that, ‘access has a major influence on the canon and on academic scholarship,’ and gave, as example, the increasing interest in British silent cinema. Lawrence Napper felt that, ‘undoubtedly the new availability can only have a good effect on the collective public awareness of British film and TV history,’ and cited Network’s Ealing Rarities, British Musicals of the 1930s and British Comedies of the 1930s series, as well as Talking Pictures programming, as enabling ‘scholars to trace ideas/stars/companies and cinematic tropes across the whole of the industry’s output, not just across the most well-known examples.’ Most tellingly, Sheldon Hall commented:
We will probably not fully appreciate for some time the impact of Network and TPTV’s bringing neglected and previously ‘invisible’ films back into circulation but the increasing size of TPTV’s viewing audience and the very large number of titles in Network’s British Film series (over 400 by my count) must in themselves indicate the great potential for changing public awareness of older British films and TV series.
Lastly, I asked if they thought that views of Britain’s cinematic past have become static based on particular eras, or studios, or directors, and whether, as specialists in British film and television, they felt there is a resistance when it comes to challenging the established canon of British cinema. All three scholars agreed that resistance to questioning the canon did not come from scholars but from elsewhere. Lawrence Napper gave, as an example, a recent research project revisiting British cinema of the 1960s that had sought ‘to challenge the primacy of the “kitchen sink” and of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in telling the story of this period.’ While a number of articles and conference papers put forward alternative examples, he explained, ‘the “impact” end of the project in conjunction with the BFI was unrecognisable from that intellectual impulse.’ Rather than support this alternative view, the BFI instead screened a season of already-celebrated British New Wave films combined with a new Woodfall boxset with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as its centrepiece. According to Dr Napper, the BFI are ‘utterly complicit in this sort of ossification of British film history,’ but he also suggested that the cause was more likely to be the demands of the marketing rather than the curatorial department.
While economics and indifference are clearly very real obstacles to those wishing to broaden critical and public perceptions of Britain’s cinematic past, if the history of British film studies has taught us anything, it is, that given enough time, even the most derided of films, filmmakers and genres will be given a fair hearing. Indeed, in recent decades a number of books of essays have sought to reappraise British film history beginning with the publication in 1986 of All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema edited by Charles Barr, followed by Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992 in 1994, The Unknown 1930s in 1998, and The British Cinema Book in 2001. In these volumes, leading film scholars explore a wide range of topics, including hitherto neglected subjects such as British silent cinema, ‘Quota Quickies’, and the influence of Music Hall on film. As a mark of how things have changed, critic Alan Lovell’s article in The British Cinema Book titled ‘The British Cinema: The Known Cinema?’ answered his own article ‘The British Cinema: The Unknown Cinema’ originally published in 1969, in which he had suggested that, ‘scholarly neglect of British cinema was so great that it was effectively an unknown cinema.’ In his later piece, Lovell was able to declare: ‘Today, British film scholars can hardly be accused of neglecting their national cinema. In the space of twenty-five years we have moved from scarcity to abundance.’
In more recent years this trend has continued. Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane have told the history of the British second feature in Quota Quickies (2007) and The British ‘B’ Film (2009), and Manchester University Press have published a series of books on British Film-Makers that have included such lesser-known figures as Lance Comfort, Roy Ward Baker, and J. Lee Thompson. While British television has not received this degree of study, the aforementioned James Chapman has written a number of books on the subject, including Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s, and Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who (Dr Who).
It may only be coincidental that Network and Renown Films/Talking Pictures have been in operation during the period when this reassessment has taken place, but it seems reasonable to conclude that their redistribution of neglected content has encouraged this widening of critical perspective. More directly, film scholars have actively engaged with the newly available work by contributing to a number of Network’s DVD releases. Writer and film expert Kim Newman, for instance, has written booklets for the seven volume Edgar Wallace Mysteries series, and Charles Barr has contributed introductions to all fourteen of the Ealing Studios Rarities series. Talking Pictures have also featured interviews with film historians such as Robert Sellers talking about Ealing Studios and Simon Brown talking about Cecil Hepworth and early British cinema.
Further, Network have teamed up with a group of academics at Royal Holloway College, University of London, led by Professor John Hill, who are engaged in a 3-year AHRC-funded research project to uncover the lost history of British TV drama. According to the group’s website, the aim of the project is ‘to broaden our sense of television history and raise questions about what is regarded as “Classic TV”.’ This collaboration has so far resulted in the launch on DVD of The Frighteners, a London Weekend Television anthology series made in 1972 of half hour psychological horror films, unseen since first release. This is another example of how Network, like Talking Pictures, is taking responsibility for both the preservation and re-distribution of forgotten British film and television, alongside scholars who share the same mission.
Archive Gold – the commercial and future impact
At this time in history, when the internet and services like Netflix or Amazon have made content easily available, success in the field of broadcasting and distribution is not so much about providing availability, but about content discovery. Audiences know that they like a particular flavour of film, but unless they are the type to research for hours for content – and many people are not – they seem more than willing to pay for a service that will curate things to their taste, present them with content that is both new and predictable, and wrap it up in a well-designed package or brand that makes the experience feel holistic and familiar.
But, in the case of Network and Talking Pictures, these curated services are not just for specialist tastes. They are, quite clearly, a mainstream commercial success. According to the Network website, the company has, over the last 20 years, released over 3000 titles on DVD and Blu-ray. However, as Tim Beddows remarked: ‘You could probably count on the fingers of three hands the number of commercial failures we’ve had.’ In the world of media distribution that is a highly successful track record. Meanwhile, since its launch in 2015, Talking Pictures TV has seen consistent growth in its audience and now has, according to the BARB figures quoted by Sarah Cronin, an impressive ‘2.5 million viewers a week.’ All of this reveals that there is an enormous appetite for archive film and television in Britain.
There are, of course, other players in the world of classic British film and television distribution, but there has, in the past, often been a tendency for these companies to cherry-pick the established classics, often in boxsets devoted to a particular director, star or studio, thus reinforcing the existing canon. For example, the recent ‘Vintage Classics’ DVD and Blu-ray series released by Studio Canal, now numbers some 80 titles, and follows this trend by mainly comprising well-known works such as The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson, 1955), The LadyKillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), and The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970). Interestingly, however, Studio Canal have also restored and released four lesser-known works as part of the series: Charles Crichton’s Dance Hall (1950), J. Lee Thompson’s Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), Seth Holt’s Nowhere to Go (1958), and Ken Hughes’ The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963). All four of these ‘forgotten gems’ received glowing reviews in The Guardian film section, in which reviewers described them as well worth rediscovery. This willingness by Studio Canal to cast their net wider might have been influenced by Network’s success with many of the lesser-known items in their archive holdings, and demonstrates how neglected films can unexpectedly find their way into the established canon.
While the DVDs might be the first port of call for many wanting to watch or discover archive British film and television, there are many who prefer to get their curated content via a traditional television channel. According to Sarah Cronin, her channel’s success has not gone unnoticed by other broadcasters:
Without a doubt they’ve noticed. I mean the BBC schedules have started scheduling a black and white movie in the afternoon, when was the last time you saw that?… I don’t want to name names but there are a lot of channels who have definitely picked up on the audiences we’re getting and thought we’re missing a trick here, we should be doing that. My biggest concern would be – which is probably not too far away, if I’m honest – is one of the major broadcasters who have a big library doing it themselves because they have big budgets, they can play less repeats because they have access to the films without paying for them, licensing them. Marketing, they can go all out on that. But it’s going to happen soon, I think.
What this will mean in the long term for Talking Pictures is uncertain, though, from the evidence of its Facebook community postings, the channel has an unusually loyal following. However, because viewership of this content is increasingly young, both providers have had to begin thinking about newer platforms, in terms of increasing viewership in a changing media landscape and in terms of preservation in the digital age. In response to the slowly declining sales of DVDs across the entire market, Network plan soon to introduce Video on Demand, or VOD, on their website on which they’ll be showing a whole evening’s worth of entertainment taken from their own extensive library. Whether this new venture will succeed or not has yet to be seen, but it’s a challenge that has to be met as Tim Beddows acknowledges:
Now we’re competing for people’s time because that’s the valuable commodity. No-one has got much time, and when there’s so much content available – the iPlayer, Netflix, studios releasing stuff in the cinema, all these new productions that are going on – who’s got enough time? So you have to be very selective about it.
In either case, Network and Talking Pictures are dedicated to preserving their content for present and future audiences.
Old films Mr Spencer – classics you might say. I’ve saved ‘em for years. We used to run ‘em like this in the old days but not for years we haven’t done. Now it seems like old times again to me – Quill, The Smallest Show on Earth (Dearden, 1957)
In Basil Dearden’s 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth (a regular fixture in the Talking Pictures TV schedule) a young couple played by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna inherit a run-down, crumbling old cinema, the Bijou Kinema (nicknamed ‘the fleapit’). Along with it come three eccentric employees: Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the crotchety cashier; Mr Quill (Peter Sellers), the frequently inebriated projectionist; and Tom (Bernard Miles), the doddering old commissionaire and usher. When Mr Hardcastle, the canny owner of the Grand – the town’s much more impressive other cinema – offers to buy the Bijou so he can knock it down and create a car park, the young couple pretend to be serious about reopening it so that he will offer them more money. However, when Hardcastle finds out about their scheme and calls their bluff, they have little choice but to actually try to make a success of the cinema. A series of comic misadventures ensue, but just when all seems lost, the Bijou and its oddball staff work together to win the day.
Fans of British film will immediately recognise a familiar theme here, that of the band of plucky underdogs battling against the odds to ultimately triumph – though sometimes not, or often not as expected – against the powers that be. It runs through the National cinema from Passport to Pimlico (1949) to The Colditz Story (1955), from The Italian Job (1969) to The Full Monty (1997). It is, perhaps, therefore not surprising that the story of Talking Pictures TV has been seized upon by journalists and responded to so warmly by the public. The unlikely success story of a family-run independent TV channel operating out of a house in the Home Counties from its HQ in a garden shed, seems all of a piece with much of the content they show. The story of Network might be less well-known, but could also be described as an improbable success story. When Tim Beddows began his then one-man company, nobody else believed that public information films and the badly-dubbed Adventures of Robinson Crusoe were worth releasing. However, because he remembered them with fondness, he believed that there must be others who felt the same way. As a fan himself, he knew instinctively what other fans wanted to see, and this, perhaps, is a key factor in his company’s success. As he explained to me:
An archive isn’t simply a depository to put stuff in and lock the door. You have to find a way of unlocking it. And, although I don’t want to boast, I don’t think we get enough credit for this but most of this stuff would never have seen the light of day if it had not been for us intervening all those years ago and showing there is a market for it.
Paradoxically it is the new technology that is making it possible to open this cinematic window on the past. Digital technology has made it viable for Network to transfer, restore, and distribute old content that otherwise have languished in a dusty film can. That same technology has given Talking Pictures a platform to launch their own TV channel and enabled a mass audience to watch it. The rapid pace of technological change and the almost boundless levels of choice may be a long way from the nostalgic era portrayed, and yet it is these very innovations that enable so many to find their own alternative to the dominant mainstream.
Even the most up to date technology is not, of course, infallible. On Tuesday 10th July, a few days before I interviewed Sarah Cronin, there was a power cut in the Hertfordshire area that caused Talking Pictures TV to go off the air for five hours. In that short interval the Talking Pictures team estimated that they received somewhere in the region of a thousand emails and five hundred phone calls. These were not complaints, but rather viewers panicking that the channel, which they had come to rely on, might have gone off the air for good. This anecdote demonstrates as well as any statistic what Talking Pictures has come to mean for so many people. The channel may not, as Sarah Cronin acknowledged, have made a profit yet, but it’s already paying dividends in the value it gives to people’s lives.
But whether or not one is attracted by the warm glow of nostalgia or simply curiosity, the question remains – how does this growing enthusiasm for archive content affect both public and scholarly perspectives on British cinema and television of the past and does this increasing accessibility have the potential to change fixed views of the canon?
In the first part we saw how a large quantity of archive film and television content had been devalued and neglected by its owners, so creating an opening for Network and Renown/Talking Pictures to obtain the rights, restore it and allow the public to see this work once more. For instance, Tim Beddows of Network talked about how the Central Office of Public Information films were sitting in cans in an archive rack in limbo when he discovered them, waiting, most likely, to be disposed of. In the years since he rescued them and put them out on DVD, COI films have become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring newspaper articles, musicians, and even a memoir about their impact on children growing up in the 1970s called Scarred for Life. We also heard how the Butcher’s Film Services archive was literally rotting when Noel Cronin obtained ownership of it, and how, in the years since, this studio’s films have become a mainstay of the Renown Film Club and the Talking Pictures TV schedule.
In the second part we explored in more detail what this newly available content is and contrasted it with established, or what one might describe as currently static views of British film and television. Among the examples we explored were Network’s 14 volume Ealing Rarities series, amounting in total to over 50 films, some of them unseen since first release. This series has, for the first time, allowed people to see the full output of this iconic studio, whose well-known ‘comedies’, we can now see, were only a part of the story. Our study of the Talking Pictures schedule revealed that the majority of the channel’s programming is made up, not of popular classics, but of what were once termed ‘second features’ or B pictures, yet this in no way appears to put off the 2.5 appreciative viewers who tune in every week.
Lastly, we assessed the impact this wealth of archive availability is having on audiences, critical studies and the commercial marketplace. By exploring social media we got an insight into the audiences whose enthusiastic embrace of this material is driving the success of these two companies. We also heard how Talking Pictures and Network are helping film scholars to research those films, directors, and genres that have previously been marginalised in order to tell the full story of Britain’s cinematic past. And finally we assessed the challenges both companies face in the modern commercial landscape as other media players compete for the same audience.
From this research it is clear that British cinema and television of the past is more accessible than it ever has been before and is being watched, studied and discussed, perhaps in greater detail than it ever has been. Audience enthusiasm, backed by scholarly articles and the commercial imperative, is undoubtedly creating a new landscape of British film, and while how it affects the ‘canon’ remains largely to be seen, it is perhaps of even more importance that these rediscovered films and television shows now exist in public and academic consciousness. They are already being embraced in the broader spectrum of film studies, and they have re-entered into widespread public affection, which, after all, is what fuels public memory. Talking Pictures and Network have done a great service, then, to British film and British culture. They have given our memories back to us.
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One thought on “Buried Treasure: Rediscovering Britain’s Film and Television Past”
There’s one crime series originally made as cinema featurettes, call Stryker of the Yard (1953/54) starring Clifford Evans and George Woodbridge. 15 episodes were produced by Republic Pictures at Nettlefold Studios and some episodes were last shown on ATV during 1972. How good it would be to see this series again.
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