❉ In this digital TV age, where choice is supposedly everywhere, why is old TV so hard to find? Steve O’Brien investigates.
“For most viewers, the distant past of TV is frustratingly out of touch. While it’s possible to be a radio junkie and stumble across not just the joys of the Beatles and the Stones, but Nick Drake and Wire, there’s no such opportunity for telly-curious millennials….”
There is, admittedly, a universe and a half of difference in how TV looks now to how it did 40 years ago. To the a modern-day viewer, raised on the cinematic ambitions and galloping pace of Game of Thrones or Line of Duty, old telly looks rather like filmed theatre, a stagey, frills-three recording of a night at the Old Vic. Watch any primetime drama of the 1970s and you’ll see dialogue-thick scenes lasting five, ten, 15 minutes sometimes. To viewers under the age of 30 TV of that era must look as exotic and mysterious as silent movies did to their parents.
At the beginning of the 1980s there were, of course, only four channels to choose from. But in today’s bounteous digital era, the numbers run deep into the hundreds. You’d think that explosion of channels would gift us greater choice, that our vast televisual heritage would be but a click away. But no. Television’s past, it seems, is further away than it ever was. Granted, there are channels, deep into Sky’s box listings, that exist purely to screen long-forgotten curios from the dustiest, darkest corners of the archives, but, while much respect to Talking Pictures TV or True Entertainment, there’s little thirst for repeats of Public Eye, Dick Barton: Special Agent or The Human Jungle. Anyhow, these are niche channels, with miniscule budgets and tiny viewing figures. You have to already be sympathetic to the pleasures of elderly TV and movies to even know they’re there.
But what of the vast array of other TV oldies in the vaults? Classic TV junkies have access to some of it (there are dedicated DVD outfits like Network and Simply Media that specialise in this stuff), but – again – you have to have already been seduced by antique television to then shed out £9.99 on it.
There’s a narrow canon of popular vintage TV that’s currently the only pre-1990 content you can see on the tentpole digital channels. Once upon a time, Gold (or UK Gold as it was then) was a place where you could seek out archive gems not repeated in a generation – Doomwatch, The Lotus Eaters, Survivors, Secret Army – but now it simply exists to house wall-to-wall repeats of the established favourites – Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Opens All Hours et al – series that already have a welcome home on the terrestrial channels. More arcane sitcoms – John Sullivan’s Sitting Pretty, Clement and La Frenais’ Thick As Thieves, Galton and Simpson’s Citizen James, as just three examples – remain unseen since their first transmissions.
It’s not just a problem with traditional channels. The vast majority of Netflix’s TV programming are either box-fresh hits like Happy Valley or Benidorm or shows from the same small pool as Gold, Watch and Dave fish from. The hope of ever seeing Q (Spike Milligan’s loopy sketch show that Monty Python admit was their biggest influence), Z-Cars (the template of which has informed every police drama to come after it) or A Very Peculiar Practice (possibly writer Andrew Davies’ greatest ever drama) seems very distant.
There was hope when the BBC announced the opening of BBC Store. Launched in 2015, it was cooked into existence to put some of the corporation’s vast library onto the open market. There were pearls there, many not seen for 30, 40 years. A smattering of Dennis Potter plays, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the nightmare-inducing 80s rabies drama The Mad Death, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads… Finally, without the overheads of producing physical media, there was a place that allowed us to see some of these obscure treasures. Yet last year, BBC Store announced its closure. With the rest of the media world going streaming crazy, BBC Store looked like an anachronism, with its digital buy-to-own MO.
For most viewers, the distant past of TV is frustratingly out of touch. While it’s possible to be a radio junkie and stumble across not just the joys of the Beatles and the Stones, but Nick Drake and Wire, there’s no such opportunity for telly-curious millennials.
“The very act of ‘stumbling across something’ on television is dying out,” says Jack Kibble-White, one of the founders of the nostalgia site, TV Cream. “Viewers today make active choices on what they want to watch, which means they pick stuff they know, or believe will be like stuff they have previously like. And where they are happy to stumble across something, it’s via an interface that serves them up recommendations based upon what they have previously watched. Television consumption, like all things in the digital age, is increasingly becoming an echo chamber of only seeing and hearing stuff that is similar to those things you’ve seen and heard before.”
It wasn’t always like this. In 1993, BBC2 hosted a whole evening devoted to programmes made in its Lime Grove studios in the 1960s. In 1986 BBC1 put on an entire season of scratchy Hancock’s Half Hours, most of them over a quarter of a century old, on Sunday evenings. Repeats of Harold Pinter’s 1962 TV play The Lover and Jack Rosenthal’s Ready When You Are, Mr McGill were screened as part of Channel Four’s Frank Muir-curated TV Heaven season on Saturday nights in 1992.
Theatre productions are, of course, regularly restaged. A play by Terence Rattigan or Peter Shaffer has an infinite life in the theatre, but there are television plays and serials by Dennis Potter, by David Mercer, by Alan Bleasdale, by Alan Garner, that exist only in the BBC or ITV archives (if they survived at all – much old TV was wiped in the 1960s and 70s). They may not have the marquee-friendly title of a Pennies from Heaven or a Boys from the Blackstuff, but they’re still vital, relevant work. There’s currently nowhere where you can see Barry Hines’ 1977 play, The Price of Coal. Dennis Potter’s Blackeyes has never been repeated, nor granted a VHS or DVD release, since it was broadcast in 1989.
“Showing old TV isn’t as cheap as people suppose so it can be a risk,” says Dick Fiddy, TV consultant for the British Film Institute. “The risk is lessened if you show something within the last 20 years as it’s in comparatively recent memory. Also it will be of a better technical quality and may even be in the modern ratio.”
The vast aesthetic jump from television’s old standard of 625 lines to the now dominant 1080p and the encroaching 4k means that older programming sits more and more incongruously on our evermore sophisticated screens. When we were watching 4×3-shaped 625-line television in the 1980s and ’90s and a black and white repeat from television’s 405-line days came on, the difference was marked but, on the whole, we could deal with it. But no channel now would ever schedule an episode of Dixon of Dock Green next to a gleaming high-def copy of Line of Duty – the difference in picture quality is too jarring.
Things are getting better, however. The BBC’s iPlayer, as a reaction to the closing down of BBC Store, has begin to house more and more period content in their From The Archive section. Clearly curated by a team who know their TV stuff, it occasionally throws up some obscure jewels, but with only 449 programmes currently available, it’s but a tiny dip into the corporation’s vast library.
“Complete access to the archive is the Holy Grail and I do believe there has been some movement towards that,” says Fiddy. “But the access won’t be free. It’s an expensive business and isn’t currently covered by advertising revenue or the licence fee.”
One possible reason for all this is that television watching has long-been thought of as a rather worthless cultural pursuit, the poor fourth leisure activity behind books, theatre and the cinema. People don’t label themselves TV fans with the same sense of chest-puffing pride as film fans do. It requires a bit of justification, so people don’t just think you’re talking about Call The Midwife and Bake Off. For those into this stuff, the BFI stages regular screenings of long-unseen programmes (notably their Missing Believed Wiped seasons). But, as Fiddy notes, the differences in production technique require a bit of context for younger eyes.
“The different pacing, the style of studio drama are all things very alien now,” he says. “Once people have got over the initial ‘difference’ of the material they seem okay. A tiny bit of explanation goes a long way. Of course there’s benefits in absorbing culture from the past, whether literature, film, music of TV. That realisation that certain ideas, philosophies, concerns, obsessions have a kind of universality that transcends their time is illuminating. TV in particular – with its ephemeral nature – does a very good job of holding a mirror up to its times and giving us a greater understanding of the way people thought and behaved in the past and how that impacts on the present and will impact on the future.”
“I do think the general public’s appetite to old TV has changed and will continue to change,” says Kibble-White. “Twenty to 30 years ago, older programmes sat relatively easily in the television schedules alongside newer programmes and their function – like all telly – was to provide entertainment and/or information. The archive programming that remains (such as Top of the Pops repeats on BBC Four) is usually explicitly contextualised as something from a previous era, meaning the audience comes to in a historical context, rather than just consumes it as they would any other show. This inevitably creates a distance between the viewer and the archive programme they are watching.”
There is hope that things may be changing however. In November last year, the BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, announced plans to launch the corporation’s very own paid-for on-demand service. “We are looking at ways… to allow people to access the back catalogue [in a way] that costs something because you pay for that access,” Hall said. Of course, the question is how far-reaching is this range of programmes likely to be? While there’s an obvious need for a central hub to access its most popular shows, would the BBC want its 2019 brand contaminated with programming of a different vintage, with a different aesthetic and production values? We can be sure that Sherlock will be on this new streaming site, but what about the surviving episodes of the Beeb’s 1965 Sherlock Holmes series? The new Doctor Who will no doubt be on there, but what about any William Hartnell episodes? Let’s hope they dig deep and wide for their content. This isn’t about nostalgia, this is about heritage.
❉ Steve O’Brien is a film and television journalist, and the co-writer (with Simon Guerrier) of ‘Doctor Who: Whographica: An Infographic Guide to Space and Time’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Slayer Stats’. Follow Steve on Twitter
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