With the wide variety of television channels now available it is possible to see a wide variety of films from the 1940s onwards (and even, occasionally, one earlier: the 30s films of the Marx Brothers have recently shown on one of our comedy channels). Films back to the beginning of features just over 100 years ago can be viewed and celebrated, and in the case of silent cinema, new scores and restorations maintain interest. If you go back to the birth of cinema it is still possible to engage with works back to 1895.
For older television, though, the picture is far different. There are some repeat screenings on TV for the likes of Dad’s Army (1968-1978), the Blackadder series (1983-1989), Lovejoy (1986-1994), One Foot in the Grave (1990-1995), Porridge (1974-1977), and the revered Pride and Prejudice (1995). Largely, though, with the exception of cult favourites Doctor Who (1963-1989) and The Avengers (1961-1969), archive TV series are restricted to DVD and Blu-Ray releases aimed at small groups of enthusiasts, or screenings at the likes of the BFI Southbank or events such as those set up by organisations like Kaleidoscope, dedicated to the preservation and sharing of classic material.
Let’s consider the definition of ‘archive television’. Assuming that the earliest examples of TV broadcasts available in either the UK or the US are from the 1940s (or more likely the 1950s), the term probably encompasses material up to the turn of the century, 2000. I first found myself interested in older examples of period drama in the VHS age, while simultaneously drinking in the chance to see material such as the work of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (1965-1966), Monty Python (1969-1974), and the aforementioned Avengers.
For me as a lover of classic cinema, I like to follow the careers of performers, writers and directors in all mediums. If the likes of Michael Powell, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach made material for TV, I want to assess it alongside their more showy film output. I want to see the early US versions of material which had a second life in cinema remakes (Bang The Drum Slowly, Marty, Judgment at Nuremberg, Requiem for a Heavyweight).
I want to see small scale material featuring my favourite cinema stars (Richard Harris in The Snow Goose, Richard Burton in The Gathering Storm, Alec Guinness and Lauren Bacall in A Foreign Field, Peter O’Toole in The Dark Angel, Oliver Reed in The Debussy Film, Dan Dailey in The Four Just Men, John Mills in The Zoo Gang, Rex Harrison in Platinov, Judi Dench in Talking to a Stranger). I discovered Play for Today just after I had lived through the marvellous era of Film on Four, Screen One and Two, Performance, and Without Walls.
If people miss out on black and white TV purely because it is not in colour, they’re missing out on not just The Forsyte Saga (1967) but also two superior Sherlock Holmes series (1954 and 1965), the gritty early episodes of Z-Cars (started 1962), the Northern cobble saga of Coronation Street (1960- ), science fiction like Out of the Unknown (1965-1971), comedy like The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960), early music shows like Beat Club (1965-1972) and Ready Steady Go (1963-1966), and plays like Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) and The Wednesday Play (1964-1970) (where many cinema directors and performers cut their teeth).
I read on an archive TV forum today that there is little chance of a wide population being interested in this stuff because it is only of interest to small and discrete cults. I disagree – the releasing schedules of the likes of Network, Acorn, Simply, DD, Delta, Second Sight, and more have shown there is an appetite for the likes of Roots (1977), The Lotus Eaters (1972-1973), Lost Empires (1986), Hancock’s Half Hour (1956-1961,which I discovered from TV repeats in the 90s that would likely not happen now), Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Pipkins (1973-1981), Elizabeth R (1971), I Claudius (1976), Two’s Company (1975-1979), Crown Court (1972-1984), Public Eye (1965-1975), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988, which does get regular repeats, still), Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978), and Marriage Lines (1963-1966).
Interest in these titles is not exclusive. One may enjoy Widows as much as Rock Follies, Callan as much as Emmerdale Farm, Steptoe and Son as much as Justice, Outside Edge as much as Mr Rose, The New Avengers as much as The Duchess of Duke Street, Poldark as much as The Singing Detective. You may see a different side of a favourite performer by reaching back to their earlier work, or appreciate a fledgling writer’s lesser known screenplays.
While one can still enjoy and appreciate (although with increasing difficulty, often requiring a need to purchase DVD material or assess material via the grey market of YouTube, bootlegs, or torrents) a range of films made for the cinema, archive TV is often derided as cinema’s poor relation, stilted, badly made, unwatchable for recent generations. This is simply not true – yes, not everything is great, but this is also true of material released to the big screen, and one person’s highlights will be another’s rubbish.
Much of it prior to the 1980s is not simply unavailable, but lost due to videotape wiping. In comparison to films from the same era so much has gone – although perhaps not forever, as material does occasionally come back to join the creative ranks once more. You may have to dig hard to locate some material, but there is pleasure in the chase and the discovery of something fresh and new.
So I would say to you if you come across this post and like the old films for their performances, direction, charm, humour, tension or entertainment – you may be pleasantly surprised if you make the acquaintance of the material made for the days where a TV screen was the size of a postage stamp. For me much of this programming is ground-breaking, well-written, beautifully made, and intelligent material.
Don’t let this material disappear to become the preserve only of an elitist group who are ageing and, in the words of some of them, becoming more split into cult factions. Don’t let the huge fandom of Doctor Who swallow up the recovery and rehabilitation of other contemporary material. Don’t allow TV to become isolated as a present and ephemeral medium unable to set itself within the canon of the past. Discover and celebrate the material broadcast on the small screens of the golden age of television and, like me, you might never look back.