A very early post on here – albeit one which had been ‘remixed’ following a previous appearance elsewhere – discussed the appeal of old monochrome movies during their BBC2 heyday as a Saturday afternoon alternative to sport; the title of said post escapes me, but I recall it was illustrated with an iconic shot of the young Lauren Bacall, and it’s one that continues to attract visitors to this day. I seem to recall it contained a recommendation in the comments section to check out what was then a fledgling digital channel called Talking Pictures TV. Once this obscure channel (abbreviated to TPTV) eventually became available on the Free View service and began to be featured in the bewildering labyrinth of Radio Times listings, I decided I’d check it out. Familiar with archive channels stretching all the way back to the cable era of the 90s, I expected the usual narrow range of obvious vintage shows that are routinely wheeled-out on an endlessly repeated loop. What a pleasant surprise, therefore, to discover some of TPTV’s prime-time programmes include the likes of ‘Public Eye’ with Alfred Burke, ‘Justice’ with Margaret Lockwood, and ‘Maigret’ with Rupert Davies.
Of the this trio, ‘Public Eye’ I know and love via the DVD box-set (and have indeed penned a post on it), ‘Justice’ I remember from childhood (mainly due to Ms Lockwood’s beauty spot) but hadn’t seen since then, and ‘Maigret’ I’d heard of but never seen at all. However, what all three have in common is an extended exile from the schedules of the mainstream television channels they once served as reliable ratings-pullers. I shouldn’t imagine any have been sighted on BBC1, BBC2 or ITV for the best part of half-a-century; I certainly can’t remember them being rerun in my lifetime. Now that BBC4 appears to have thrown the towel in as a refuge for the malnourished TV intellect and has been reduced to a repeat channel, I would’ve thought one or all of the trio might have been given an outing simply because they’re not as over-familiar as so many of the archive shows exhumed in the absence of new programmes. But BBC4’s loss is TPTV’s gain, and the station has now also started to rerun ‘Crown Court’, another fondly-recalled series that has been a notable absentee from digital schedules since the distant days of Legal TV.
What strikes me, as it so often does when viewing TV dramas produced in the 60s or 70s, is how ‘grown-up’ so many of them are; of course, today’s television executives appear to labour under the misapprehension that this description equates with sex and swearing, the predictable post-watershed ‘freedom of expression’ that sometimes seems to be shoehorned into a 9pm mini-series as a convenient distraction from the lack of both engaging characters and storylines. But the phrase has a different meaning when applied to these vintage shows, most of which treat the audience as though it has a level of intelligence a tad higher than that of a child with special needs. The viewer is required – and able – to pay attention without being bombarded by MTV-style fast-cutting that can often give the impression one is watching a trailer for the programme rather than the actual programme itself.
Not only are the plots and dialogue of archive shows generally of a smarter standard, but a hallmark of these dramas is the abundance of memorable characters who might appear in a solitary episode or merely the one scene; many make the kind of impact that could easily have led to them being singled out for a spin-off series, but they never were. By contrast, it’s increasingly difficult to remember or even care about the characters that clog-up their contemporary equivalents. I’ve sat through many a Sunday night drama in recent years and most were forgotten the moment the final credits sped past. But they’ve become such a part of television’s dramatic wallpaper over the past couple of decades that I suppose the audience is now so conditioned to their tropes that an accidental encounter with a different kind of dramatic animal might provoke confusion. With this in mind, the presentation of the gems excavated by TPTV usually comes with a pre-broadcast warning that they might actually contain language, terminology and references that could shock or offend modern sensibilities, ones that evidently have no problem with the word ‘fuck’ but might be triggered by a brief snippet of commonplace 70s slang that is now verboten in polite society. To be fair, these are few and far between and pretty mild to say the least; they’re certainly not in the same league as the litany of unrepeatable insults that once littered the likes of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’.
Perhaps one reason why these shows still work in comparison to their forgettable successors is the writers of them were able to draw on a vast and varied life experience that had brought them into contact with a wide range of characters they could then recreate on screen; none of these scribes attended ‘creative writing’ courses in order to learn how to pen formulaic scripts peppered with two-dimensional ciphers for the current ideology; few even attended university. Instead, they’d done a variety of jobs beforehand or had enjoyed/endured military service, either reluctantly or voluntarily; or they may have simply absorbed the rich lingo of a working-class upbringing, as Tony Warren did when he created ‘Coronation Street’ and placed many an unforgettable line in the mouth of Ena Sharples – a towering character of such vivid, flesh-and-blood believability she seems virtually Shakespearean when stood alongside the cardboard cut-outs that provide ‘soaps’ with their production-line archetypes today.
Talking Pictures TV doesn’t just offer a welcome window for the shows that mainstream television forgot, however; its speciality is the motion picture, though here too there is a refreshing lack of the usual suspects. Not only does it have a Saturday morning slot for all those long-buried cinema serials that kept more than one generation of un-chaperoned kids entertained for several hours at the local fleapit, it also gives rare screen-time to a wealth of British movies produced in the 50s that feature a cast of once-notable mainstays both major and minor. That ever-dependable embodiment of stiff-upper lip, old-school Englishness with a square jaw to match, Jack Hawkins, is an ever-present in such films, but so are character actors whose careers stretched into the rep company of 70s British TV such as Glyn Houston, Sydney Tafler and John Stratton. Although immediate post-war British cinema devoted a sizeable chunk of its output to re-telling many stories from WWII – and has acquired a retrospective reputation for being something of a one-trick pony as a consequence – what TPTV does so well is remind the viewer that contemporary crime was as much a source of material as recent military conflict. Moreover, it provides the evidence that Ealing Studios didn’t merely produce its celebrated comedies.
The 50s British B movies – or to use a kinder term, the support pictures – that TPTV screens are enjoyable for numerous reasons, though it’s often the decor that gives a clearer picture of the way life was lived before many of us arrived. It’s in the heavyweight Bakelite telephones, the buildings blackened by a century of industrial discharge, the vanished street furniture of the era, the men in their mac-and-hat ensembles, and the constant fog of smoke from both cigarettes and chimneys. Some of that survived into my own childhood, but for a 21st century boy or girl tuning-in, the Britain of this period must be like looking at transmissions from another planet; were I teenager today, however, I’d find that alien quality part of the appeal. Maybe some do, though I wouldn’t know. All I do know is that I, like many others, have found Talking Pictures TV to be a true alternative to a TV landscape cluttered with more and more of the same so-called choice of viewing; and long may there be an alternative. We need it.
© The Editor
PS: Upon publishing this post, I was informed it was the 1,000th Winegum post. Fancy that!
5 thoughts on “THE BEST OF BRITISH”
And a very worthy 1000th post too.
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Many thanks! I had no idea I’d clocked-up 999 before pressing the ‘publish’ button for this one.
Congratulations on a ‘grand’ record of eclectic postings. With a bit more practice, you could get quite good at this. . . .
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I’m working on it…
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Thank you, and congratulations on a thousand posts.
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