Jack Hawkins 2A 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!





Even today, when the majority of mainstream sports have switched allegiances to the pay-per-view big bucks of subscription satellite broadcasters, Saturdays still constitute the one odds-on cert of the week when those who resent their licence fee being squandered on sport get rather hot under the collar. Step back in time three or four decades, however, and we have all sporting events spread across the two BBC channels and ITV. Even the sports that the Digger’s empire has held the live rights of for so long that it’s hard to imagine them being screened on mainstream telly now – the most obvious being cricket – had to be assimilated into rather crammed schedules alongside the non-sporting shows. Makes you wonder how they managed it within such a narrow window, but they did.

And let us not forget that every Saturday, spanning the almighty broadcasting chasm from lunchtime to teatime, both BBC1 and ITV handed over roughly five hours to non-stop sport. ‘Grandstand’ and ‘World of Sport’ had complete control of that time slot, as fixed and set in stone as the school broadcasts were on weekdays. If it was one of those drizzly, dreary afternoons that kept the bike locked in the shed, what alternative was there on the box? An afternoon institution by the name of Saturday Cinema on BBC2 – the sole alternative; if you didn’t like sport, you were provided with a glorious cinematic education.

There was a rigid rule in place up until around the middle of the 1980s that kept films with a shorter vintage than five years away from TV screens – ‘Cabaret’, for example (released: 1972), didn’t receive its British television premiere until 1978. The way that British TV dealt with this embargo was to give the kiss of life to the Golden Age of Hollywood. At a time when monochrome shows from the 60s were being junked because nobody in television believed the public, who had forked-out small fortunes for colour TV sets, would tolerate black & white broadcasts anymore, Saturday afternoons on BBC2 were a sanctuary for movies that spurned Technicolor in favour of a lush cinematography that manufactured a unique illusion of the real world in fifty shades of silver, one unlike anything on offer in the expensive disaster blockbusters at the local fleapit.

For those of us who hadn’t lived through the realities of the 30s and 40s, the interpretation of it that we garnered from Saturday Cinema was of fire escapes on the sides of buildings, hats on every head, Art Deco automobiles, raincoats, tuxedos, cigarette holders, Bourbon-on-the rocks, neon lights flashing through venetian blinds, shoeshine boys, speakeasy clubs with dancing-girls, black pianists and chanteuses in sequins, streetwise dames who gave as good as they got, and fast-talking, snarling guys who spoke in a slang that had the infectious rhythm of jazz, guys who’d shoot first and ask questions later.

The look was as startlingly distinctive as the dialogue, as was the music – stabbing strings that emphasised the intensity of the melodrama during the final scene; and someone always died in the final scene. These films opened with the credits and concluded with a simple ‘The End’; they rarely ran longer than ninety minutes; they lifted the young viewer out of the genuine horrors played out on TV news broadcasts and into a parallel past with comforting archetypes and clearly-defined boundaries that were easier to understand, not to mention far more seductive. The women were beautiful and the men were handsome because the cinematographers spent hours lighting the set before shooting actually began; this really was cinema as an art form, utterly separate from reality and re-imagining the world in a way that only the graphic novel is capable of doing in the 21st century.

The incredible on-screen presence of Cagney and Bogart or Crawford and Davis is a world away from the studied mumbling of contemporary movie icons. These were actors who had paid their dues on stage and always carried their voices to the back-row. They predated the Method, but the curious caricatures of real people they played seem just as authentic as the Method because they make perfect sense in the artificial construct of reality they inhabit – just as nobody in a comic book thinks it remotely odd that musclemen in tights engage in fisticuffs that leave their streets resembling war-zones. Who pays for the damage when the Incredible Hulk has a punch-up with the Thing? Who cares?

Children stumbled upon classic cinema in the 70s and 80s because there were no TV alternatives on a Saturday afternoon. Now there are, and it’d be interesting to see how many movie stars from the 30s or 40s any child today could name. Would they recognise Edward G Robinson or Barbara Stanwyck? Would they even recognise Laurel and Hardy? Some of these old stars were still alive when I was a child – and occasionally turned-up in a toupee on ‘Parkinson’; but a lot of them were long-dead. They were before my time, but of my time as well.

In a fragmented television landscape where anything other than talent contests, quiz shows, antique treasure hunts, house conversions and ‘maverick detectives’ hunting down serial killers have been reduced to niche interests and ghettoised via specialist channels, a child would have to seek out these movies now; I didn’t. A paucity of choice actually brought the viewer into contact with programmes only the converted would make the effort to track down today. I welcome the theoretical availability of choice in terms of channel numbers, but I’d like there to be a little more choice within the channels I can receive, not a schedule designed solely to give me more of what I’m already familiar with.

Hope has appeared, however, in the shape of a newcomer to the overcrowded digital TV landscape called Talking Pictures TV, which specializes in precisely this kind of celluloid entertainment; it’s already collected quite a cult following, which is encouraging. The world of ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘White Heat’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Mildred Pierce’ remains as entertaining an alternative to what’s outside the window as any the 20th century invented. And still a bloody good alternative to sport.

© The Editor