Alexander Armstrong: Hurray for repeats

"I love telly at this time of year. You see, I love watching old television"


Now is the season when it’s traditional to complain about telly; we’re in the dog days of the transmission year, when only repeats and the odd live sporting event keep the schedules ticking over. But any day now, the greatest and best of the glamorous world of TV commissioning will mooch up to Edinburgh for their annual pep talk, then spring back with renewed vigour to launch a shiny new year of telly in September.


These long summer days of 5am dawns and 9pm twilights are when dazzling casts are sent out into the fields to gather in the ripe programming that’s been tip-tapping on computer keyboards throughout the dark months. When the nights are drawing in and winter’s bite is at its cruellest, we shall broach the casks of summer 2014 and gorge on the fecund delights of new sitcoms, classic adaptations and edgy dramas until the grease runs off our chins. But for now, we must be patient. Or maybe explore some of those channels down at the murky depths of the satellite listings.

I love telly at this time of year. The schedules in August are like offices in August: pared down, but in a way that – dare I say it – sometimes makes you wonder why it couldn’t be like this all the time. You see, the thing I’ll always love watching on television is old television. I’ll always love repeats, and an archive show I’ll love even more – any show with a date in its title preceded by the words “I Love…” – but if the gods are truly smiling, you get that glorious total eclipse: a repeat of an archive show.

I caught one the other day and for a giddy moment was baffled by the inclusion of so many contributors who have either died or gone to Hollywood. And then I got it, oh the exquisite irony: this show was made in 1999 and these wry postmodern commentators have now become archive themselves. It was like a programme from one of the nearer greying segments in the infinite crescent of reflection between two mirrors.

Nothing makes you feel the wind of progress whistle through your hair more keenly than watching television from even the recent past. No other medium is on such a mad curve of constant improvement. I have never felt more modern in my life than I did during the 1980s. Listening to Human League’s Dare while trying to write programming for a BBC computer – this was Tomorrow’s World now. But watch any footage from the 80s – say, a Blackadder repeat or a programme about the miners’ strike – and you see quite how primitive it all really was.

With the fuzzy video and the homely tick of old studio mics, it might as well have been filmed under- water. I would go so far as to say that colour footage from the post-Falklands Thatcher era feels even more dated than black-and-white archive. (I Love 1887…, for example, in which Christina Rossetti and Paul Ross make scabrous comments about Queen Victoria’s

Golden Jubilee, is still as fresh as a daisy…)
But with TV now digitally pure and crisp, when we look back in the future what will make us cringe at how hellishly 2014 it all looks? Maybe it’ll be our antiquated insistence on not wearing silver boiler suits or our accents will seem outmodedly British, or that programmes didn’t simulcast in smell.

We’ll just have to wait till 2034 to find out…

Switch on for a virtual festival

I’m not going to make it up to Edinburgh this year, but I’ll still get my fix of Auld Reekie via the schedules of BBC radio. Full festival round-up, lunchtime concerts, even Loose Ends — it’s everything apart from the hangover.


Alexander Armstrong presents Pointless Celebrities, Saturday, and Pointless, Monday-Friday BBC1.