For RT guest editor Mark Gatiss, “It brings back the comforting taste of oxtail soup and being off school.” Vic Reeves reveals, “I jumped up and down when I discovered it.” Broadcasting legend Danny Baker adds, “It’s just what Logie Baird had in mind when he legged it down to the patent office.”
The august trio – aged, not insignificantly, between 50 and 60 – are rhapsodising about Talking Pictures TV, the near-militantly nostalgic film network that found a gap in the multichannel market two years ago and now draws 1.3 million viewers a week. The channel offers a 24-hour diet of entertainment from simpler, more polite times, bringing together British B-movies with American TV anthologies and orphaned drama from the vaults of defunct regional ITV franchise Southern Television.
It seems a quaint niche venture, but, as any old 1950s Ealing detective ought to have said, it might just work. The channel seems to have exposed a generational fissure in British tastes while tending to the forgotten needs of more senior viewers.
While modern cinema-goers of an adolescent temperament are lured into foyers with the big brand promise of Dwayne Johnson, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, this growing contingent of more mature film fans get a tingle at the thought of Donald Wolfit, Peggy Mount and Eric Portman. Personally, if I switch on Talking Pictures TV and see character stalwart Percy Herbert, ideally holding a rifle, resistance is futile.
For Reeves, who these days prefers a quiet night in to a Big Night Out, it’s gap-toothed cad Terry-Thomas who hits the spot. “Specifically in the likes of School for Scoundrels and The Green Man,” he enthuses.
He once found himself bidding in a memorabilia auction against a certain rock star for Terry-Thomas’s cigarette holder and monocle. “Phil Collins got them, but then said I could have them anyway!”
Mark Gatiss has a soft spot for “the wonderful” Colin Gordon, most likely seen playing civil servants between VE Day and the era of Ted Heath. “I simply adore him. He was No 2 in The Prisoner twice and spent a career playing weak-willed establishment men who always looked like they had ulcers.”
If, like me, you grew up watching gentle British comedies and heist capers foiled without firearms in a pre-video, three-channel age, you are now being served. We who do not put old films in the same bracket as rickets and rationing have been largely ignored since the cable revolution.
TCM, the most recognised oldies network, has been mining a library dominated by MGM and Warners oldies since 1994, but its line-up is rarely surprising or obscure. The Sky and Sony channels are not in the business of neglected B-pictures, and Movies4Men has self-evident gender restrictions.
Talking Pictures TV launched on 26 May 2015 and RT began listing it last month, responding to an enthusiastic lobby from readers. It’s run by Sarah Cronin-Stanley, whose father Noel was a mover and shaker in the 1960s British film industry. He founded distribution company Dandelion (subsequently Renown), from which the bulk of the channel’s treasures derive. Father and daughter noticed dwindling demand among mainstream broadcasters for their catalogue and so decided to cut out the middle man.
The only downside to this quiet, bouffant-and-pipe-tobacco revolution is the lack of hours in the day. Rather than rotate half a dozen titles over a week, TPTV offers one new-old film every two hours, round the clock.
“The whole channel is an absolute joy,” eulogises Gatiss. “It’s sensitively curated and features just the right balance of classics, lost gems and wonderful schlock. The only danger is you’ll never leave the house again.”
Baker concurs, “My Sky Planner is full of Talking Pictures output.” He offers a story that typifies the joy of discovery. “The other day I was setting the timer for a Gert and Daisy vehicle [comedy characters played by Elsie and Doris Waters] and got absolutely hooked on the 1953 thriller Operation Diplomat, which was on at the time. Within one scene, it held more intrigue and promise than any CGI-bombastic blockbuster trailer I’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
Vic Reeves has even gone as far with his fandom as to take over the schedules on Sunday 23 July. As he provided insight into films from The Flying Deuces (1939) to Villain (1971), you could effectively live inside Vic’s head for 14 hours straight.
Prepare yourself for a place where police cars have bells, not sirens, secretaries boast about getting jobs because they have “nice legs” and Technicolor is as much a luxury as an imported orange.