by Bill Hartley
Anyone in search of tedious game shows, threadbare repeats and sales of junk jewellery is well catered for on British television. The sheer number of channels is bewildering and difficult to navigate. More means worse but persistence can pay off and for those willing to work their way through the wilderness of multiple channels there is one gem to be found.
‘The past is another country they do things differently there’: the quotation might well have been written for the Talking Pictures channel (Freeview 81), which has been in operation for three years. Welcome to a world close in time yet which shows how enormously life in this country (and indeed in the United States) has changed. Everyday life, manners, opinions and prejudices are perfectly preserved on film. In an era of on demand television and encouragement to binge on box sets, this channel takes us back to an era when cinema dominated and television was the new upstart.
Talking Pictures provides an entry into a half forgotten world; a place where information, plot and dialogue mattered even if much of it now seems amateurish to the modern viewer. It features British and American pictures from the thirties up to the seventies, augmented by public information films and television shows from the fifties and sixties. There are hard bitten cops, bomb damaged British streets but a sense that institutions are still solid and reliable. Here, you will find Green Line buses, incessant smoking, tail coated waiters and unrefrigerated beer.
The quality varies. On the same day as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) was shown, Silver Fleet (1943), a creaky wartime propaganda piece starring Ralph Richardson, was also featured. Whilst the Nazis had by then been demonised in British cinema, the director came up with a novel way of making them seem worse. During a scene memorable for the wrong reasons, a senior Nazi is depicted with truly vile table manners. It is so hypnotically awful that the trance is only broken when the actor reaches for a napkin.
Whilst the channel shows plenty of forgettable B movies, look beyond the stilted dialogue and the suspect plots into a London of foggy streets, seedy boarding houses and street musicians. Detectives drive through light traffic in shiny black Austins and Rileys. People pull over to park with little difficulty and ladies wear hats in restaurants. In Unpublished Story (1942), Valerie Hobson and Richard Green stoically maintain their conversation whilst German bombs fall on London. Eventually this intrudes and Hobson comments; ‘I used to think war was something that happened to soldiers, sailors, airmen and….. foreigner’s’. As a concession to the mayhem in the East End, they replace their headgear with steel helmets when leaving the restaurant.
From across the Atlantic come films starring such forgotten actors as Broderick Crawford, one of the heaviest of the heavies. Whilst British detectives were restrained and professional, their US counterparts had cynicism as part of the job description. ‘Who’s the pigeon?’ Crawford asks of the corpse lying on a rain soaked street. Crawford was never leading man material but he looked as if he could sock someone on the jaw. Talking Pictures doesn’t overlook the ladies either. Some were once household names but are now almost forgotten, except by film buffs: a tearful Susan Hayward or perhaps the superb Barbara Stanwyk, baddest of the Bad Girls. The latter, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), pushes her aunt down the stairs and then tries to persuade her boyfriend to kill her husband. The Bad Girls were always blonde and invariably smoked.
The channel also shows BFI ‘Shorts’, which hark back to a time when a visit to the cinema comprised a full evening’s entertainment. Often these are films telling the British about themselves both at work and play. One of these covers the Lancashire cotton industry and a huge amount of detail is crammed into just fifteen minutes. Evidently the film makers presumed that the viewer would take an intelligent interest and possessed sufficient attention span. In the 1940s, there was no sense of dumbing down or of patronising an audience. The commentator notes approvingly that many of those depicted are descendants of people who were working in the industry when Crompton’s spinning jenny was invented. Elsewhere we see the British braving the weather at a seaside resort, sitting on deckchairs beneath grey skies whilst their children in woollen swimsuits risk hypothermia in the chilly sea.
In the immediate post war era, the British liked to see films about themselves. This was exploited in Holiday Camp (1947) in which various characters arrive onsite. The wily businessman Billy Butlin loaned his camp at freezing Filey for filming. It’s worth watching to see what people were prepared to endure. The dining room looks as relaxed as a communal meal in a prison and single men and women were accommodated in sorry chalets with complete strangers. The impression is of military accommodation for civilians. It is the respectability of the ‘campers’ which enables so many strangers to coexist in harmony; the exception being Dennis Price masquerading as a squadron leader, whilst hiding from the law. Sporting a double breasted blazer and cravat, he is as inconspicuous as a peacock in a hen house.
Much of the output comes from the long defunct Merton Park studios in South Wimbledon. Having begun by making second feature films, the studio moved into what is now a staple of British television, the crime show. Then, as now, true crime is an audience puller and none more so than the Scotland Yard series which began in the early fifties. Each show was introduced by the suave and slightly sinister Edgar Lustgarten, talking on camera from what appears to be his study. His introductions were generally underpinned by the same theme: criminals might be clever but tended to overlook some vital detail which would eventually be noticed. The omniscient detective (always well attired) would fetch up in some distant part of the country to lend his expertise to the baffled locals. Junior officers would be despatched to undertake Herculean tasks without any thought for their welfare, a crisp ‘very good sir’ being their parting comment. Both detectives and criminals always wore a collar and tie and with the villain arrested, it fell to Lustgarten to end the show, often remarking with satisfaction that the outcome was the gallows.
Each episode provided a sense that all was right with the world once more and that order had been restored. Public officials may not have been any better then than now but they looked and acted as if they were. This is a world of once recognisable types: well-meaning vicars, bossy landladies, and sinister colonels who live in country houses. A world where both criminals and detectives wishing to remain inconspicuous will stand on otherwise empty streets wearing a trench coat whilst pretending to read a newspaper. Some transatlantic glamour was sometimes provided by an unknown American actor as an entertaining foil to the stuffy British.
This harmless channel has unhappily attracted the attention of Ofcom. Failing to appreciate that films made early in the last century tend to come with political incorrectness as standard, the maiden aunts at Ofcom have criticised the channel for ‘dated racial comments’, overlooking it’s mission to cover film history. Thankfully, Talking Pictures has thus far ignored this criticism.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire
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