Radio Times cover

Cinema and television have developed a curious relationship which over the years has blossomed into a strange form of sibling rivalry. The pair are repeatedly waging war for the hearts and minds of viewers; whenever annoying little brother TV starts acting up and getting all the attention, Cinema is quick to cry “it’s not fair!” and then hits him over the head with a pair of 3d specs when Mother’s not looking. However like the best squabbling brothers, should Cousin Radio or Uncle Theatre proclaim them both to be vapid idiots, they will rapidly form a united front. And when it comes to the new arrival in the Media Family, little Baby Internet, the pair stick together so tightly you couldn’t squeeze a post card between ‘em…

But in recent years, the dynamics of their relationship has started to alter significantly. After their initial bickering in the ‘50s when the cathode ray tube started making eyes at the silver screen’s audience, there was a long period of almost détente. In the following decades, where everyone knew whose toys were whose: TV could show movies after a set period of years had elapsed and this arrangement worked well – the movie studios got cash for old flicks and the networks go audience grabbing movie premieres. But then in 1980’s TV got pally with a snotty little kid from next door called Video…

Now at first, Hollywood saw this new comer as just another dirty trick in the audience wars from television. But after a time, it became clear that the new kid was just a big thorn in the side to television networks as it was to cinema. For while the theatre chains may have start bringing in more screens, lower prices and suffer all the technical palaver of a 3D revival, the studios were coining it in from video rentals and too a lesser extent sales. Whereas the television premiere of a movie was no longer quite the big event it used to be, and reruns of old films were not longer picking up the audiences as they used now Hollywood’s back catalogue was increasingly being released on video. However the limitations of the video format meant that movies on TV still had an audience as television could deliver far superior picture quality and sound than your average rental cassette. Plus the advent of cable and satellite channels ensured movies would get to the old goggle-box just as quickly as they hit the rental stores.

However little did anyone realise that the snot-nosed brat would grow up and spawn DVD and home cinema – a new generation that has well and truly put the wind up both Cinema and TV. Renting videos was a popular past-time – a trip to ye olde video shop was a staple of the weekend entertainment for everyone growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – however sales of movies on video was always more modest. However with the advent of films on shiny CD sized discs, suddenly we all went mental for building our own film libraries – alleged in just their first few years in the shops, DVD sales topped the amount of pre-recorded videos bought ever.

And while the film studios and theatre are rushing back to 3D to save box office takings and hastily looking to upgrade older venues, at the end of the day, despite all the carping the cinema will survive and continue to do what it always has done with very little actual change. Even in the face of the coming brave new digital world, which the internet is merely the embryonic stage of, the movies will continue thanks to their ace in the hole – bloody gigantic screens. And until we all live in a decadent society where we all dwell in mansions, the appeal of seeing something yards high will always get bums on seats.

But for TV, it’s a different story; these days television is largely turning away from movie screenings to win big audiences. They will still bother to acquire blockbuster titles to wheel out for the holidays, but increasingly for peak viewing times such as Christmas they are looking to reap the really big ratings with a reality TV final or a special episode of a flagship series. Increasingly move showing are just filler rather than the rating magnet in a schedule. After all, in world where you can pick up just about any movie reasonably cheaply on disc, and soon with a mere click of a mouse, there’s no need for television to be screening movies anymore.

The upside of all of this is that the quality of TV shows is undoubtedly rising; no more do television series look like the poor country cousins of cinema outings. But aside from smarting up their act in the production values department, we are seeing something of a renaissance in television drama with hosts of interesting new shows flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is a serious downside to all of this. These days we take for granted the on demand access we enjoy to cinema’s past. However before the VCR appeared, it was a very different story. If you didn’t see a movie at the theatre that was it; it was gone and unless there was a re-release to theatres or it appeared at a film festival, the only chance you had of seeing it again was a television screening.

All of which I know it sounds like utter insanity now, in a world where you can buy Avatar on disc even though it’s still showing in some theatres. And make no mistake, I’m far happier living a world where I can revisit obscure classics like Carnival of Souls or Here We Go Around The Mulberry Bush anytime I like, rather having to sacrifice black cats to the dark gods of TV scheduling in the vain hope of a rare screening in the dead of night.

But, it has to be said there was a kind of magic to those pre-video days. Every week you’d scan the TV listings, paying meticulous attention into the afternoons and late night slots where many an old gem was tucked away, looking out for particular titles to appear in the schedules. And then having swept the lists for showing of those movies you were dying to see, you’d cross reference any film showing on the idiot lantern that week with your reference books, making sure you weren’t going to miss some previously unheard of treat. Then finally often you’d end up watching any movie that was on, as it was our only chance of seeing at all.

Bah, you kids have it easy these days! And get off my lawn!

But possibly pointless nostalgia for those long ago times when it was a lot harder to be a film fan aside, I do have a serious concern about living in the Magic Land of On Demand. And that is, with the option to watch anything you fancy, at any time, budding film buffs are far less likely to stumble across old classics and obscure curios, the way us old gits did.

Here in the UK the venerable BBC, and to lesser extent Channel 4, used to do a sterling job in putting together whole seasons of themed movies. Now around the turn of millennium, note just before the DVD effect really hit the film/TV relationship, Channel 4 decided to flush intelligent programming down the pan and set about devolving into a station devoted to bloody Big Brother and endless repeats of soddin’ Friends. But also, sadly the showings of vintage films began to disappear from the Beeb throughout the Noughties too. And in this case, the decline in film season on the BBC seemed to operate in tandem with us all building film archives in our own living rooms. And now none of the major networks are doing much at all to introduce viewers to cinema history anymore.

And judging from my experiences channel surfing while on trips to the USA, over the pond the situation is no better either. Even with the hundreds of channels available to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, you’re hard pressed to find much movie-wise that wasn’t made in the last ten years.

All of which is a bit of shame, particularly as the BBC is one of the few networks that doesn’t screen adverts during its programs – an ideal arrangement for film buffs who don’t want to see a director’s vision buggered up with vapid tosh about margarine. And while I don’t miss the days when you had to stay up half the night just to catch a rerun of an old AIP flick before it was cast back into viewing oblivion, the on demand world is robbing us of the delights of stumbling across an old gem you’ve never heard of by chance. While I grant that you may discover some vintage flick occasionally in the morass of cable or satellite, such token and random showings just don’t really compare with a properly scheduled season of movies on one of the major channels i.e. where a wide general audience will discover them.

Now I cut my film buff teeth on the seasons of late night horror films the BBC used to run on Saturday nights throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s - I have written before of the influence of these double features. And it is quite telling that when I started this reviewing lark, my first point of call was the old Universal horrors I’d enjoyed so much as a child, and indeed my very first review mentioned these BBC2 horror seasons.

I came to these films purely for the monsters and scares, which indeed they did deliver. But I came away with far more – encountering classic directors diverse as Robert Wise and George Romero, intelligent producers like Val Lewton, effects wizards like Roy Ashton and Phil Leakey, and a host of wonderful performers from yesteryear too numerous to mention. Moreover I learned that film had a history to study, that who was directing and what studio produce the movie was a better indicator of quality than who starred in it, and how to appreciate movies made with an entirely different visual grammar to that I was used to.

As I’ve said before horror is a broad church and when you get into the full historical spread of the genre it leads you out of the ghetto of B movies into green and pleasant lands of cinema as an art form. In this sense, horror is a gateway drug to art house, foreign film, and silent cinema, not to mention opening doors to literature too. Although traditionally derided by mainstream critics, increasingly there are many in the business of cinema, both film makers and reviewers, who got the movie bug via classic shockers and monster flicks.

Hence I can’t help feeling that the BBC is letting down budding film fans. Horror often has a big appeal to the young and so re-airing some of the old masters would be an ideal way to get people interested in films on TV again. And while I fully appreciate that a season of obscure French nouvelle vague flicks would most likely be ratings death, I’m sure that a season of classic horrors could find a reasonable audience and fire the imaginations of a new generation.

And I am not alone as there is a campaign to persuade the BBC to revive the tradition of the late night double features…

The details are here at the campaign’s blog.

Plus there is a Facebook page here.

Also you can post remarks onto this thread at the Beeb’s Points of View website.

And finally, and most importantly, the petition is here for you all to sign.

And please, please, please do sign. As there is a wider issue here than just bringing the likes of Lugosi and Lee, Universal and Amicus and sundry other creatures of the night back into the public consciousness, because if this campaign is a success it’s just the first step in getting classic cinema back into the schedules properly.

For too long, TV has been stuck in a rut, rerunning the recent blockbusters we’ve all seen already either in theatres or on disc. And frankly as the reach of the on demand world grows larger there is increasingly little future in this approach. But since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a boom in festival events and conventions – contrary to the predictions that the digital age would turn us all into web potatoes, it seems like the internet has prompted more people tha never before to meet up and host events for like minded individuals.

And so I believe there is a market and an audience just waiting to be discovered if channels like the BBC, who wish to uphold such Reithian values of informing and entertaining, were to start and presenting seasons of vintage movies as film festivals for your living room. Indeed rather than the endless screening of the box office big guns we already have in our DVD collections anyway, such virtual cinema festivals could well be the real future for film on television.

JIM MOON, 20th May 2010