Are We Living In A Golden Age Of Archive Television?

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As a teenager, I spent most of my time watching TV and film that dated between 1958-1990.

These were not the cool, indie programmes that have been endlessly enthused about by hipsters worldwide, but rather those shows made on a mixture of videotape, film and outside broadcast that defined day-to-day schedules. Most of these shows were only available in poor quality on DVD, some little better than the videos they had replaced, or as grainy and slightly illegal rips on Youtube. As a result, the things I was spending my life watching were nearly almost unwatchable, or liable to disappear and reappear on a monthly basis. How things have changed.

Nowadays, archive TV is available like never before. Almost everything of value can be bought on DVD, and much of it has been remastered to beyond broadcast quality; even Youtube rips now look as if they’ve been taken from masters rather than fifth-generation recordings. There has been a revolution in archive television presentation, one which has been recognised by the caverns of Twitter and ancient message boards and largely unnoticed by the wider world.

This perhaps suggests the reason why these programmes are suddenly being presented in such high quality. As streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have grown in popularity, DVDs and Bluray, once how everyone chose to watch shows, have become items which suggest a desire and commitment to engaging with the programmes they contain. Indeed, one might argue they have become the vinyl of the visual world: a way of both achieving high quality and indicating a connoisseur. As a result, they can now attract both a higher price, as they are seen as collectors or special interest items. It can also seem more worthwhile to make available or remaster those things which drive the greatest interest.

Take The Strange World of Gurney Slade, for example. A largely disregarded and cult series even in its own time, Anthony Newley’s 1960 project showed the way forward for the rest of the decade in its mixture of satire and abstract humour, fourth-wall breaking and desire to play with the concept of the star vehicle. Its influence can be seen in everything from Monty Python to Fleabag, and was a beloved series of David Bowie, who was tooting its horn in 1973. However, until 2011, it was completely unavailable on any commercial format, and had never been repeated, excepting one 1963 rerun and a single episode’s encore in 1990. On its original release by archive TV company Network, it was marketed with a sticker proclaiming Bowie’s opinion of it, suggesting that it was not able to be marketed on its own merits as a show. It was also released with a mixture of loving design and bare-minimum information, receiving only a small pamphlet providing a short history of the programme and its aftermath. The show was therefore presented as a curiosity with little commercial value beyond the most esoteric of TV fans.

“By giving it the same care and attention as artistic films, companies such as Network have helped the re-evaluation of television as an art form, as well as encouraging the resurgence of the DVD/Bluray as a collector’s item and signal of quality.”

Nearly a decade on, Gurney Slade has not only been released on Bluray, but has also received more in-depth acknowledgment, including three separate articles and multiple special features. The inclusion by Network of three ‘Sunday Spectaculars’ from 1960 suggests that this release is being aimed squarely at the television connoisseur, who might wish to investigate both the origins of the show and the style of television it was reacting against. Similarly, the inclusion of Newley’s near-contemporaneous film, The Small World of Sammy Lee, implies that Network values both television and film as equally important mediums and historical documents, and invites critical analysis by placing both within one boxset. In fact, the decision to Bluray both of these pieces, whose obscurity had only really been broken by the re-evaluation of Newley’s work following the 2011 release, suggests a more critical and invested audience is now purchasing Blurays, one who wishes to gain a full grasp of the content as well as viewing it in the highest definition possible.

This desire for a full view of the shows is reflected in Network’s treatment of The Goodies. A comedy series as popular and experimental as Python, the show has never been repeated on television and received little of it’s sister show’s accolades, at least not in its first physical release. Not only was the full series put out on a complete set, suggesting both the collector tendencies of its purchasers and a desire to see the full progression of the show, but an edition was also released with a detailed book by noted television historian Andrew Pixley, as well as a CD of the show’s incidental music. These releases go beyond pure nostalgia value, instead suggesting a difference in how we perceive television as a medium: seeing it as a social record and interesting format in its own right, worthy of study, rather than film’s poorer cousin.

Archive TV has also exploded onto streaming services. ITV and the BBC’s ‘Britbox’ service has led the way for this, providing a mixture of classic shows such as Doctor Who, oddities such as Hammer House of Horror and contemporary reality TV such as Love Island. Thus, as physical media begins to appeal more to the collector, so streaming services reconstitute archive telly as something valuable to the modern viewer and on a par with contemporary programmes. It means that rather than dividing people who would love UFO on Bluray into a camp of glass-wearing geeks, it invites the wider public to delve beyond their usual viewing and possibly find something new to love by showing it in equally high quality.

The explosion of archive television both in availability and quality would have thrilled my younger self. By giving it the same care and attention as artistic films, companies such as Network have helped the re-evaluation of television as an art form, as well as encouraging the resurgence of the DVD/Bluray as a collector’s item and signal of quality. Placing it on streaming services gives these programmes a new lease of life, and indicates that in a world where content is always available, there is no reason to treat quality shows differently just because they were broadcast twenty years apart. It is a renaissance, and I’m glad to be able to see it.

Words by Issy Flower

2 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Issy,

    A friend of mine flagged this piece up to me earlier and I just wanted to find a few moments to say how delighted I am to discover that other people admire imaginative, distinctive, exciting archive television in this way, and also appreciate when companies such as Network go the extra mile in making its available to savour and appreciate in such a manner. So good to know that there’s people out there in the world who clearly get the same enjoyment and excitement out of discovering these gems from the past as I do.

    Hoping all is well with you. Thank you for your kind words. Much appreciated.

    Andrew

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