Vintage programmes from the small screen are being revived by the British Film Institute - classics which show TV has never been just soaps and sitcoms. Robin Buss reports
There is a certain kind of film buff who tends to consider television much as a real-ale enthusiast might regard a can of lager. So the small screen has sometimes seemed a marginal area in the work of the British Film Institute and the National Film Archive. Yet television is the fastest growing section of the archive collection, and screenings of vintage television at the National Film Theatre attract large and enthusiastic audiences - as Erich Sargeant, the BFI's head of video publishing, has been quick to notice. The result is Archive TV, a new strand in the BFI's video collection, alongside its releases of classic and contemporary movies.
The first titles, released last month, are Ken Russell's Delius: song of summer and Peter Sasdy's The Stone Tape. They are followed this month by Jonathan Miller's Whistle and I'll Come to You. Sargeant is especially keen on the Peter Sasdy film, a modern ghost story scripted by Nigel Kneale (who wrote the Quatermass series) and, as it happens, the only one of the three early titles made in colour. Sargeant believes that "television is a writer's medium" and that Kneale's work for it has been unjustly neglected. He hopes eventually to include other films by Kneale, particularly The Year of the Sex Olympics.
Whistle and I'll Come to You, Jonathan Miller's version of a story by M R James, is slow in pace and light on plot, but makes up for this with tons of atmosphere and an unforgettable performance by Michael Hordern as the cranky, barely articulate professor taking a winter holiday on the Norfolk coast. Television may be a writer's medium, but this is a literary adaptation that almost does without words.
Made for Omnibus in 1968, it did not always please James's fans because of the way Miller presents the central character. By ageing him to show not the young man of the story, but a lonely bachelor whose confidence in his own intellect may be a cover for all sorts of frustrations and uncertainties, he suggests a comparison with James himself. Miller's treatment also challenges an unquestioning belief in the supernatural: in the end, we cannot be sure to what extent the manifestations Professor Parkins observes are merely a projection of his own disturbed mental state.
Ken Russell's Delius: song of summer, also made in 1968, is a superb achievement; it almost makes one like Delius's flimsy music. Written by Russell in collaboration with Eric Fenby, it tells the true story of how Fenby, as a naive young Yorkshireman, went to France to help Delius in the last years of his life, when the composer was blind, paralysed by tertiary syphilis and unable to write down the music in his head.
With marvellous performances from Max Adrian as Delius, Christopher Gable as Fenby, Maureen Pryor as Delius's wife and David Collings as their ebullient friend Percy Grainger, Russell's film is all the more moving for having been made within the constraints of late Sixties television. These meant not only avoiding the excesses of Russell's later work for the cinema, but also a restricted budget, which often proved, in the television of the period, to be the mother of invention.
In Russell's first musical biography, his 1962 film on Elgar, the BBC allowed him to use actors only in long shot and on condition that they did not speak. We shall be able to see how well he managed when the BFI acquires the rights.
Erich Sargeant hopes to release this and a host of other films. In his office at BFI headquarters in central London, he gives a long list of possible titles. But, as he explains, negotiating copyright is not easy, especially when a television programme was made before the days of video, meaning no provision was made for video rights. He gives the example of Ken Loach's 1966 documentary drama Cathy Come Home, which he is in the process of negotiating: the owners of two pieces of background music, one a major film company, are asking fees of thousands of pounds for the right to use them. "As if they need the money," Sargeant mutters scornfully.
He is fortunate in that, while he has to balance his own budget, he is able to use the profits from the more successful titles to underwrite less popular ones. Among the films he hopes to release early next year are two by Peter Watkins - Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter is a famously controversial documentary drama about a nuclear attack on Britain. In fact, it proved too controversial for the BBC, which commissioned it but delayed its screening for 20 years.
Sargeant is particularly enthusiastic about Culloden, which he describes as "hugely important". In it, Watkins retells the story of the Jacobite defeat in 1746 as though it were being covered by a 1960s television news crew. Clearly, the film has educational value simply as an account of the historical events, but its interest for a 21st-century audience is greater than that. Watkins's aim was to reproduce the style of a news documentary of his own time. But styles have changed - news coverage no longer means hand-held cameras and respectful interviews. So, watching the film now tells us as much about television at the time it was made as it does about the Jacobite rebellion.
Not that there is anything to despise in Sixties television. On the contrary, at the risk of being politically incorrect, Sargeant suggests it was something of a golden age, with "intellectual stars" such as Jonathan Miller happy to work for the medium. "Can you imagine anything like Miller's The Death of Socrates for television today?" he asks. The answer, of course, is no. But it happened then, as did Miller's Alice in Wonderland (1966). And if Sargeant can negotiate the rights, we may get the chance to see them both again.
Titles in the BFI Archive TV collection cost pound;9.99. Also on DVD at pound;19.99. Order on 020 7957 8960. For more details see www.bfi.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org