Monday 1 April 2019

TV for Retroprogressives

Finding something – anything – bearable to watch on television seems to be getting harder all the time, but there's a channel available to all (well, it's on Freeview, Freesat, Virgin and Sky) that can offer a way out. It's called Talking Pictures TV and it's devoted to old films and television from, predominantly, the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Some of it is, undeniably, pretty awful – but usually awful in an enjoyable, old-school way – and some of it is very good, and very different from what we see on the screen today. Case in point: last night TPTV showed a drama that originally appeared on ITV's Armchair Theatre, a high-rating showcase for single plays by prominent writers (even Pinter did one) that ran from 1956 to 1974. Douglas Livingstone's Competition (1971) is a tense, rather unsettling drama that revolves around a poetry reading competition (the set poem is Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad). Jimmy, an out-of-work man, something of a charming waster who seems to have married money, has to take his clearly unhappy son to the competition. He and the boy are accompanied by their neighbours, Tony and Joyce, who are of an altogether lower caste, and their daughter. Tony, in contrast to Jimmy, has just landed a good job, and this is causing some tension between the two men – but not as much as the fact that Jimmy is having an affair with Joyce. Michael Jayston as Jimmy and John Thaw as Tony both give fine, nuanced performances, Anne Carroll does well with the underwritten role of Jenny, and William Relton is a strong presence as the unhappy boy.
  Competition made for gripping viewing, but what was most striking about it – as about so many productions on TPTV – was how much the grammar of TV drama has changed, and not necessarily for the better. There is more use of close-ups and tight cropping and, with cameras more static and fewer sets involved, much less movement. As a result, there is far less of the time-wasting connective tissue that fills out modern TV dramas – 'atmosphere' shots, people getting in and out of cars, entering and leaving buildings, walking and talking, or just walking. The words have to work harder, and there are far more of them – a script for an hour of TV drama then would be a fatter volume than its equivalent today. Everything is tighter, in every sense, and as a result more intense and concentrated (an effect helped by that tight cropping – and, incidentally, the squarer screen shape). Furthermore, it's all properly lit, there is no background music, and the lines are delivered audibly. What's not to like? If you haven't discovered Talking Pictures TV yet, give it a try. It's like stepping back in time, and at present that's no bad thing.

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