Summer 2014 is one of those occasional moments when those who resent their licence fee being squandered on sport get rather hot under the collar. As well as the annual Wimbledon fortnight dominating schedules, we also have the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Tour de France kicking-off in the unlikely environs of Leeds, guaranteeing an increase in British TV coverage. ‘But there are entire channels devoted to sport!’ they cry (sort-of). ‘Why do we have to be bombarded with it on terrestrial channels as well?’
Step back in time three or four decades, however, back before the Murdoch media launched its first satellite, back even before that foul-mouthed lefty-leaning newcomer Channel 4 gatecrashed the cartel, and we have all sporting events spread across the two BBC channels and ITV. Even the sports that pay-per-view and subscription TV have held the live rights of for so long that it’s hard to imagine them being screened on mainstream telly now – the most obvious being cricket – had to be assimilated into rather crammed schedules alongside the other events already mentioned. Makes you wonder how they managed it, but they did. And let us not forget that every Saturday, spanning the almighty broadcasting chasm from lunchtime to teatime, both BBC1 and ITV handed over roughly five hours to non-stop sport. ‘Grandstand’ and ‘World of Sport’ had complete control of that timeslot, as fixed and set in stone as the school broadcasts were on weekdays.
I wasn’t a sporty kid. I thought the wrestling was quite entertaining, but didn’t care for either incarnation of rugby or any form of motorsport or athletics; granted, the reading of the football results before ‘Doctor Who’ had a daft romanticism akin to the shipping forecast, with the Scottish clubs having especially exotically odd names – Queen of the South, Meadowbank, Partick Thistle et al – but if it was one of those drizzly, dreary afternoons that kept the bike locked in the shed, what alternative was there on the box? An afternoon institution by the name of Saturday Cinema on BBC2 – the sole alternative; if you didn’t like sport, you were provided with a glorious cinematic education.
There was a rigid rule in place up until around the middle of the 1980s that kept films with a shorter vintage than five years away from TV screens – ‘Cabaret’, for example (released: 1972), didn’t receive its British television premiere until 1978. The way that British TV dealt with this embargo was to give the kiss of life to the Golden Age of Hollywood. At a time when monochrome shows from the 60s were being junked because nobody in television believed the public, who had forked-out small fortunes for colour TV sets, would tolerate black & white broadcasts anymore, Saturday afternoons on BBC2 were a sanctuary for movies that spurned Technicolor in favour of a lush cinematography that manufactured a unique illusion of the real world in fifty shades of silver, one unlike anything on offer in the expensive disaster blockbusters at the local fleapit.
For those of us who hadn’t lived through the realities of the 30s and 40s, the interpretation of it that we garnered from Saturday Cinema was of fire escapes on the sides of buildings, hats on every head, Art Deco automobiles, raincoats, tuxedos, cigarette holders, Bourbon-on-the rocks, neon lights flashing through venetian blinds, shoeshine boys, speakeasy clubs with dancing girls, black pianists and chanteuses in sequins, streetwise dames who gave as good as they got, and fast-talking, snarling guys who spoke in a slang that had the infectious rhythm of jazz, guys who’d shoot first and ask questions later. The look was as startlingly distinctive as the dialogue, as was the music – stabbing strings that emphasised the intensity of the melodrama during the final scene; and someone always died in the final scene. These films opened with the credits and concluded with a simple ‘The End’; they rarely ran longer than ninety minutes; they lifted the young viewer out of the genuine horrors played out on TV news broadcasts and into a parallel past with comforting archetypes and clearly-defined boundaries that were easier to understand, not to mention far more seductive. The women were beautiful and the men were handsome because the cinematographers spent hours lighting the set before shooting actually began; this really was cinema as an art form, utterly separate from reality and re-imagining the world in a way that only the graphic novel is capable of doing in the 21st century.
The incredible on-screen presence of Cagney and Bogart or Crawford and Davis is a world away from the studied mumbling of contemporary movie icons. These were actors who had paid their dues on stage and always carried their voices to the back-row. They predated the Method, but the curious caricatures of real people they played seem just as authentic as the Method because they make perfect sense in the artificial construct of reality they inhabit – just as nobody in a comic book thinks it remotely odd that musclemen in tights engage in fisticuffs that leave their streets resembling war-zones. Who pays for the damage when the Incredible Hulk has a punch-up with the Thing? Who cares?
Children stumbled upon classic cinema in the 70s and 80s because there were no TV alternatives on a Saturday afternoon. Now there are, and it’d be interesting to see how many movie stars from the 30s or 40s any child today could name. If you have kids, show them some pictures. Would they recognise Edward G Robinson or Barbara Stanwyck? Would they even recognise Laurel and Hardy? Some of these old stars were still alive when I was a child – and occasionally turned-up in a toupee on ‘Parkinson’; but a lot of them were long-dead. They were before my time, but of my time as well. In a fragmented television landscape where anything other than talent contests, quiz shows, soaps and ‘maverick detectives’ hunting down serial killers have been reduced to niche interests and ghettoised via specialist channels, a child would have to seek out these movies now; I didn’t. A paucity of choice actually brought the viewer into contact with programmes only the converted would make the effort to track down today. I welcome the availability of choice in terms of channel numbers, but I’d like there to be a little more choice within the channels I can receive, not a schedule designed solely to give me more of what I’m already familiar with. Perhaps kids today depend upon the film-buff dad or uncle with the extensive DVD collection to do the job television controllers once did. I hope so. The world of ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘White Heat’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Mildred Pierce’ remains as entertaining an alternative to what’s outside the window as any the 20th century invented. And still a bloody good alternative to a summer of sport.