DVD is giving television back to the viewer, creating archives of the classics and wrongfooting broadcastersby David Herman / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
If you have been Christmas shopping in HMV, the BBC shop or Tower Records, you may have already noticed one striking development: the rise and rise of the television DVD. There are two kinds: newly reissued classics and the box sets of recent hits, especially new series. Each tells a different story about where television is now heading.
The most welcome development is the reissue of classic dramas and comedy programmes, mainly by the BBC and BFI. The BBC recently brought out some of the best of its 1980s Shakespeare series: Jonathan Miller’s King Lear with Michael Hordern, Hamlet with Derek Jacobi and Claire Bloom, and the Nicol Williamson Macbeth. It has also reissued some of the best dramas of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Stephen Poliakoff’s Caught on a Train with Peggy Ashcroft, and Alec Guinness as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The BBC has also started to bring out great comedy series, such as the first Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.
The BFI has been even more adventurous with its strand, Archive Television, bringing out more recherché works like Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, Peter Watkins’s The War Game, two of Jonathan Miller’s dramas, the ghost story, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, and Ken Russell’s BBC films on Delius and Elgar. These reissued classics coincide exactly with what some of us call “the golden age” of public service broadcasting, the one Mark Lawson thinks is mythical. Lawson and other critics have recently sneered at the idea of a 1960s-70s golden age, but the programmes being reissued are precisely the ones that can be considered part of the great period of British television.
And these new releases are just the beginning of a process that will change our attitudes to television archives. Instead of relying on the “generosity” of the BBC or Channel 4, who rarely repeat much of the best television from the past, especially if it seems esoteric, we will be free to click on to Amazon or go to the high street and buy them, in the same way we would collect music or films. This is part of a larger trend in which DVD technology has injected new life into cinema and television industries (see Mark Cousins, “Widescreen,” Prospect, March 2004). And because DVDs are so much more user-friendly than the unlamented…