Sarah Philip digs into the story of the British film television channel that’s becoming a quiet sensation.
When was the last time you saw a British black and white film on any of the five main UK terrestrial channels? A few weeks ago? A few months? Even if you do, it’s probably a film that’s been repeated a thousand times before. We’re at a point where even specialist movie channels like Film 4 only show one or two classic films a day, and they’re not always British. As for subscription TV, TCM tends to screen American classics.
But one channel’s bucking the trend. Talking Pictures TV showcases black and white British films. Over four years since its launch in 2015, it’s become one of the biggest film channels in the UK. Today, it attracts an audience of over two million viewers a week (and that was before the current lockdown). And it deserves every single one of them.
The success of Talking Pictures TV is down to Noel Cronin, his daughter Sarah and son-in-law Neill. They’re a family that’s worked in film distribution for years. Whilst the technical work is carried out by specialists, everything else is done by them in-house. Quite literally. The Cronins run Talking Pictures TV from their house in Hertfordshire.
They schedule the running order, acquire new films and carry out the day-to-day mechanics of running the channel at home. Films are always bought as part of a package from places like the BBC and Fremantle. A single package can cost £200,000 or more. Noel Cronin says that choosing what to buy is “based on suitability for the channel and then price”. They’re always thinking ahead and try to refresh their titles so viewers only see the same films about three times a year.
British black and white films are the main focus of Talking Pictures TV. But it also broadcasts older TV shows and documentaries, and screens both classic American films and productions in colour from the UK and US.
With Talking Pictures TV, the Cronins wanted to tap into the nostalgia market that had been increasingly ignored on the small screen. Noel has been passionate about buying up the rights of older films for years. He started out as a post boy for film company Rank. He then edited cinema ads and public information films in the 70s and got involved in film distribution.
Over 20 years ago, he set up Renown Pictures to buy as many older British films as possible. He then distributed their rights to terrestrial channels. When those channels started losing interest, he had to do something different. With the support of Sarah and Neill, he started licensing films for DVD release. The orders flooded in. You couldn’t anticipate how many people were thrilled to find movies they hadn’t seen in years.
It was the spark that set the Cronins on the path to creating their own TV channel.
They faced a rocky road ahead. Cronin reveals that it took “faith and self investment”. They tried writing business plan after business plan to secure investment. But no one was interested in putting money forward for a channel that focused on black and white films.
Thus, they took the plunge and they forged ahead on their own. After all their setbacks, Talking Pictures TV finally launched in 2015 on Sky. The Cronins had no budget for advertising, so they had to get creative. They used social media to get more publicity and gained traction in early morning slots when most channels were still showing teleshopping. Many viewers switched on in the morning and continued watching all day.
The channel quickly became popular. In a few months, they’d managed to get it listed on Freeview.
The variety of films on offer is what’s kept so many people watching. You can watch a forgotten box office hit from a big studio one day and a B movie the next.
Before Talking Pictures TV, no one could have dreamt that a low-budget 1948 film like Ivan Barnett’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher would ever be screened again. There’s also a chance to see actors we know in unfamiliar roles. Barbara Windsor plays a woman torn between two men in Sparrows Can’t Sing. She’s sexy, troubled, funny, immoral and decent, all at the same time. Quite a departure from tough matriarch Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders and the flirty young girl from the Carry On films.
As for Ronald Reagan, it’s fascinating to see him on screen at all, particularly in an Anglo-American film, like The Hasty Heart.
The TV shows and documentaries Talking Pictures TV broadcasts are equally interesting. Every day, the channel shows at least two episodes of vintage British TV.
Two of the most popular are Gideon’s Way and Scotland Yard. Cronin believes they’ve been the best two shows he’s bought. Gideon’s Way is a 60s drama that focuses on Commander Gideon in both his work and family life. Scotland Yard is a little different. It’s a series of standalone episodes that focus on real cases but with actors playing fictionalised versions of real people.
Scotland Yard actually predates our current obsession with true crime series by over 60 years.
As for documentaries, the most well received are short films called ‘Glimpses’. Cronin schedules Glimpses in between major features a couple of days a week. It gives viewers an immediate sense of real people and things in the past before or after they watch the movies.
So far, the Glimpses documentaries have been truly eclectic. They have ranged from a 50s report on litter that delved into rising concerns about rubbish in Wembley Stadium, parks and gardens; an information film about the most popular dog breeds in 1947, and a report on a typical day for passengers, staff and pilots in an airport in the 60s.
Viewers have written in to share their excitement about seeing older relatives and friends in these documentaries.
As you’d expect, the main audience is over 60, but there’s a growing number of younger viewers keen to discover their parents’ or grandparents’ history. For many older fans, it’s easier to relate to the channel’s classic films than a lot of current shows. Some have even sent in emails revealing that they started watching TV regularly again because of Talking Pictures TV. After all, it’s a reminder of their past and a chance to reminisce.
The channel has really helped residents in care homes open up to each other and share their memories too.
It’s also been rumoured that the Queen is a fan and enjoyed some Laurel and Hardy films that were broadcast whilst she was ill one Christmas. If that’s true, she’s not alone. Famous faces that have supported the channel include Matt Lucas, Barbara Windsor and Vic Reeves. Reeves even became part of Talking Pictures’ theme days. He introduced some of his favourite vintage films and provided his insights.
Other theme days have spotlighted a certain actor or film genre. When possible, the channel gets the actor, their family or their cast mates to discuss the actor’s filmography.
Featured, for instance, has been Sam Kydd, who you might remember as Mike Baldwin’s father in Coronation Street during the 80s. In his heyday, between 1946 and 1953, he appeared in more British films than any other actor. It was a real insight into Kydd’s work to hear his son read from his father’s diaries and offer his thoughts about his films.
Arguably the channel’s biggest coup to date was to persuade Patricia Dainton, an actor who last appeared in films 55 years ago, to come back into the limelight and talk about her films, such as Dancing With Crime with Richard Attenborough.
Cronin wants the channel to keep expanding both in terms of increasing the number of young viewers and the way it transmits its material.
“Given that linear TV is on the down curb, we want to cement our core audience, encourage as many younger viewers as possible and, where relevant, add any new forms of transmission.”
He doesn’t want to lose any momentum and become complacent. The television landscape keeps changing, and as much as the Cronins are showcasing the past, they’re also looking to the future.
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