It is probably a good thing that I don’t have a TV in my flat. If I did I would probably never stop watching Talking Pictures TV, a Freeview channel that shows a diverse mix of curious old films. I use the word curious because, though it technically specialises in classic entertainment, not all of its programming can be described as such. Some of the films or TV programmes it shows have fallen into obscurity for obvious enough reasons: some have dated; others might never have been decent in the first place. Yet nearly all are worth watching, if only because they tell us a little bit about the time in which they were made.
My introduction to Talking Pictures TV was its kitchen sink drama season. I knew that any channel that showed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey was destined to become my favourite, but I was even more thrilled when a quick peruse of its scheduled revealed further delights, such as Edgar Wallace Mysteries and Hands of the Ripper, a campy, atmospheric Hammer horror. There is apparently no criteria for what constitutes a Talking Pictures TV film. Most are from either ’50s or ’60s and might years ago have been shown on daytime Channel 4 for the benefit of bored pensioners (Ealing comedies, WWII epics, Diana Dors vehicles, rather pedestrian films). Others would more likely have been shown on BBC 1 late at night—films that, as a younger man, I used to stay up to the early hours of the morning watching, though not always because I thought they were any good. Often I just wanted to see how they ended.
Of all the films I have discovered through Talking Pictures TV, The Reckoning, starring Nicol Williamson, stands out as the most memorable. Williamson plays Mick, an avaricious rogue who has has risen through the ranks at a British company specialising in business machines. Despite his polished air, Mick was born in Liverpool to working-class Irish parents, a fact he has ostensibly never disclosed to those in the cut-throat world he now inhabits. His wife, an attractive but shallow lady named Rosemary, irritates him. They only stay together for the sex, which invariably descends into violence, and when that ends they either exchange insults or ignore one another. Although he shows little affection for anybody in his life, he is devastated to discover that his father, John Joe, is severely unwell. Mick doesn’t hesitate to drive to Liverpool to see him. He parks his Jaguar outside the family home, a drab terrace house on a rundown street. His mother, whom he has not seen in years, welcomes him inside. She tell him that he is too late. John Joe is dead.
Although the official cause of death is a heart attack, Mick is disturbed by several bruises on John Joe’s body. He questions his mother, his sister, the parish priest and the family doctor about them, but only John Joe’s best mate Cocky, a regular down the local Irish centre, knows the truth. Cocky says John Joe suffered a heart attack as a result of being beaten by some Teddy boys, but explains that he doesn’t want to go to the police because he distrusts the English authorities. He believes that Mick should avenge John Joe’s death, something Mick contemplates seriously while he spends the next few days reconnecting with his working-class roots. Although initially reluctant to risk his wealth and status for the sake of settling a score, he comes to view the life he has made for himself in London as something of betrayal of his heritage, and describes his job in a moment of drunkenness as “doing dirty work for English gentlemen”. He begins to feel as if he must right a wrong. But is vengeance worth risking all that he has achieved?
The story is similar in some respects to Get Carter, which was released a year later. But unlike Carter, Mick is doesn’t have an air of effortless cool about him. He isn’t charismatic. Nor is he particularly pleasant. His one redeeming quality: directing his obnoxiousness at the greedy, unscrupulous establishment to which he now reluctantly belongs, rather than the regular people he remembers fondly from his youth. He loathes the men at his company. Many are Sirs and Lords who have inherited their titles and have never had to work for anything in their lives. They are, in his eyes, the same class of English gentleman that occupied Ireland for centuries: men who speak of good manners while oppressing the lower classes.
Scenes of Liverpool streets lined with half-dilapidated terrace houses are starkly contrasted with the modern luxury of Mick’s Home Counties pad. At his office in central London, pretty secretaries eagerly seek the approval of repulsive old men by searching through mahogany cabinets for the minutes of old meetings. Everything seems either old and shabby or amusingly retro. But the film itself could hardly be described as dated. Nor is it dull—even for a moment. Although there are quiet, introspective scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a kitchen sink drama, others are full of action and suspense. If there is any reason it’s not better known it’s that Get Carter—undeniably the cooler, grittier of the two films—overshadowed it. But The Reckoning is a great film in its own right. It is too good to be forgotten.
Although the same cannot be said of everything shown on Talking Pictures TV, even some of the worst films it has introduced me to tend to have at least a modicum of merit. One such film is Say Hello to Yesterday, a comedy-drama starring Jean Simmons that, if nothing else, contains some attractive scenes of London in early 1970s. Simmons plays a decorous, middle-aged housewife who, while catching the train into London for a day of shopping, is ruthlessly harassed by a young man played by Leonard Whiting. Although his behaviour is frightening and creepy, we are supposed to find him amusing. He jumps about and cracks wise in the hope of impressing Simmons’s character, whom he seeks to bed, and purses her across West London, through department stores and along the King’s Road, still then a hub for fashionable youngsters. She is smiling by the time they reach the park. He has won her affection, though how this could have happened is unclear.
After escorting her to a garishly-furnished flat where he apparently takes all his lady friends, they neck two large whiskies and get to it. The intercourse is stilted and passionless. Once it’s over, Simmons’s character, overcome with regret, tells the young man that he is not a patch on her husband, whose sexual prowess is apparently beyond reproach. The young man is humiliated. He responds by slapping her round the face and thereafter the film ceases to be a whimsical comedy and becomes an excruciating melodrama. In one risible scene the couple exchange insults while the young man, our hero, sits on the bed draped in a absurd tangerine-coloured bed sheet. It is impossible for the viewer to care about their relationship. Neither character is morally redeemable and, though the young man is clearly the least likeable of the two, the woman shows herself to be something of a snob when she derides her new fancy piece for claiming unemployment benefit.
The film is unfunny and at times mean-spirited. If not for Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography, complimented by a lush musical score by Riz Ortolani, I may not have watched it through till the end; but I am glad I persevered. Irrespective of all its faults, Say Hello to Yesterday is an engaging film that features stunning shots of a bygone London. Watching it is a bit like spending the day in the West End in the early 1970s, except you’re trapped in the company of one of the most irritating leading characters in cinema. The young man’s larking about it is tedious, but for the footage of a grimy city, glutted with greasy spoon cafes, palatial parks and department stores, Say Hello to Yesterday is at the very least worth watching, even if it is not worth seeking out.
I am grateful in any case to Talking Pictures TV for bringing it to my attention. Largely forgotten films such as Say Hello to Yesterday are unlikely ever to appear on streaming services. Nor is there much chance they will ever be shown on any of the major channels, which rightly or wrongly presume that anything remotely obscure could never appeal to viewers. Unburdened by a commitment to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, Talking Pictures TV takes risks. Last Christmas Eve at eleven o’clock, while other channels were reeling out their usual festive nonsense, it showed And Soon the Darkness, a thriller from 1970 that could not have been a less appropriate for Christmas. The film is about two young women from Nottingham who are cycling round rural France in the middle of summer. One of the women, Jane, is concerned with getting them safely to their next destination; the other, Cathy, is more interested in chatting up men.
While cycling along a country road, Cathy pulls over to rest, but Jane insists they press on so they can reach their destination before sundown. They decide after a long argument they have little choice but to split up. Leaving Cathy to sunbathe by the side of the road, Jane heads to the next town, which is occupied by some rather sour-faced characters, including a hostile cafe owner who warns her that the town is unsafe. Jane finishes her drink and grabs her bike. She cycles to where she and Cathy separated earlier in the day, but begins to panic when she discovers that Cathy isn’t there. She suspects something terrible has happened to her and, as the sun sets, fears for her own safety. She can trust no one: not the deaf farmhand working in a nearby field, nor the young man claiming to be a plain clothes police officer who wants to help her.
Tense and genuinely unsettling, And Soon the Darkness would be an excellent thriller if not for its numerous red herrings, most of which are ineffective and lend the film a sense of directionless. Not until the last five minutes do we discover who the villain actually is. When we do, I was disappointed. The conclusion seemed an underwhelming payoff to the long set-up that preceded it. But on the whole I did enjoy And Soon the Darkness. The film’s slow pace, combined with Jane’s mounting panic, create a feeling of intense trepidation. It is exactly the sort of film I want to watch on Christmas Eve late at night: the antidote to the half-baked panel shows and middle-of-the-road blockbusters that dominate the TV schedule at that time of the year. But it is not only at Christmas that Talking Pictures TV offers much-needed respite to what the other channels are showing. Quite consistently it can be relied on to entertain whenever there isn’t much on, either with an obscure film or an episode of an overlooked television series that no other channel would be bold enough to touch.
Certainly, it is difficult to imagine The Human Jungle being shown on any channel other than Talking Pictures TV. The series, which originally aired between 1963 and 1965, stars Herbert Lom as Dr Roger Corder, a psychiatrist, who treats patients in his consulting room at 162 Harley Street, London. Most of the episodes focus on one patient, often somebody who is wealthy enough to seek therapy in the first place—a teeny bopper rock ‘n’ roll star, for instance, or a big shot business manager. In one memorable episode, Success Machine, Dr Corder seeks to help a contractor with an ungovernable temper. He is supposedly of illustrious German heritage and is so eager to honour his family’s name that he has become obsessed with his work. His wife and children, whom he regards as a nuisance, are concerned for his well being. Yet only when his ruthless desire to succeed causes an accident at work does he finally accept that he might need Dr Corder’s assistance.
Like most patients featured in the series, the man is easily treated by Dr Corder, a brilliant, though cavalier psychiatrist, whose theories are as influenced by the then fashionable anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing as by Freud. This being the 1960s, a time when psychiatry was still seen as distinctly un-British by the general public, his patients are often suspicious of him. His slight foreign accent doesn’t help matters, nor does his demeanour, which is cold and humourless except for when he’s addressing his spoiled socialite daughter. The striking title sequence establishes him as a moody, emotionally detached man whose passion in life, first and foremost, is his work. The sequence begins with him silhouetted in the doorway of his office, before slowly he approaches his desk, his footsteps imitating the plodding jazz bass line of the theme music, composed by John Barry. He opens his desk drawer to reveal tape recorder. After turning it on, he rests his cigarette in an ashtray, removes a pen from his jacket pocket and looks off into the distance, as if considering a patient.
Stylish and film noir-inspired, this opening gives the viewer a sense of what to expect from The Human Jungle—namely, dark, suspenseful drama driven by character development. It shares little in common with the popular action-packed programmes of its day such as The Avengers and The Saint. Instead the series is slow-moving, conversational and shot predominately in Corder’s office, its appeal being its understated cleverness and interesting case studies. Although The Human Jungle is formulaic, with each episode following a familiar structure, the formula works, so any sense of repetition can be accepted without disappointment. It is similar in this sense to another programme regularly shown on Talking Pictures TV, the brilliant, unforgettable Rumpole of the Bailey.
Any British person above a certain age will likely have heard of Rumpole (Leo McKern). He is one of TV’s most enduring characters, a long in the tooth, Wordsworth-quoting, claret-sodden barrister who is regarded as something of a menace by the London legal establishment. He is a curiosity in his profession. He is chiefly a defence barrister, and though he has a broad range of clients he tends to defend poor, vulnerable and downtrodden members of society. Although he spends most of his time down the Old Bailey, he can frequently be found at Pomeroy’s, a wine bar based on El Vino’s on Fleet Street, once a popular haunt for journalists and legal professionals. He enjoys the simple things in life: cheap wine (Chateau Thames Embankment), steak and kidney pudding, smoking cigars. But his greatest passion is the theatre of the Old Bailey. Although he knows little about the ins and outs of the law, he succeeds more often than not owing to a number of “tricks” he has picked up during his many years of practice. He can put forth a convincing argument, too, and regularly talks of the presumption of innocence (or, as he often calls it, the “Golden Thread of British Justice”).
So effective is he at defending his clients that he has gained favour with the likes of the Timsons, a family of smalltime thieves whom the police regularly (and falsely) accuse of more serious crimes. Rumpole’s wife, Hilda (she who must be obeyed), is embarrassed by many of her husband’s clients. She believes that at this stage of his career he should be seeking higher position in the legal world, such as Head of Chambers or Queen’s Counsel or a judgeship. But Rumpole evidently has little interest in career progression. Nor is he impressed by the money and social status. While his superiors pity him for settling for a lowly life as a defence barrister, he pities them for their shallowness. There is no happiness, we observe over the course of 7 series of Rumpole, to be found in becoming in judge or QC. And indeed those who are bestowed with such positions are quickly corrupted by arrogance, stubbornness and snobbery.
Rumpole is seemingly incorruptible, perhaps because he is unburdened by the pursuit of power. He is no saint: he gambles, he smokes and drinks heavily, he sometimes tells small lies for his own amusement. Yet compared to other barristers in his chambers, most of whom are deceptive and habitually unfaithful to their spouses, he is honourable and fair. He is the only character who is consistently and genuinely witty. Although the others try to be, they are only ever funny when they are trying to be serious, as is true of Claude Erskine-Brown (Julian Curry), another barristers from Rumpole’s chambers who is pompous snob very much in the public school tradition. As other barristers often point out, he is not particularly good at his job. He appears in fact only to have become a barrister because his Old Boy connections have allowed him to, and spends much of his time sitting about chambers discussing various operas. But strangely his incompetence, apparent apathy for his work and feebleness are quite endearing. His intentions are often good: whenever he causes somebody harm or offence it is invariably because he is indoctrinated in the philosophy of the sheltered public school boy. He is frequently one of the biggest sources of humour in the series, and like Sir Guthrie Featherstone (Peter Bowles), another pompous yet likeable character, is hopelessly out of his depth.
The series is full of superb comic performances. McKern, Curry and Bowles are all consistently hilarious, and Patricia Hodge is exceptional as the strong willed, no nonsense Phyllida, the first woman to be accepted into the Rumpole’s chambers. Despite starting out as a pupil, Phyllida eventually becomes a Q.C., a Recorder and finally a High Court judge. She is on the whole more sensible and adept than her male colleges, perhaps because she has had to work harder than those who have stumbled into the legal world by way of the Old Boy network. Yet for all her wit, charm and intelligence, deep down she is still a legal hack. As such she can’t help, but possess many of the weakness and insecurities that blight her male counterparts. Although chiefly a comedy, the series contains moments of melancholy, particularly in the early series. Many of the main characters are lonely; they engage in affairs because they crave intimacy and are unsatisfied with legal life. Even Rumpole who, on the surface, seems jovial and fun-loving, admits in a late episode that he has little reason to remain married to his wife, except that he prefers “war together than a lonely peace”.
John Mortimer, the creator and writer of the series, understood the British legal world because he was a part of it. An experienced barrister (and later a QC), he understood people’s concerns and desires and clearly had a great affection for British society. Although a keenly-observed satire, the series also demonstrates Mortimer’s empathy for people of all classes. Nobody is all good, nor all bad. Everybody is flawed, everybody is vulnerable and everybody wants to be loved. I have always enjoyed Rumpole for its humanity. It never seems to age, however much times change, because it essentially about believable characters, rather than complicated plots and intense action. Good writing and acting never ages. Although exterior shots of 1970s London, black with soot and grime, serve as a reminder of how old the series truly is, at its core is something timeless: good writing and well developed characters.
Not everything shown on Talking Pictures TV is of the same caliber as Rumpole. For every genuinely brilliant film and series, there are those that have not stood the test of time, and indeed those that I suspect were never particularly good in the first place, which is why I have resisted describing Talking Pictures TV as a nostalgia channel. Nostalgia is an overly affectionate memory of the past, whereas Talking Pictures TV doesn’t pretend that the past was entirely peachy. It shows the good as well as the bad, and the results, though sometimes are uneven, are always fascinating. In an era of abundant choice, or in any case the illusion of choice, Talking Pictures TV offers an alternative to tailor-made On Demand content. It’s the nearest you can be, in 2019, to a time when the viewer had to seek out things to watch though trial and error, instead of logging in and expecting to be catered for. Talking Pictures TV is TV as it should be. It’s TV for people who have genuine affection for film and television.