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Written On Water?

Archive Television and The BFI.

Whatever happened to bravura television? Today's main-channel schedules seem to aspire to the condition of a snooker game played entirely in safety shots. Everything's trying to look like the soaps, and the soaps are all trying to look like each other. Single drama, once the quality anchor of all programming, now comes mostly in the form of back-door pilots or star showcases. "Ground-breaking style" signals more wonky camerawork.

It's easy to remember the handful of nuggets and forget the skiploads of dross and imagine that we're looking back on a golden age. But it's also hard to escape the feeling that, yes, there was something vital and edgy about old TV, that there was a lasting value in a THIS ENGLAND or a WORLD IN ACTION that simply isn't there in an AIRLINE or TONIGHT WITH TREVOR MACDONALD. It's a common generalisation, and we'll never be able to say for sure if it's true. But with the British Film Institute's new series of Archive Television releases, both on tape and on DVD, we can at least judge to what extent the landmark stuff deserves its reputation.

Take Nigel Kneale's seminal TV ghost story THE STONE TAPE, one of the first releases in a schedule that includes Ken Russell and Eric Fenby's DELIUS - SONG OF SUMMER and, to come, Peter Watkin's THE WAR GAME. Revered by aficionados, inaccessible for almost 30 years. More than a memory, almost a legend. Murky tenth-generation bootlegs circulated on VHS and versions of the script could be found out there on the internet, but these only sharpened the sense of absence. Now, for less than the cost of a couple of seats and a bucket of popcorn in a noisy multiplex, you can run it at your leisure.

The seeds of the Archive Television initiative lay in a series of Tuesday night screenings of classic TV at the South Bank's National Film Theatre. Observing the popularity of these events, the BFI's Erich Sargeant got together with NFT programmers to create a wish-list of titles for possible commercial release.

"The BFI has a huge archive," says Sargeant, "and part of our remit is to provide access to it. Our video publishing isn't on subsidy and has to clear its costs, but market research showed there was a demand for these programmes."

But it isn't simply a matter of running off copies and selling them. Artists' contracts made no provision for DVD or video -- as yet undreamt-of technologies -- and those rights have to be be cleared. The BFI submits a business plan to the BBC or other production company, which then negotiates with the artists or their estates. Should the expense become too great, the title may have to be dropped from the list.

Cost also determines the extras to be included on the discs. "In a way, DVD is the medium we've been waiting for," says Sargeant. "It means we can release the titles with proper support. But we have to ask ourselves, 'what can we afford? Who can we get?'" DELIUS carries an optional, full-length, shot-by-shot sound commentary from co-writer and director Ken Russell; THE STONE TAPE has a commentary from Kneale in conversation with novelist and critic Kim Newman, along with onscreen filmographies and computer-readable screenplays of both THE STONE TAPE and Kneale's lost drama THE ROAD.

The technical quality of each is excellent. THE STONE TAPE, taken from the BFI's archive copy, looks better now than on any domestic set of 1972. DELIUS was taken from the BBC's own digital master while Jonathan Miller's OH WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD, released in September, is from an original print.

Other planned releases include Miller's surreal and star-studded 1966 ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Ken Russell's ELGAR, while high on the wish list are Philip Martin's Play for Today GANGSTERS and Tom Stoppard's 1975 adaptation of THREE MEN IN A BOAT with Tim Curry and Michael Palin. There are moves to pursue early material by Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter, including 1963's THE LOVER.

Although the list includes Adrian Covell's documentary THE TRIBE THAT HIDES FROM MAN and David Turner's 13-part adaptation of Sartre's ROADS TO FREEDOM trilogy, its main emphasis, according to Erich Sargeant, is on the writer-driven single drama. Kneale was selected to kick off the series as a 'less obvious choice', but the worldwide response to THE STONE TAPE has done much to redefine his place in the canon. DELIUS stands revealed as a fresh, spare piece of work, one of the best of Russell's career.

Which is quite something, when you think about it. These were one-shot works, expected to be broadcast and then lost to view. Yet they can continue to enhance the reputations of their authors after three decades or more. They have the feel of true 'event' TV; audience-challengers, rather than crowd-pleasers. According to cultural studies lecturer Dr Matthew Hills, they make us aware of how far we've moved away from drama that is aesthetically confident about its ability to hold an audience's attention.

If you're a novelist or a playwright you can - and if you're bright, you do - enrich your craft with an awareness of all that's gone before. A clued-up screenwriter knows that film history didn't begin with STAR WARS. Television, by contrast, has been a medium with only short-term recall, with little of its past available beyond the selective memory of UK Gold.

At the very least, this is going to give us a better class of product to steal from…

First published in the October 2001 edition of the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.