The Reasons Why We Love Retro British TV

We've been writing about the forgotten world of British TV shows for a couple of years now, so decided to take a look at just why we love it so much.

Nostalgia - Pure and Simple

Nostalgia is an amazing feeling. It's like being wrapped up in a big warm blanket as you glug Ovaltine and have your chin tickled.

All it takes is a few bars of a long forgotten theme tune and you're transported back to a simpler time when your priorities were radically different.

You leave the current space-time continuum and become immersed in a rose tinted world where your only worry is that BBC2 is about to close down for the afternoon.

For us, we also love to imagine our place in the world and our family history as the retro shows unfold before our eyes. For example, if we view something in 1983 we love to dream up fantasies of this beautiful, serene world where we're being ferried about in a pram.

Truth is, we were probably vomiting every 5 minutes and picking up endless colds as our immune system came face to face with life.

And it only takes an aerial shot of London in the past for us to start imagining our Grandad is down there. Rushing from his work as a cobbler to the nearest bookies. Perhaps our parents are in amongst that busy crowd on an early date. Maybe they're all just in the pub getting smashed.

It's a guilty pleasure, of course, and highly subjective as each and every year has it's fair share of joy and heartbreak. For us, 1986 may seem a magical time as all was well in the world, but for others 1986 was truly an annus horribilis - some people actually bought Five Star records that year.

The Challenge of Joining an Exclusive Club

We first heard about Sherlock due to the heavy promotion on BBC1 leading up to it's debut. And it was money well spent by the BBC. The public had to know it was coming as it was so amazing and couldn't be missed.

It wasn't hard to miss though. And we like a challenge.

Searching out curious retro British tv shows is our version of a treasure hunt. There's no word of mouth to point us in the right direction. Instead there's a lot of hard work.

Wild and random searches through the Radio Times archives are undertaken alongside searches through IMDB to find strange little avenues of actors' careers.

And once you've found something intriguing it's not just a case of loading up Netflix.

No, you have to work hard to experience these shows. Sometimes pleas are thrown up online, collectors are sought out and, when all else fails, we have to dig into our pocket and head to the BFI Archive.

But is the pay off worth it?

100% absolutely yes!

Maybe there's a touch of arrogance and smugness at play, but we just love joining that exclusive club of people who have viewed these forgotten shows.

It may sound ridiculous, but by viewing a children's TV show long erased from the public's memory, we feel as though we're reactivating those synapses and keeping it alive somehow.

And then, of course, comes the wave of nostalgia (see above) to really sucker punch us and leave us giddy.

Contrasting the TV of Today with the TV of the Past

One thing that really pushes our buttons with retro TV is comparing the telly of old with the telly of today.

We want to see how the entire landscape has changed. In the past almost everything on the BBC was produced in house - now the schedules are littered almost exclusively with independent productions. And budgets? Oh how they have changed! The sparse sets of yesterday are long, long gone.

Television of the past suffers quite badly in retrospect. However, you have to look past the limitations and see what they were able to do. Some episodes of vintage Doctor Who may have horrendously terrible acting and effects, but they're aligned with stellar dialogue and plots.

There's also a real grit in television programmes that the modern age can't seem to replicate. Back then it was a dirty and disturbing grit which was close to the bone. Today we can't help but feel it's too clean cut and stylised to unearth a real disturbance in your mind.

Children's shows, in particular, are really blighted by budget issues. It seemed to be a case of fling a presenter in a studio and hope they can engage the kids with imagination and minimal props. Sometimes it works magnificently (see Bric-a-Brac), but many times it becomes a borefest.

And that's why we're not one of those people who will claim there's no imagination left in television. It's not all style over substance. There's fantastic television out there at the moment which can rival anything from the past. We've just finished watching Cucumber which is an incredibly clever, witty and deep show. And it won't be the last.

Final Thoughts

The three areas above encapsulate exactly why we love watching retro British TV.

We guess, mostly, the nostalgia aspect is the most important one as it provides us a brief escape from the modern world. We know that rose tinted glasses' bewitching effect is only temporary, so we're well aware they need to be taken off.

The challenge to find something 'new' also fuels our desire as we need more than the current palate offered up by modern television.

Finally, we love the history lesson that archived television offers us, so we can see how the industry has changed and moved on over the decades.

Why do you love retro television?



  1. We've all got our nostalgia angle - I was born in '83, so really anything produced between the mid-late eighties and 2000 or so, or likely to be commonly repeated during that era (like 60s Scooby Doo episodes), is going to take me back to that comforting stretch of time when my sense of the world was shaped more by the promise of possibility and less by a crushing sense of doom wrought by insurmountable global forces. Er, that opening wasn't meant to get so dark in tone. But I'm also, to get a bit pretentious, crazily excited by the metatextual qualities of TV and film. The particular textures created by the technology of the time, or the space between what sci-fi monstrosity a show wanted to present and what they could actually knock up out of foam rubber and trick photography. Modern TV is great, but it's all on the go as we speak and I'm not hard pressed to see some if I want to; I'm also way too close to really think about how it does what it does. Once you get over a certain age you start to get into the production or narrative techniques that aren't really in use anymore, or that are only in use as a conscious nod back to that era. 60s Doctor Who and 80s Doctor Who look nothing alike, and neither one could be mistaken for relaunch Doctor Who in even the darkest alley

    And this sort of thing fascinates the hell out of me, to the point of extending to things that really didn't have any place in my childhood, like Japanese tokusatsu franchises or wonky cartoon films that filled out a thousand tatty VHS collections. Not necessarily that I'd watch a show purely on the back of its period charms - I was dredging up an early 90s Rick Moranis vehicle called Gravedale High the other week, and god's balls I'm not going back for another drink from that well - but they definitely tickle my fancy. The British kids' shows particularly have VERY unique qualities that seem to have vanished, that kind of storybook feel where one person narrates and voices all the action, for example. I'm not exactly au fait with what the little 'uns are watching in 2017 but I get the general sense that modern kids' TV has a stronger lineage through the American toy-driven franchises than such stylised whimsies

    Getting meta-meta, the fact that so many of these old shows only turn up now as deteriorated VHS rips and the like only adds to my fascination. Image bleed and tracker wobbling are as much a part of the otherworldly experience as whatever Rufus and Amberley are doing in this particular episode of The Dreamstone (though why they never cottoned on that Rufus is a plank liable to clumsily deliver the stone straight into Zordrak's clutches and just kept him away from it in the first place...)