Thursday 16 June 2022

A Trip Back to the BFI Mediatheque

Back in December 2019, I took my first trip down to the BFI Mediatheque on the South Bank, London. It was an important visit, as I was in the process of completing my final bits of research for a book I was writing on children's television. And I was quite, quite amazed at what was on offer. Not only were there 80,000ish individual slices of British film and television available to watch, but you didn't have to book in advance and, most importantly, it was free. I spent a couple of hours in there and vowed to head back soon. But then Covid-19 hit, and travelling down to London was suddenly off the table. But, last weekend, I finally returned.

My time was relatively limited, as I had plenty of other London bits and pieces to catch up on, but I did my best to dig through the mammoth catalogue - now totalling over 90,000 pieces of content - and watched the following oddities of British television:

The Corner House - Channel 4 - 04/05/1987

I first heard of The Corner House last year whilst putting my 50 British TV Comedies From the 1980s You Forgot About article together, and I was determined to watch it as soon as possible. It was a tantalising proposition as it featured a pre-Red Dwarf Robert Llewellyn - alongside his Joey's cohort Christopher Eymard - and there was barely any mention of it online, aside from a single comment that it had taken place in a "right-on gay cafe".

Luckily, the Mediatheque had the very first episode available, so I dived straight in. And it felt exciting to finally be watching some archive TV which involved a little more work than loading up YouTube. Anyway, let's pull this episode apart. First things first, the premise is, uh, straightfoward? Gilbert (Christopher Eymard) is a middle-aged homosexual who manages The Corner House, a cafe which was established years ago by Gilbert's long deceased partner Geoff. Manning the kitchen of The Corner House is Dave (Robert Llewellyn), a mildly neurotic chap who is in a relationship with Annie (Arabella Weir).

This particular episode - written, as was the entire series, by Eymard and Llewellyn - finds both Gilbert and Dave with rather mild worries on their mind. For Gilbert, the prospect of a visit from Sam (Martin Allan) the fire marshal spells danger, particularly when he suggests moving a Welsh dresser to accomodate a fire exit. And, for Dave, there's a crushing brand of anxiety weighing down on him due to his behaviour with some young ladies at a party whilst Annie was away. As for the customers, local butcher Mr Cobham (Howard Lew Lewis) claims he's up to his knees in offal and antiques collector Grace (Annie Hayes) needs help with her crossword. Oh, and delivery man Pete (Aslie Pitter) is, well, delivering some fruit.

Being a 25-minute affair, you would expect The Corner House to be classed as a sitcom. But there's no laughter track, and it's not a string of setup/punchline combos. Instead, it feels more like a comedy drama. There's just a couple of problems: it lacks both comedy and drama. The plot strands are linear, gentle affairs with little in the way of flair, and everything works out okay with barely any of the characters lifting a finger. And, most defeating of all, I didn't crack into a smile once. As for the "right-on" comments, well, it's barely dipping a toe into that territory, aside from a well-meaning, but rather on the nose comment about the AIDS stigmitisation faced by homosexuals in the 1980s.

It may sound as though The Corner House is a lost cause, one best forgotten, but there's a curious warmth at the heart of the show which appealed to me. And, of course, I'm always looking to tick these oddities off my list. Therefore, whilst I won't be petitioning for a DVD release, I'll certainly watch another episode or two in the future.

Ask Oscar - ITV - 23/02/1982

Back in the days when the regional ITV franchises had strong identities, HTV West aired a 10-minute programme called Ask Oscar. It featured not only Oscar - a puppet owl - but also HTV presenter Annie St John. Surprisingly, I had heard of the show as, several years ago, I found a 1-second clip of it in between recordings on a VHS tape, which was kindly identified by someone on Twitter. That, however, was the extent of my familiarity with Ask Oscar. And, as it turned out, I hadn't been missing much.

Ask Oscar was a very simple proposition: the mute Oscar would sit with Annie St John - in the nicely dressed Oscar's Office - as she read out birthday cards for viewers in the HTV West Region. Occasionally, a la Sooty, Oscar would whisper something in Annie's ear, but that was as involved as he got, aside from occasionally turning his head and blinking. This edition features a few knock-knock jokes - with the delightful Annie singing the answers - but mostly consists of birthday messages being read out. It's as ephemeral as archive television comes and, ultimately, has limited potential in terms of excitement. Unless, of course, you find an edition featuring birthday wishes directed to yourself, and then I imagine it doesn't get much more exciting.

You Can Make It - ITV - 15/11/1977

And, so, we head from the South West up to the North East for yet more regional goodness in the form of You Can Make It, a documentary series produced by Tyne Tees Television and airing only in that region in a 5.15pm time slot. Presented by Willie Rushton, You Can Make It was a documentary series with a difference: it handed control of the subject matter over to children aged eight to eighteen and living in the North East. Each edition of You Can Make It featured two documentaries, and this particular episode - titled Ferrets Rule OK - looks at both the wonderful world of ferreting and the endeavours of the Washington Waterfowl Park.

The episode starts with Willie Rushton in a typically low-budget 1970s set - think brown carpets and yellow walls with orange trims - introducing the programme and meeting the first set of documentary makers. In this instance, it's Brian and Barry, a couple of lads in their late teens with a passion for both ferrets and double denim. Their film, clearly filmed by professionals, lasts around 10 minutes and finds the pair roaming the beautiful North East countryside discussing the merits of ferreting and trying to catch some rabbits.

The second set of documentary makers are Steven and Paul, a pair of friends and budding twitchers who volunteer at the Washington Waterfowl Park. Again, their film runs for 10 minutes and features Steven and Paul showing the cameras around the site and discussing how they became involved with the project. Clearly, they - and the owner - are passionate about ecology and conservation, taking great pride in highlighting the park's success in rescuing the Hawaiian Goose from near extinction.

You Can Make It is a perfect example of regional television in that it's created by the locals and is very much for the locals. Whilst there's every chance a child down in Croydon may have an obsession with the world of waterfowl, it's unlikely that they would be heading up to the Washington Waterfowl Park in a hurry. But the beauty of such regional-specific television is that it acts as a fantastic marker for local history. Neither of the films featured here are exhilarating exercises in documentary making, but they highlight intriguing pockets of interest and concern for the young people of the North East in the late 1970s.

For myself, one episode of You Can Make It is more than enough, although I'd be intrigued to see if any of the other episodes feature scenes that rival dead rabbits and gruesome taxidermy processes as featured here. But, if you have a specific interest in the cultural endeavours of children in the North East in the 1970s, well, You Can Make It ticks every box you could ever imagine.

Tea Time Tales - ITV - 1985

Another regional oddity, Tea Time Tales aired in the STV region and appears to have run for some time in Scotland, although I've failed to track down the exact transmission dates (please get in touch if you know!). As the name suggests, Tea Time Tales was a storytelling programme which went out in a teatime slot. This particular edition, titled The Caged Bird, is presented by Lavinia Derwent, a Scottish author best known for her Tammy Troot stories.

Sitting in a comfortable armchair, Derwent addresses the camera in a budget-friendly set and tells a tale from her youth: The Caged Bird. Narrative-wise, it's as basic as they come. Derwent's tale centres upon a mute budgie owned by one of her neighbours. And, after some daily encouragement from Derwent, the budgie eventually finds its voice and, well, that's the end of that. Despite being far from eventful, there's something curiously sedate about Tea Time Tales; I suspect it would be perfect to watch just before dozing off at night. Aside from that, it's too slight an experience to demand much interest, but there's still a strong nostalgia factor for the die-hard British TV enthusiast.

So, my adventures in the world of long forgotten British TV can finally step up a notch or two after two years of relying on nothing but online resources. I will, of course, be heading back to the BFI Mediatheque at some point, but my future plans also include a trip to the BFI Viewing Rooms where you can request some exceptionally obscure programmes. It feels good to be back.

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