Black and White Lives 

1 January 2001

I expect, like me, you have often seen a dog lazing itself in a sunny garden, and thought, “Oh, for a dog’s life”.

That being said, it is widely believed that many animals, including dogs, actually only see black and white vision. Most people today do not have much notion of seeing things in black and white. However, from the 1940’s until 1967 for BBC-2, 1969 for ITV and BBC-1, black and white TV was the only choice.

Sadly, a culturally insane decision was made to wipe a great number of those earlier black and white programmes, some of them classics. A potential for using these programmes again in the future was never considered, when set against the need to wipe tapes and re-use them again at a time when video tapes cost hundreds of pounds each.

Morecambe and Wise (and Grade) - ATV Network 1962

Morecambe and Wise made many long series for the BBC and later for Thames Television. BBC-2 recently screened some of the programmes they originally made for Associated Television in monochrome.

An added bonus for TV presentation enthusiasts who managed to see these “Two of a Kind” shows was the BBC’s decision to keep ATV’s famous ident at the front of the programme. These shows were screened with the complete end credits and another Associated Television Production caption at the very end – a rare treat indeed these days.

There should be possibilities of more TV channels these days providing regular slots for some of the material that remains in the archives. Could not some channel executives and producers imaginatively think of ways that fresh black and white TV, as an art form, could be made and screened for the audiences of today?

The cinema of the 1930s through to the 60s, while able to produce films in colour, continued to make a number in black and white, especially if limited budgets demanded it, or if the director and the studios deemed it suitable for the story and style of the film. The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland used black and white sequences when young Dorothy was in her Kansas home, and colour in the land of Oz, returning to monochrome in the final Kansas scenes. It worked perfectly.

Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker risked their own money to film Zulu in the 1960s in glorious colour, and it was an amazing success. Great colour shots against genuine South African scenery. The brilliance of the golden sun, red tunics and browns and greens of the Transvaal was astonishing. Other 60s action movies such as The Longest Day and A Town Like Alice were equally successful and yet filmed entirely in black and white.

There really is room in the schedules of some of our specialist channels for more black and white material. Some of the classic TV channels like UK Gold and Granada Plus have not utilised the vast libraries of programmes they own to the best advantage. Granada Plus have shown Bootsie and Snudge, from their own stable, but elected to screen it only in the mornings.

Sadly, modern TV executives are more worried about holding zapping audiences and ratings figures than about television as an arts and culture source.

Some of the earlier episodes of one of TV’s most brilliant classic drama series, Upstairs Downstairs, made by London Weekend Television, producer John Hawksworth under executive producer Rex Firkin, were made in black and white. This had no negative effect at all and Upstairs Downstairs remained a ratings phenomenon, becoming one of ITV’s most successful costume dramas.

It may have been nostalgia but it also has to be remembered, that for many years the BBC original video of Watch With Mother, with Andy Pandy, Picture Book, Rag Tag and Bobtail, The Woodentops and Bill and Ben, all in black and white, was the BBC’s most popular seller. Certainly the lack of colour did not affect customers willingness to buy.

Channel 4, at its inspirational best in its early years, screened some of the earlier black and white silent movies to the new music of Carl Davis. This coincided with a repeat on Channel 4 of an original Thames Television series Hollywood, shown on ITV in 1980, about the silent movie era. Channel 4 also screened the D.W. Griffiths masterpiece “Birth of a Nation” to great acclaim.

What are the most likely channels to show or originate fresh black and white material? Granada Plus have access to much material from the past and programmes like the original Avengers from ABC that were screened on Channel 4 some years ago were big hits. Public Eye, Callan, the list of options is endless – always providing copyright clearances and actors repeat fees can be agreed.

It should be possible to a mount a national stock-take involving the British Film Institute’s television archives, so that as a nation we know what black and white material is still in transmissible condition. An appeal could be made to search through TV company archives, attics across the nation and a where possible the libraries of schools, colleges and individual collectors of programmes – to see what further icons from black and white TV’s cultural past can be re-discovered.

Hopefully Channel 4 will return to its once innovative roots, but perhaps for now, the new fledgling BBC 4 channel would be open to ideas about suitable black and white programmes. There is no doubt that while BBC-4’s audiences are small just now, more and more people will change to digital television and it will become more popular. It took BBC-2 many years to achieve the state of being both available nationally and popular. Carving out a niche for occasionally specially made black and white programmes could be to BBC-4’s advantage.

What is being suggested here is not Take Over TV as far as black and white television is concerned but a call for more air time for some of the very best of the available black and white material, both from yesteryear and of new material to be screened. Modern audiences could warm to occasional new monochrome material if programme makers and commissioners can come up with new original ideas. British television might re-inherit the crown it once had for being the very best range of television in the whole world.

With a little imagination on the part of programme makers we might be able to experience again the black and white world, sampling the dog’s own view, stretched out on settee and carpet – in front of our televisions.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 23 February 2015 at 8:52 pm

Until around 1972, Midlands ATV used to screen more monochrome archive shows, than any other ITV region, such examples were: Ramar of the Jungle, Stryker of the Yard, Cannonball, Charlie Chan, etc.

Joanne Gray 26 October 2015 at 11:55 am

Monochrome or colour – surely a triviality when it should be a question of how enjoyable a show or a movie is; writing and performance are also considerations.

I was born in 1971 and of the generation whose school holiday daytime viewing was crammed with old black and white classics like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon starring the inimitable Buster Crabbe, King of the Rocket Men, White Horses, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Keystone Kops and Charlie Chaplin. Yes, they were cheap schedule fillers and we only had 3 channels broadcasting a limited number of hours – but I certainly don’t feel in any way cheated for not having this entertainment shown in “living colour”, far from it. They were a connection to my grandparents and parents who had sat in fleapit cinemas a generation or more ago and paid their shilling to watch the very same cliffhangers and slapstick routines. To have them sit down in the comfort of their own home to enjoy them all over again with us children was a shared family experience akin to the daily meal around the dining table, a bonding experience that sadly has been consigned to history.

Today’s blindingly bright coloured, noisy blasting “music” dumbed down world is a cold and hostile place. How many parents can sit down in front of today’s TV output and show their children the great things they used to enjoy back in the day when those who run the channels wrongly believe no colour and no loud noise equals unwatchable?

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