This feels like something we should prefix by saying “they’re not paying us to say this”, but we absolutely love Talking Pictures. Shoved in SD only at the ragged end of Sky’s film section, it hosts a wealth of antique films, mostly but not exclusively British, and frequently spitting out gems we’d long heard of but never seen.
Pleasingly, since the channel launched it’s managed to grow in popularity at a steady rate, rising from a peak-time audience of a few thousand to gaining viewing figures not too far away from certain digital mainstays. Here’s a chart we’ve compiled confirming it – it’s a channel on the rise.
And on surprise with such a varied output – from 1930s crime dramas to 1980 Children’s Film Foundation fare. And that’s without possibly the most interesting output on the channel – TV shows that would otherwise remain restricted to a dusty archive, often taken from the lesser heralded regional ITV outpost Southern. Look out for weirdly compelling 1980 soap Together (including Phil Redmond on occasional writing credits and Sarah Greene putting on some of the acting talent that would later resurface in Ghostwatch) and the brilliant 1950s ITV crime drama Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff as the titular Colonel of the Yard’s excellently named ‘Department of Queer Complaints’. And there’s the occasional episode of Runaround bunged on to remind everyone how horrible Mike Reid was before EastEnders. Seriously, the Christmas ‘Runaround on Ice’ special had to have a special caption beforehand warning viewers “that the following film contains scenes of outdated racial representation that some viewers may find offensive’. On a programme made for children. Eep.
Anyway. that’s not while we’ve fired up Open Live Writer to pen this update. We’ve been enthusiastically bobbing for numbers in the Barb website and come up for air clutching the entire weekly top ten viewing figures for Talking Pictures in our remaining teeth (we were a little too enthusiastic).
Here are the ten most watched things in Talking Pictures’ history so far. All viewing figures from the reliably marvellous barb.co.uk.
THE TEN MOST WATCHED THINGS ON TALKING PICTURES SO FAR
10 TWO WAY STRETCH (1960)
(1755 Thurs 10/03/16, 35,000 viewers)
D-list crim Dodger Lane (Peter Sellers) has planned the perfect caper. Only problem is, he’s clanged up at Her Maj’s pleasure. Sir Bernard Cribbins, Lionel Jeffries, Liz Fraser and Beryl Reid also feature.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Always tending to crop up a lot on Talking Pictures, some of our favourite actors turning up in relatively minor roles. Definitely a category worth including. No, it is. This film scores highly on that scale: Sellers aside, you’ve got Sir Bernard Cribbins, Lionel Jeffries, Liz Fraser and Beryl Reid (as we just said), but also Irene Handl, Liz Fraser, Warren Mitchell and Arthur Mullard. CULT VALUE: 8/10
9 DESERT MICE (1959)
(1711 Thurs 26/05/16, 36,000 viewers)
World War II, and life is pretty ghastly on the North African front. Luckily, there’s an entertainment troupe on hand to provide comedy and chaos. Starring Alfred Marks, Sidney James, Dora Bryan.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Another nice score. John Le Mesurier as ‘Staff Colonel’, Irene Handl as ‘Miss Patch’, Liz Fraser as ‘Edie’ and – bonus points here – a young, uncredited Paul Eddington. Told you this category would be worthwhile. CULT VALUE: 5/10.
8 THE IRON MAIDEN (1962)
(2121 Sat 06/08/16, 38,000 viewers)
Disappointingly vague here, we’re afraid – our best guess that this is a title IMDB lists as ‘The Swingin’ Maiden’, starring Michael Craig and Anne Helm. “An American airline firm plan to buy a new British passenger plane, but the deal hits trouble when the plane's designer Jack Hopkins and Kathy Fisher the daughter of the Airline owner, take an instant dislike to each other, after crashing into each other in a quiet country lane.“
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Slightly disappointing, to be honest. Joan Sims and Anton Rodgers. And we’re deducting a point for Alan Dale also being there. CULT VALUE: 1/10.
7 GAOLBREAK (1962)
(1450 Thurs 19/11/15, 39,000 viewers)
Off to a great start by using the correct Honest British Spelling of ‘gaol’, and the plot doesn’t disappoint either. A family of crims plan a heist at a jewellry shop (NOT STORE). When those barely baked plans go awry and the family safecracker is incarcerated, a plan is concocted to break him out.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Slightly disappointing, but there is a place for Ivor Dean from The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. CULT VALUE: 1/10.
6 THE FLYING SCOT (1957)
(1015 Sun 06/11/16, 39,000 viewers)
Or, as IMDB has it in the best tradition of The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down, “The Mailbag Robbery”. A band of villains carry out a robbery on the titular train, what with it carrying a heap of withdrawn bank notes from Scotland to London to be destroyed. Presumably they get away with it only to find no-one south of Carlisle is willing to accept Scottish banknotes anyway.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Patsy Smart, who later appeared in Alexei Sayle’s Stuff so two points there, and another two points for ‘Geoffrey Bodkin’ who seemingly only appeared in this film, and under the uncredited role of ‘Neat Boy’. CULT VALUE: 4/10.
5 THE IRON MAIDEN (1962)
(1600 Sun 20/11/16, 40,000 viewers)
4 THE WESTERNER (1960)
(1555 Weds 11/11/15, 44,000 viewers)
Not actually a film, but rather a TV serial western that ran for one series on NBC in 1960. Created and produced by Sam Peckinpah, no less. But it’s still a western. And a bit of a shame that this is the only TV show here. CULT VALUE: 0/10.
That said, the content of The Westerner is probably much less dodgy than TP’s repeat of Southern TV’s Star Treatment Show starring Cannon and Ball.
Hmm. That doesn’t crop up on any double-act retrospective you’re likelty to see soon, does it?
3 LAST HOLIDAY (1950)
(1305 Sat 09/04/16, 45,000 viewers)
Much more like it. A JB Priestley screenplay, starring Alec ‘Genuine Class’ Guinness. A unfulfilled farm equipment salesman has just a few weeks to live – time to withdraw his life savings and set about having the time of his rapidly diminishing life.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Alec Guinness, Beatrice Campbell, Muriel 'Went the Day Well?' George, Bernard 'M' Lee, Esma Cannon, Sidney James, Charles Lloyd Pack. PROTIP: Any film where Sidney James is credited as ‘Sidney James’ = good. Any film where Sidney James is credited as ‘Sid James’ = less good. CULT VALUE: 7/10.
2 REACH FOR THE SKY (1956)
(1332 Sun 02/10/16, 46,000 viewers)
A biopic of Douglas Bader, starring Kenneth More.
BROKENTV SCREEN HERO WATCH: Not much, to be honest. Though there is an uncredited role for noted TV producer Barry Letts, who’d later move from minor acting roles to producing the likes of Treasure Island, Sexton Blake and the Demon God, Goodbye Mr Chips and 128 episodes of a little show called Doctor Who. CULT VALUE: 3/10.
1 THE BARGEE (1964)
(1405 Sun 14/02/16, 48,000 viewers)
Now we’re talking. The tale of life on the waterways of mid-60s Britain, with a diminishing number of bargees struggling to make ends meet as the new-fangled motorways wrestle away their livelihoods. With us so far? No? How about noting that that the action centres on Hemel Pike, a canal-based casanova who has a lady lurking by every lock, but who won’t restrict himself to a single woman. Won you over yet?
Nope, probably not. Indeed, were such a premise to appear a decade later the threat of a bobbing Asquith’s arse might well loom large. Cast such thoughts from your mind, gentle reader (erm, if you can now we’ve said what we did). We’ve cleverly been saving the key details ‘til last. Written by a certain Galton and Simpson, with Hancock and Steptoe producer/director Duncan Wood calling the shots. Better yet, there’s some cream casting contained within – Harry H Corbett as lead lothario Pike (yes, we know you’ve already seen the photo up there), Ronnie Barker as his simple but well-meaning brother Joe, Julia Foster as Pike’s on-off girlfriend Christine, with the marvellous Hugh Griffith as Christine’s overly protective Dad. And those are just the main characters – Eric Sykes, Derek Nimmo, Richard Briers, Brian Wilde, not to mention uncredited appearances for Pat Hayes and Una Stubbs. All that, plus a story that belies the pull-out synopsis at the top of this entry – without spilling the plot details, this turns out to be a tale that’s genuinely heart-warming and even – yep – pretty progressive given the era. CULT VALUE: 10/10.
And there we go. It’s probably lucky that someone like Ballard Berkeley, Clive Swift or Hilda Braid wasn’t there too, or we’d have had to award it 12/10 and thereby broken the internet. Anyway, want to see the top 100 in full? Here’s a Google Sheets link for you. You’re welcome.
Talking Pictures is available on Sky, Freeview, Freesat and YouView. And they’re still not paying us to say all this, so we’re going to make you find out the channel numbers for yourself.