Why can't we have arthouse films on TV?

The uninspiring choice of movies on television leaves Ben Walsh yearning for the indie treats of the Eighties
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The Independent Culture

It turns out that being a stay-at-home sullen, bashful teenager in the 1980s and early 1990s wasn't so directionless and abysmal (who knew?) after all. In fact, in terms of interesting films on television we were positively spoiled.

If you were allowed to stay up far too late (which I was) then you could catch a giddy array of "arthouse" movies, or, at least, reasonably rare/obscure ones.

There was, for example, a pretty decent chance of catching an off-the-wall film on BBC2 in the late afternoon (say 6pm-ish – yes as early as that) and an exquisite film late night on BBC1 or ITV. There were fewer channels – a mere four – to choose from yet the chances of catching an actual gem were, absurdly, much more likely. French films such as Subway, Diva or Dennis Hopper's bleak but compelling Out of the Blue (1980) on Channel 4; hammy Hammer House of Horror delights such Curse of the Werewolf and The Brides of Dracula on BBC2; and riveting US indie pictures – The Last Detail, Big Wednesday, A Wedding, Harold and Maude and The Hired Hand – again on BBC2.

Now, we are deluged with channels – some inconsequential, others positively Chris Tarrant-like in their pointlessness – but there's zilch out there. Nothing we haven't seen ad nauseam – the same films, on repeat, seemingly appear night after night. In any given week/month you're pretty much guaranteed to see the following: Die Hard, Death on the Nile, Gremlins, The Matrix and the Chevy Chase caper Memoirs of an Invisible Man (for the love of God, why?). And, quite frankly, what is now the purpose of Film4, the channel that co-funded The Last King of Scotland, The Straight Story and Touching the Void. What is this once stimulating station giving us? Well, tonight, we have Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (how many blasted times has this jingoistic dross been shown on British TV) and the rather mundane Will Smith actioner I, Robot as their primetime (6.15pm and 9pm) film choices. Where is the imagination in these two picks? Any of the terrestrial channels could show these action flicks, at any time. Shouldn't Film4 be striving to screen something more imaginative? More daring? Tomorrow night they have Jonathan Demme's rather futile The Manchurian Candidate (2004) remake and Steven Seagal's dunderheaded Under Siege.

There was a time when Channel 4 tried to furnish us with a taste of something different, something a tad more perverse. The Red Triangle series, which ran from 1986-1987, screened provocative (and, often, unspeakable) films, which included Claude Faraldo's Themroc, an unsavoury tale of cannibalism and incest, Michelangelo's Antonioni's thorny Identification of a Woman (1982) and Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981), about delinquent youth in Brazil. The films were very hit and miss, but they were always disobedient and challenging. They were better, surely, than suffering Seagal's US-Navy-Seal-turned-short-order-chef whip mercenary butt in Under Siege for the umpteenth time? Film4, clearly, doesn't think so. The schedulers appear bored rigid by films. How else to explain their tired, predictable selections?

The BBC has been similarly derelict and woefully uninspired in their duty (yes, their duty) to show interesting films. Tonight, we have The Breakfast Club (admittedly a good one, but not a terribly inspired choice) on BBC1 at 11.35pm and The Counterfeiters on BBC4 (again good, but shown far too late at 11pm), and that's your lot. There was a heady time – from 1987 to 1994 – when Alex Cox (the director of Repo Men) presented the wonderful Moviedrome series on BBC2, on Saturday nights. He presented a droll, impassioned précis on a cult movie before screening it; tasty morsels such as Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, Ridley Scott's The Duellists and horror flick Dead of Night. Not particularly outlandish features, but these types of film are an anathema to current schedule makers. Someone at Film4, BBC4, Sky Arts, anywhere, needs to show a dash of courage and screen some rarely seen and innovative films, at a reasonable hour. There is an audience, however small, out there who wish to watch them.