Play it again, Auntie

There's a hole in the schedules. Time to repeat a 'classic' sitcom. Nothing wrong with that, says W Stephen Gilbert, but what about the rest of our television heritage?
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The Independent Culture
On television, it is the season of those missed-the-first-time programmes and hollow ruefulness in the schedulers' demeanour. Not having noticed the parenthetical "R" in the television listings, the viewer is of a sudden a deja vue-er, leaping up with a cry of "Didn't we see this a couple of years ago? And indeed a couple of years before that?"

Why has television - and the BBC in particular - got the business of repeats so wrong? However it tries to market its already-broadcast material, the note is always false, the sense of being sold a pup ever present.

So many tacks have been tried. For some years, the stock sales-pitch was "another chance to see", a you-lucky-people kind of approach that defied the harrumphing viewer to be an ingrate. Then the term "classic" began to be applied to any programme, however humbly humdrum, so long as it was at least three months since its first transmission. Now the vogue is for compilation "specials", which re-edit "highlights" from old shows so that the dread word "repeat" may - legitimately, they argue - be avoided.

Heresy though it may be to say so, the fact is that screening programmes a second and even a third time is not of itself a capital offence. In a still prolific culture like ours, the most diligent and leisured seeker after enlightenment and diversion is hard pressed to catch everything worth the seeking. That a little at least of those most fugitive of the arts, television and radio, will escape is inevitable, even - indeed, because it is so often a false expedient, especially - in the age of home- taping.

So might we not rather be pleased for "another chance to see"? Well, of course we are, when it suits us. Unfairly, we lap up the repeats we crave while deploring the return of the tired old stuff we never cared to watch the first time round.

It is not the fact of repeating that needs re-examination but the philosophy of repeating. Take a currently successful disinterment. How can anyone query another BBC1 outing for Fawlty Towers when it pulls in an audience that approaches an astounding nine million? This is nearly half as many again as watch Steve Wright's People Show - and that particular first- run diversion has been assisted in its mission to hold BBC1's Saturday night audience by ITV putting less-than-scintillating repeats against it. So slotting in John Cleese's 20-year-old sitcom is demonstrably giving the punters what they want.

But there are aspects that ought to give pause. Virtually everything currently on BBC1 that rivals or exceeds the ratings for Fawlty Towers is a soap opera, an import or a repeat. Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, Dad's Army, Monty Python, Only When I Laugh, Rab C Nesbitt, Rising Damp, Steptoe and Son and now The Likely Lads have all been extensively re-run in peak time this year, leaving little of the sitcom cream to dip into for a later season. And what from this decade will join the shows with an indefinite shelf-life? Absolutely Fabulous, of course; and One Foot in the Grave, Keeping Up Appearances, Birds of a Feather, Rab C (though these four were actually developed in the 1980s); and... what else? To rely so conspicuously on past success is a false economy, postponing the day when new work of comparable quality must be found and simultaneously making it more difficult for such new work by creating a false impression that the sitcom output was routinely this inspired.

It is the flourishing of "comedy classics" centre-schedule that antagonises. Mid-evening is the critical time when most people view off air rather than watching bought or rented videos or time-shifted material on their own tapes. These are the shop-window hours, the period during which a channel defines itself and draws its core viewers who most widely reflect the attitude of the nation to the medium and its constituent parts. If BBC1 in peak time is commonly packed with old shows, however satisfyingly this pays off in short-term ratings, attitudes towards the BBC will begin to change. It will no longer be seen as the premier programme-maker of British television; rather, it will dwindle into the role of the national museum of broadcasting, a terrestrial UK Gold.

Now being a museum is no bad thing. Television needs a long as well as a short-term view of its past. Showcasing archive material in those off- peak times when the schedules have a threadbare look would provide a valuable public service - once the centre of the BBC's remit - and enhance television's cultural status.

Every generation should have the opportunity to see the extant masterpieces of the medium. But how many years is it since there were screenings of Alun Owen's Lena, O My Lena and After the Funeral, Howard Schuman's Rock Follies and Up-Line, Peter Watkins's Culloden and The War Game, John Osborne's A Subject of Scandal and Concern and The Right Prospectus, David Rudkin's House of Character and Penda's Fen, Troy Kennedy Martin's Diary of a Young Man and Edge of Darkness or David Mercer's And Did Those Feet? and Let's Murder Vivaldi?

By contrast, every generation can enjoy a crash-course in the masterpieces of Anglo-American, if not world, cinema on British television, both in a routine, unstructured way and in seasons of great directors' work (can you remember five years going by without the BBC running a season of John Ford films?). It was always true, however, that the bosses of television have been more dazzled by cinema than by their own medium. So Michael Grade's office at Channel 4 is decorated with posters not of anything so unimportant as television programmes but of those Films on Four that have done good business in cinemas.

But the way television uses movies provides a perfectly workable pattern for an approach to scheduling programmes. It is striking that the medium hardly ever seems to get into bad odour for the repetition of movies, even though it must have been written into the BBC's charter that no bank holiday may elapse without a showing of El Cid.

Generally a film with broad appeal will be scheduled first and maybe second in peak time; its many thereafters will tend to be off-peak and often in slots where a movie has come to be expected. And there is no shyness about it. Attention is only drawn to the so-called network premiere; subsequent screenings are not flagged as repeats in the apologetic fashion reserved for programmes. It is just assumed that movies are familiar and no less acceptable for that.

Previously screened programmes could be fed into the schedules just as unselfconsciously. Better yet, something appropriate could be made of them. They could be packaged as masterpieces of the form rather than screened as if they are not what they are: Fawlty Towers, after all, was given a Radio Times cover and a "Basil's Back" headline, for all the world as though Cleese was returning with a brand-new series.

There is the problem of artistes' contracts. The standard buy-out clause in film deals allows movies to be broadcast relatively cheaply, whereas residual payments apply to material made for broadcasting, making repeats both more expensive and often complicated to clear. This can be resolved; the days of powerful unions strangling every development at birth are long past, and the slow evolution of broadcasting organisations from producing to "publishing" will ensure that programmes as well as movies are increasingly made under buy-out (and perhaps profit-share) deals.

In any case, no such excuse explains the lack of regular repeats bestowed upon such documentary masterpieces as Philip Donnellan's Where Do We Go From Here? and Gone for a Soldier, Denis Mitchell's Morning in the Streets and Night in the City, Frank Cvitanovich's Victoria Park and Beauty, Bonny, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton, Charlie Squires's Derby Day and The Grafters or Granada's Disappearing World series.

Coming up to its 60th birthday, it is surely time the medium took a positive pride in its own heritage rather than a stance that is at once shame-faced and opportunistic. Television's own history ought to be as integral a part of present-day transmission as is cinema's past. The language of "repeats" is outmoded and fit only to be deemed politically incorrect. What we who love television want to be sure of is that there will always be "another chance to see" Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective and John Hopkins's Talking to a Stranger, Mike Dibb's Ways of Seeing and Paul Watson's The Family as well as The Last of the Summer Wine, ad infinitum.