Thunderbirds are go, Basil's back. What next?

A rash of resurrected 'classics' is taking over television schedules. It says more about the ages of TV bosses than it does about the quality of the originals.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A timely chance to reacquaint with an old favourite, or a poor excuse for repeats to fill schedules light on fresh ideas? Depending on which way you look at it, next weekend's (3 September) return of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds is either a glorious excuse to wallow in nostalgia, or a bit of a yawn. It is, however, just one of a host of "new" old TV "favourites" set to make a return to our TV screens in coming months.

A timely chance to reacquaint with an old favourite, or a poor excuse for repeats to fill schedules light on fresh ideas? Depending on which way you look at it, next weekend's (3 September) return of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds is either a glorious excuse to wallow in nostalgia, or a bit of a yawn. It is, however, just one of a host of "new" old TV "favourites" set to make a return to our TV screens in coming months.

Thunderbirds - or rather, New Thunderbirds, for it has been digitally remastered in honour of the technologically sophisticated 21st-century audience to enhance the picture quality and eradicate audio crackle - will shortly be followed by the return of Bill & Ben (the flower pot men), and Basil Brush.

It's not just in the children's arena, however, that old has become the new new. ITV recently confirmed plans to remake The Forsyte Saga. BBC TV is already at work on the second series of its updated version of Sixties cult classic, Randall & Hopkirk, Deceased. And that's not to mention the recent arrival of The New Professionals and new Wombles with new characters including a tree house-dwelling, Girl Power womble and a herb-growing, spiritualist womble from China.

In one respect, the current vogue for old programme ideas is nothing new. British broadcasters have always been happy to breathe fresh life into a popular format - notable examples include The New Avengers, The Saint and Dr Who. But it's the volume of returning classics and remakes that sets the current trend apart from what has gone before. Oh, and the terrestrial schedules' current preoccupation with all things retro - typified by BBC 2's I Love the 1970s and Smash, a social and musical history of the single soon to be shown by ITV.

A number of factors are driving the fad for old formats. Such as? Well, post-millennial angst, for one thing. "You can't beat nostalgia, especially at the moment," says Alan Marke, the joint managing director of production company Channel X. "It's always reassuring in times of change to look back at how things used to be." Then there's the age of the current batch of channel controllers and commissioning editors, says Gary Monaghan, head of entertainment at RDF Television: "Those in control today are in their late thirties and early forties so the Seventies and early Eighties mean a lot to them and to other people the same age."

But more important than either, it seems, is reassurance. There's safety in familiarity - a key part of Thunderbirds' and Basil Brush's appeal, according to Mike Heap, chief executive of Entertainment Rights, the company masterminding Basil Brush's return to TV. "With shows like these, different generations pass down the desire to see them," he maintains. "If BBC or ITV announced Basil Brush would be on at 5.30pm next Friday a few million would tune in - which would not be the case with an unknown show. It's the heritage of such programmes that has turned them into brands in their own right. And this provides reassurance to broadcasters."

To some such "reassurance" is simply a another word for conservatism. "Broadcasters have become increasingly reluctant to take a risk and try something new," one senior producer laments. "It's not that there aren't enough fresh new ideas out there, it's that too few are actually given a chance to try out on screen because of commissioners' preference for the safest option." But Sophie Turner Laing, controller of programme acquisition at BBC TV who is responsible for acquiring new Thunderbirds, begs to differ. "There is a place in the schedule for old 'favourites'," she insists. "By which I don't mean just any old repeat. BBC2 regularly brings back classic series but these delicious re-bites are not repeated often, so their return is a real treat. To qualify for this treatment, a programme must be unique of their time."

Shows like Thunderbirds and Basil Brush, however, aren't just about guaranteeing audiences. Both, as Heap points out, have also become televisual brands in their own right and as such are ripe for exploiting through merchandising and marketing activities. In the case of Thunderbirds it was Carlton International, which owns the TV series following its acquisition of the ITC programme library (essentially, programmes made under Lew Grade by Central Television's predecessor, ATV) from Polygram, which is behind the series' digital remastering and return to British television. "We wanted to market some of Gerry Anderson's creations internationally and began with Thunderbirds because it is the best known," Carlton International marketing spokeswoman, Rachel Glaister, says: "We felt enough years had elapsed to establish a new generation of viewers, and merchandise."

Getting a British broadcaster to air the series was key. BBC2 acquired the broadcast rights having successfully aired the series twice before - the last time was in 1991. Meanwhile, Carlton set about developing a merchandising plan centred around a new Thunderbirds computer game for the PlayStation 2 and PC. Other spin-offs include Thunderbirds-branded mobile phone facias, action figures, a model Tracey Island and an array of Lady Penelope paraphernalia, which will even include ghosted diary columns in a national Sunday newspaper. The digital re-mastering of the series, meanwhile, was, in fact, for DVD release rather than for the benefit of broadcast TV viewers.

Again, with Basil Brush, it's the rights owner rather than a specific broadcaster that is driving a return to TV. Entertainment Rights - which acquired the rights to the character from Basil's creator, Ivan Owen, although the BBC retains the rights to the original series - is developing a new programme format. It will be a sitcom, Heap explains, involving an American family who move to London and find they have a rather unusual neighbour. "Because the TV market is more about marketing, brand development and loyalty than ever it is now easier to re-establish an old favourite than to develop a new proposition - because you already have a hook," he says. This works for the broadcaster and for the rights owner as a successful merchandising campaign depends on TV exposure.

Although Entertainment Rights has yet to secure a UK broadcast deal - it wants to produce a pilot first - it has already struck a number of licensing deals for greetings cards and a Basil Brush mobile phone holder. "It's difficult to predict how much could be made from all of this," Heap adds. "But if Basil has just 10 per cent of the Teletubbies' success we could see royalty revenues of between £3m and £4m a year." Rather than being the ultimate televisual cop-out nostalgia, it seems, is now a very serious business indeed.

Comments