John Wyver writes: Extraordinarily, this afternoon as a little tribute to Wider Television Access, a group I co-founded in 1980, BFI Southbank is screening a 1963 episode of ITC’s series The Saint, Teresa with Roger Moore and The Avengers: A Touch of Brimstone from 1965 with, of course, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. I’ll be there to intro the screenings along with another co-founder, Archive TV programmer Dick Fiddy, who has organised the show as part of the BFI’s Scala: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll cinema season.
As the BFI listing notes, WTVA was ‘a group of enthusiasts keen on providing access to vintage TV in an era before home video and nostalgia TV channels.’ Others involved included the Scala’s Steve Woolley, Chris Wicking, Tise Vahimagi, Tony Mechele, Paul Kerr and my Illuminations colleague Linda Zuck, and we organised screenings — of Danger Man, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and music shows, amongst much else, mostly borrowed from collectors or surreptiously liberated for a brief period from company vaults. We lobbied for archive television as best we could, and published an occasional magazine, Primetime (above).
This was long before video or DVD box-sets, before the late, lamented Network, before Youtube, and before Channel 4 began, in part in response to the success of WTVA’s screenings, their showings of ITC series and other classics from the 1960s and 1970s. Because of contractual constraints and next-to-no distribution and exhibition frameworks, opportunities to watch and study historical television were exceptionally limited, and we believed that this was a situation that had to change.
So we wrote (and indeed, I’m pretty sure I drafted) a little manifesto about this, which is reproduced in today’s screening notes, and which I feature here. Things have changed, access is most definitely greater now, thanks to iPlayer and streaming services, to Talking Pictures TV, to Learning on Screen and bob / Box of Broadcasts, and indeed to the BFI’s sterling commitment to this area over many years, including at its wonderful Mediatheques, but the situation is still far from ideal. Even after forty-plus years, there is still much to do.
Be seeing you!
Forty years of culture lies locked sway in forgotten film stores and inaccessible archives. Countless hours of television history, each one watched by millions, are now dumped in vaults and seen by no one. WTVA exists to open those vaults. It aims to make television’s past widely available, both for nostalgic pleasure and for discussion and much needed documentation.
WTVA wishes to illustrate that the work which survives has the same vital interest today as literature and cinema’s history. So WTVA wishes to stimulate critical awareness and understanding of these programmes, to catalogue the works of directors, chronicle the history of studios and chart the rise of genres.
In recent years attempts have been made to tackle this gargantuan task. The British Film Institute and several American museums and organisations have begun to take television history seriously. Commendably the BBC has prised open the archives to screen its own past productions, classic US comedy shows and segments from The Outer Limits. WTVA intends to start regular viewings of the wide variety of material which is already available. It hopes to start discussions linked to those viewing and to co-ordinate writing and research based on them. But it also has the task of persuasion. That such screenings do not occur at present is partly because of complex copyright questions, which WVTA hopes to tackle, and partly because of lack of commitment within organisations like the BFI. Another contributory reason is that almost all distributors and exhibitors believe that no-one is interested in ‘old tv’.
If it can be shown that a sizeable, committed and knowledgeable audience exists for such material, then WTVA believes that some of the problems can be overcome and that more and more screenings will be stimulated. The growing availability of video- recorders means that public screenings can now be supplemented for research purposes by individual viewings and re-viewings, particularly of contemporary material. Such a growth of awareness should then increase concern for American television in mainstream criticism and at events like the Edinburgh Television Festival. Eventually a regular and serious television magazine must be started, taking its cue from successful American publications like Emmy and Panorama.