By Tim Beddows, Managing Director, Network Distributing Ltd
Even I was sceptical. And I like daft ideas. At the height of a massively overcrowded videocassette market, who, I asked, would buy a tape of those?
We’re talking about public information films. They’d pretty well vanished from tv screens by the early 90s but before television fragmented into thousands of pieces, they were invariably as famous (that’s the first clue that went clean over my head) and memorable (a second) as the programmes they were wedged between. Unlike the cars they were warning you about, you couldn’t avoid them…and then they just seemed to vanish. And unlike programmes, they didn’t come back because there was no further outlet for them. They’d done their job.
As a film collector, I had discovered a huge stash of the things in the basement of Central’s television studios in Birmingham, and they were in a state of limbo: they had been de-commissioned so weren’t to be aired again but equally the Central Office of Information hadn’t given instructions on what was to become of them. Return or junk are the usual options, but there they were attracting dust and the occasional moan from someone wanting the shelf space.
There was a previously unexplored third option: maybe I could buy them. This seemed unlikely given that the COI was a civil-servant operated machine, but that part of the process, and the subsequent licensing of them, proved relatively straightforward, possibly because there was no rule book to consult.
Central had their reservations. After all, I wasn’t in the industry, they didn’t think I really knew what I was buying and who would want to buy these things anyway? I can’t even remember what the hell I was doing there that day in 1993, but, in retrospect, it was a defining moment.
With an agreement reached between three parties, I roll up in a van to load, traipsing the corridors with trollies rammed with hundreds of little film cans, each filled with mini stories of every hue. The librarian was very sad to see them go and she appealed to me to ensure they were looked after ‘because they are a very important part of our cultural history’. She knew her stuff and I was true to my word.
I called in a favour and had a large selection of them telecined (at BBC Pebble Mill, which, along with Central’s studios and even the COI, all sadly no longer exist) and it was on reviewing them with Martin Cater (who has found his own home within Network) that ludicrous ideas emerged. ‘You could put these out on video’. ‘What? Nah. Really? Well…’
It went from dismissal to possibility to actuality in less than thirty seconds, driven partly by the fact that I really did like the idea and partly that I didn’t have anything better to do at that time. I think being skint may have also had some bearing.
The fun fair ride that followed, resulting in that best-selling tape, deserves a whole manual of its own, for what I single-handedly learned at that time really was the best education for what the business still does today. I just didn’t think we’d still be doing it twenty-five years later. Who would?
‘Charley Says’, led by an annoying, crudely animated cat voiced by Kenny Everett, was a collection of quick fixes and people couldn’t get enough of them. James Naughtie discussed it on ‘Today’, the Guardian did a ‘Pass notes’ on it, DJs sampled it for the clubs, Esther McVey boosted it on morning television.
Best of all, the VJ at HMV’s flagship store on Oxford Street, called to say that he’d played the tape on Saturday morning throughout the building and ‘punters just flocked around the screens’. Could they have some more? Sure. Thousands more. Thousands of people, all wanting a thirty second trip into their television past.
Recounting this story twenty-five years later, when so much has changed, arrived and disappeared; when you barely have time to blink and with so much put in front of you, like it or not, it is gratifying to know that we can still offer a little break from it all in form of something from the past as stirring, emotive and pioneering as anything made today.
And I still get a thrill breaking open a can of film that may not have been touched for decades and seeing what falls out. Luckily for Network, there is still so much to be rediscovered, much like those mini stories in the basement of Central Television twenty-five years ago.
‘Charley Says’ was the first hit but there have been many highlights in our history and we’ll be sharing twenty-five key moments with you very soon…