By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
Perhaps the news that enthused me the most this year, was that Network would be releasing Crossroads: The Noele Gordon Collection early in 2023. Oddly, despite being born in 1969, and being three years old when ITV aired the series across the UK, I was never a devotee in my formative years. It was not so much the sort of “Crossroads” jokes that even Mike & Bernie Winters might have rejected; it was more that I preferred The Goodies and The Kenny Everett Video Show. Now, my ongoing interest in television history – and the career of the rather remarkable Ms. Gordon – means that I crave the boxset.
To understand the popularity of Crossroads, is to appreciate the three-channel television of the 1970s. For many viewers, the adventures of the motel’s staff were the day’s highlight. Furthermore, as Ms. Gordon clearly understood, many fans were elderly, and the series really spoke to people whose everyday lives could be mundane, lonely, or depressing. The ATV logo, with its promise of yet more shenanigans from Benny, Amy Turtle, and various guests wearing truly horrendous nylon suits, provided a welcome break from the daily routine. Acorn Antiques may have captured some of Crossroads’ various foibles, but Ronald Allen gravely intoning ‘Hello…Meg…’ was as much part of the era’s television as The Sweeney’s Ford Consul GT. Furthermore, my library now includes The Crossroads Cookbook, in which the characters provide some incredibly 1970s recipes.
ATV also produced the 1978 adaptation of Pamela Sykes’s novel Come Back Lucy, which moderately traumatised my eight-year-old self. Perhaps it is best described as Dead of Night for younger viewers, with Bernadette Windsor’s Alice as one of the saddest yet most malevolent villainesses of children’s television. The fact I remember its screening after 44 years, is a testament to its power, for in its way, Come Back, Lucy is as disturbing as Children of The Stones.
Of Network’s film releases this year, I regard Life for Ruth as a highlight of Basil Dearden’s career. It was released in 1962 and is the third of the “Social Problem” films he directed, after Sapphire and Victim. All were written or co-written by Janet Green. In his seminal book, Sixties British Cinema, Robert Murphy brilliantly describes Life, which features what might be a career-best performance from Michael Craig. But, above all, as with Heavens Above!, Smokescreen, and Catch Us If You Can, Life for Ruth is a picture that transcends its genre. The closing scene, wreathed in Otto Heller’s black and white cinematography, is one of the most moving of 1960s British cinema.
Further works earmarked for my collection include, Sky West and Crooked, which demonstrated how John Mills might have enjoyed a second career as a director, and The Sandwich Man, a reminder of how British cinema so often neglected the talents of Michael Bentine. The latter’s supporting cast, from Sir Donald Wolfit to an almost unrecognisable Anna Karen, is truly remarkable, while the narrative captures a mid-1960s London so remote as to appear almost surreal. At the heart of The Sandwich Man, is Bentine’s eponymous hero – a gentle Deus ex machina who observes and guides but rarely takes centre stage. Plus, any picture with an Amphicar journey along the Thames and a cameo from Brian Cant has to be worth viewing.
The same applies to the works of the Danziger Brothers. In 1960, Margaret Cowan wrote in The Stage that they did not “believe in outsize budgeting for their TV series”, but the truth was that they did not believe in excessive budgeting full stop. However, this did not prevent Saber of London from being remarkably watchable, especially for Donald Gray’s suave tones and Ferdy Mayne’s amiable overacting. As for the similarly inexpensive Konga, it is a masterpiece of science fiction cinema with some of the greatest dialogue in British film history. The producer Herman Cohen boasted “the effects were so good that people thought the picture cost millions”, but he was probably referring to farthings. But who is to carp at mere £sd when Michael Gough is on hand to bellow, “the world’s not ready for a cat the size of a leopard wandering the streets of London!.”
Meanwhile, Superintendent Jack Watson encapsulates the plot for the benefit of less attentive cinemagoers – “Fantastic… There’s a huge monster gorilla that’s constantly growing to outlandish proportions loose in the streets.” The only way Konga might have been improved, is if the producers allowed Jess Conrad to croon This Pullover on screen. Plus – yes, that is Steven Berkoff as one of his fellow students.
But of course, Network’s highlight releases of this year, which also include all 16 series of the late-night television legend Eurotrash, the Blu-ray debut of both childhood favourite The Adventures of Black Beauty and Gerry Anderson giant Stingray, and the return of 32 classics from the Network archive in the RE-VIEW Collection, are overshadowed by the death of Tim Beddows. The first time I encountered him, was at the 50th anniversary celebrations of The Prisoner at Portmeirion in 2017. It could not be described as “a meeting”, as he had to be in approximately 100 different places simultaneously, but over the past five years, his passion and vision quite frankly mesmerised me. To cite just one example of his work, ABC Nights In encapsulates a lost monochrome world, presented with the care that was his hallmark.
On a personal note, it was due to Tim that I could write for Network about the great character actors of British cinema and television, including an interview with Robert Gillespie. It is due to Tim that I have explored so many aspects of our screen heritage. And it is due to Tim that I had the opportunity to assist in the Blu-ray release of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, one of the proudest achievements of my career.
These are just some of my memories, but, of course, every devotee of British cinema and television owes a vast debt to Tim. He rightly treated B-features and travelogues, such as Rank’s Look at Life, with the same care as a major Pinewood or Shepperton production, as they are equally essential to film history. Si monumentum requiris circumspice – If you seek his monument, look around.