Inside Talking Pictures, the ultimate in lockdown comfort TV | Television & radio

It’s perfect lockdown viewing, a comforting loop of the past, broadcasting old films and vintage TV, 24 hours a day. You might call the Talking Pictures cable channel the anti-Netflix, with its roster of forgotten minor movies alongside cult series and documentaries, but the channel has seen viewing numbers boom during the pandemic, with audience figures of just over 3.5 million a week. “And from the post we get, and the phone calls,” says co-founder Sarah Cronin-Stanley, “we’re sure it’s much more.”

There is nothing ostentatious or big-budget about Talking Pictures. It is run by a family in an ordinary house on an ordinary road in a village near Watford. Their headquarters is an extension in the garden, full of film canisters, DVDs and strings of thank-you cards from loyal fans. The team comprises Sarah Cronin-Stanley, a vintage TV and film fan and former actor; her husband, Neill, who produces the weekly newsletter and looks after TV regulations compliance; and Sarah’s dad Noel Cronin, a film distributor who began his career six decades ago in the Rank Organisation post-room. (Sarah and Neill’s 10-year-old son lives in the house too. He loves Laurel and Hardy.)

With its fifth birthday coming up next month, Talking Pictures has been busy expanding its output, with cult classics including 60s drama Up the Junction, Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie, and the Richard Burton thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Coming up this week are Julie Christie and Alan Bates in The Go-Between, and the much-adored late 1970s TV serial Quatermass, featuring John Mills. High-profile fans of the channel include Kenneth Branagh and Brian Blessed (“they watch a film at the same time together, then discuss it afterwards”, Cronin-Stanley says). Vic Reeves and Jools Holland are regular viewers too and so, apparently, is the Queen, who is said to tune in for Laurel and Hardy. “Vic Reeves said we were like the comforting taste of oxtail soup and being off school,” Cronin-Stanley says.

Noel Cronin and his daughter, Sarah Cronin-Stanley, at home in their Talking Pictures

Noel Cronin and his daughter, Sarah Cronin-Stanley, at home in their Talking Pictures studio. Photograph: Neill Stanley / Talking Pictures TV

I get in touch with the Talking Pictures team in the early days of lockdown. I fancy nosing around their offices, but, somewhat fittingly, they don’t do Zoom. Instead, I call their landline, which is accessible to the public on their website. “We get lots of calls from viewers, but it’s nice,” says Cronin-Stanley. “Often people are just lonely and want a chat.”

Noel Cronin joined the Rank Organisation in 1962, at 14, delivering post at their film-processing laboratories in Park Royal, west London: “I remember the heady smell of the Guinness factory, the chimneys,” he says. “That was an era when people were shy. Leaving school and going into a huge office was daunting.” He progressed to cutting rooms in Mayfair, before moving to the Central Office of Information, where Chris Tarrant and Peter Greenaway were among his colleagues.

Having progressed to occasional executive producing and film distribution in the 1990s, he noticed old films disappearing from TV schedules: “Black and white suddenly became a no-no on TV unless it was The Third Man, but I’d been in film long enough to know the tide turns.” He started buying up films, acquiring Scrooge and The Pickwick Papers and the Four-Star Playhouse catalogue, featuring David Niven.

I mention missing the days when you could catch old classics like these popping up on mainstream TV. ““Don’t get me on my soapbox now!” he laughs. “The BBC and ITV went for cheap programming instead. All that awful ‘buy a house, bake a cake, weed your window box’ stuff. A film has always had more worth than that.”

Today, the channel plays films it owns along with others under licence. Cronin plans the schedules himself, writing them out on weekly library cards. A current highlight is 1970s episodes of Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

Talking Pictures’ main audience is largely elderly, he says, with many viewers housebound or in care homes, but he’s also been surprised by the younger viewers gravitating to the channel. A recent bank holiday special featuring cult children’s films from the 70s including The Amazing Mr Blunden and Ring Of Bright Water got “brilliant figures”, he says, attracting parents who were children back then, and their kids and grandchildren.

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Talking Pictures recently held a fascinating collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, showing old movies and public information films and it often screens shorts from public archives, as well as private films: one of a family holidaying in Brighton was recently shown mid-afternoon. Cronin loves films that show off parts of British culture that have been forgotten. He mentions Hindle Wakes, a 1952 British drama set in Blackpool and Llandudno, shown on the station last August, featuring packed beaches and dancehalls from that era. “You very rarely get to see those aspects of those times, and as for the private films, it’s the kind of stuff that many people have thrown away. But when you get to see how your grandma and grandpa would have really experienced life, that’s great.”

However, the channel’s resurrection of the past got them into trouble in 2018 for broadcasting several films that included racist language. Ofcom waded in. Today, any film with offensive content is trailed appropriately. “We absolutely weren’t endorsing that language, in the same way that we don’t endorse the attitudes to women and other groups [that] were very different back then. But I also think it’s important that we don’t rewrite those films. It’s important to learn from the mistakes of the past,” says Cronin-Stanley. Talking Pictures regularly broadcasts films about race issues, queer politics and class. The coming fortnight’s schedule includes working-class drama Spring and Port Wine, and John Hurt in The Naked Civil Servant, with some Powell and Pressburger and Hammer Horror movies to follow in June.

Simon MacCorkindale and John Mills in Thames Television’s Qatermass.

Simon MacCorkindale and John Mills in Thames Television’s Qatermass. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

The business is run in a gloriously old-fashioned way. Its enthusiastic newsletters are launched every Tuesday, with a printable option, so viewers can read them away from screens. The channel tops up revenue from adverts by releasing DVDs through its Renown Films imprint, and selling merchandise such as Joan Collins and Diana Dors compact mirrors. Although the year ahead looks tough, with the advertising market crashing, they are determined to keep the station free of charge. Also, they’d never consider showing bigger films, “stuff like Where Eagles Dare”, Cronin-Stanley says. “That’s not us. We’re more about the things people have forgotten, then realise how much they love.”

Before lockdown, Talking Pictures fans would occasionally find their address (they won’t divulge it today) and make pilgrimages, expecting a much grander HQ. “They think they’re going to find a fancy cinema, or a shop, or meet a projectionist,” says Cronin-Stanley. Now they are getting many emails a day saying thank you for the service they’re providing. “Some break my heart really. Carers saying we don’t know what we would do without you. You transport the people we love to a time they remember, to a time that they feel safe.”

As for the station’s forthcoming fifth birthday celebrations, “Me and dad might have a cake, I suppose,” says Cronin-Stanley. “Or a cup of tea and a cream bun.”

Talking Pictures TV is on Freeview channel 81, Virgin 445, Freesat 306, and Sky 328

Talking Pictures’ 10 most popular screenings

Patricia Haines and Alfred Burke in Public Eye.

Patricia Haines and Alfred Burke in Public Eye. Photograph: AF Archive/Alamy

1. Public Eye
Moody British drama series starring Alfred Burke as lonely, fortysomething private investigator Frank Marker. Ran on ITV from 1965 to 1975.

2. Gideon’s Way
Fast-paced ITV crime series set in Scotland Yard and shot in mid-60s London. John Gregson plays overworked Cdr George Gideon.

3. The Thirty Nine Steps
Robert Powell plays Richard Hannay in this 1978 version of John Buchan’s thriller, with a host of well-known British actors in smaller parts.

Robert Powell in The Thirty Nine Steps.

Robert Powell in The Thirty Nine Steps. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

4. Scrooge
Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Alastair Sim in this 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with support from George Cole, Michael Hordern and Hermione Baddeley.

5. King Creole
Elvis Presley plays Danny Fisher in Michael Curtiz’s hit 1958 movie about a rebellious nightclub singer who attracts the attention of a local crime boss.

6. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
British agent Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, refuses to come in from the cold war in this atmospheric 1965 adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel.

7. Last Holiday
When an unappreciated salesman finds he has weeks left to live he blows his savings on a final holiday at a smart resort. Alec Guinness stars, with a screenplay by JB Priestley.

Brenda de Benzie, Charles Laughton and John Mills in Hobson’s Choice, 1986.

Brenda de Benzie, Charles Laughton and John Mills in Hobson’s Choice, 1986. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo

8. Hobson’s Choice
Acclaimed British romantic comedy from 1954 directed by David Lean and starring Charles Laughton as the tyrannical Victorian bootmaker, Henry Hobson.

9. Notorious
Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains star in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-nominated 1946 espionage drama with a love triangle.

10. For the Love of Ada
ITV sitcom first shown in 1970, featuring Irene Handl as a Cockney widow prone to malapropisms, who falls in love with the gravedigger who buried her husband (Wilfred Pickles).

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