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Comperes and Cult Cinema: Moviedrome Remembered

March 19th, 2012

In examining the contribution of Channel 4 (and, by extension, television as a whole) to British film culture, this project has a broad remit, which includes the institutional processes of film buying, programming and scheduling. Before the era of file sharing and Lovefilm, those people for whom the local Odeon had little to offer constantly relied on Channel 4 as an imaginative exhibitor of film and programmes about film. As Andy Medhurst observed in 1995:

According to a certain kind of cinematic purist, television is no place to see film. The small screen shrinks and cheapens, while its controllers censor with insensitively blunt scissors. What such a lofty view overlooks is that…Pwlheli and Peterhead are rather more than a taxi journey from the NFT, and that television is our national repertory cinema.[1]

Our project is therefore interested in the way in which TV treats the whole subject of cinema. Broadcasters have consistently devoted too little thought to this subject. However, Channel 4 has often curated films seasons with verve and intelligence, rather than erring on the side of populism. From Visions (1982-1985) to the recent Story of Film (2011), some Channel 4 film programmes have actually considered cinema as a global art-form rather than as an American mass-market product, thereby counterbalancing an Occidental bias in film programmes and programming. Paul Kerr has written a blog article for us on changes in the commissioning of film programmes, from an informed perspective as producer of countless documentaries and film programmes for both Channel 4 and the BBC (Paul was series editor of Moving Pictures between 1990 and 1996, for example). Of course we also should not forget the curious bye-ways of Channel 4 film magazine programmes of the 1990s like Jonathan Ross’ The Incredibly Strange Film Show which explored cult film and popular culture, and Moviewatch, which each week asked 4 members of the public to review a particular film.

This blog article, however, will focus not on the film programme but instead on the film series introduced by an on-screen compère or critic, which is actually something more associated with the BBC than with Channel 4. There have been numerous examples of this trend over the years – in 1988 BBC2 invited Judith Williamson to give a season of film noirs historical context and feminist critique, and actually dressed her up in 1940s frocks. In 1993 BBC2 asked the screenwriting guru Robert McKee to select and introduce 12 films which he regarded as classics of their type for a season called Filmworks.

Mckee on ‘Chinatown’

However the most established and fondly remembered example is undoubtedly BBC 2’s Moviedrome. Moviedrome is probably of peripheral relevance to our project but it does represent evidence of BBC 2 reclaiming a stake (or is that restaking a claim?) in the territory that Channel 4 had long carved out for itself in the area of cult film and cinephilia. Moviedrome was essentially a series of cult films introduced by director Alex Cox (between 1988 and 1994) and later Mark Cousins (1997-2000). The original idea for Moviedrome was to have each week’s film introduced by a filmmaker with a particular interest. The results were varied, however, and there were cases in which English was not the first language or where Autocue-reading skills were less than adequate, which left the viewer sometimes more baffled than elucidated after the introduction! After Cox’s introduction to Point Blank he was frequently requested and so he then became the regular presenter.[2]

Especially during the Cox period, Moviedrome movies were typically weird and wonderful obscurities and low-budget gems from the archive. The series began with Robin Hardy’s inimitable folk-musical-horror The Wicker Man, and that first series set the bar high by including such films as Electra Glide in Blue, Johnny Guitar, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original 1956 version), The Parallax View and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Cox has cited as the reason for his departure from Moviedrome his frustration with the fact that world cinema (subtitled films) was not included as part of the series (again that Occidental bias!), although that restriction seemed to have been removed by the time that Cousins took the helm.

There are a few historical reasons which I see as helping to explain why a series like Moviedrome came into existence. Firstly, the series could potentially be cited by a producer or broadcaster as evidence that they treated cinema with affection and respect, yet it was not really a programme at all but merely a 5-minute introduction. This meant that, in an era in which ratings were the Holy Grail, it could be accommodated into the schedules through stealth.[3] As it was not a film review or magazine programme as such, it was also not beset by the hurdles facing all such programmes – the often laborious and expensive process of getting permission and arranging payment to show clips.[4] It also revived on television the theatrical tradition of showing a double-bill (an ‘A’ and ‘B’ picture), which cinema-goers of certain generations are understandably nostalgic about. The difference was that all Moviedrome movies were ‘B pictures’!

Secondly, it is arguable that a series such as Moviedrome allowed the BBC to hide behind the skirts of a specialist ‘introduction’ in showing films which featured explicit sex or violence. The most appropriate space in the schedule for intelligent or witty films with extreme content was the second-half of a Moviedrome double-bill, and in some ways an introduction is a ‘value-added’ alternative to the practice of a pre-screening warning by a continuity announcer. It is notable that David Mamet and Sidney Lumet had to wait for Robert McKee to ‘legitimise’ their film The Verdict, shown uncut for the first time in 1994 after at least two previous outings on BBC television.[5] The received wisdom is that Channel 4 has always tended to lead the way in terms of taking risks over showing controversial films, whilst the BBC (even with their second, ‘minority’ channel) has been a little more conservative. As Farrah Anwar observed in The Guardian (24th November 1993):

When Channel 4 drew political flak because of Derek Jarman films, especially Jubilee and Sebastiane, Auntie immediately backed away from buying Kiss of the Spider Woman because of its homosexual subject matter. Ironically by the time the film actually played on TV (C4) two years later, Jarman was on the cusp of being commissioned by the BBC to make a film for them.[6]

Channel 4’s permissiveness, however, was often predicated on strategy rather than merely risk-taking – both Jubilee and Sebastiane were shown late at night and as part of a season of films (entitled ‘Robinson’s Choice’) chosen and introduced by David Robinson, then film critic of The Times:

Here were the films that had scandalised the tabloids (“Channel 4 Gay Sex Shocker” was how the Daily Star greeted the proposed transmission of Sebastiane) presented with avuncular gravitas by the film critic of the Times – so they weren’t filth after all, but art.[7]

In a booklet published to accompany the season Robinson admitted that Jubilee is “not an ingratiating film”, and that “many scenes are accurately calculated to offend”.[8] My archival research has demonstrated that the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) made great use of the fact that the season was curated by Robinson in deflecting criticisms of the films that were received from viewers.

Finally, Moviedrome allowed the BBC to make use of their archive of unscreened films, which in some ways was equivalent to the archive that Derek Hill built up at Channel 4. This archive had developed over time, and the Corporation was looking for a format or strand in which to include them. The films were, in fact, chosen by BBC producer Nick Jones, and this meant that Cox could praise or criticise the films from a position of editorial independence.

Like the British TV and film periodical Film Dope, Moviedrome was, in the pre-IMDb days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, indispensable for film fans and scholars, and an education for everyone else. In a sense such examples of film ‘education’ were soon endangered by the ubiquity and sheer scale of information sharing which became possible with the exponential growth of the Internet. However, both Film Dope and Moviedrome were conspicuous not just for sharing nuggets of valuable and obscure information and trivia with the viewer, but for their directness, candour and perspicacity, attributes which are at a premium in today’s media ecology. In a recent article for Den of Geek, Ryan Lambie paid tribute to these qualities in Cox’s introductions for Moviewatch:

Cox’s introduction to Rabid brilliantly exemplifies his personal, admirably opinionated style of presenting. Boldly (and rightly, I’d argue) describing Cronenberg as the “master practitioner of horror” and ranking the director above Wes Craven, Todd Browning, Mario Bava, John Carpenter and James Whale in terms of sheer talent.

“Of the above mentioned, only Argento has as thoroughly thought out a world view and consistent take on vicious horror lurking behind mundane things,” Cox pronounced. “But while Argento is preoccupied by a rather infantile misogyny of the De Palma brand, and like De Palma, makes ultimately boring films, Cronenberg transcends misogyny and misanthropy.”

It was this unapologetically subjective viewpoint on cinema in general that made Cox’s introductions so fascinating and unpredictable, and he wouldn’t pull any punches if he didn’t particularly like the film screening that night.

Cox’s intros had to be delivered within three minutes, yet be comprehensive enough to convey the essence of the film, its contextual relevance and its plus points. This is a tricky act to pull off, especially as the wrong tone of introduction might cause the viewer to switch channels before the film actually began. In retrospect, Moviedrome seemed to reinforce and extend the idea of the themed season as pedagogy. Cox’s was a very different kind of public service (broadcasting) didacticism which, as Andy Medhurst has noted, invited viewers “to develop critical faculties through comparative analysis”,[9] whilst performing the function of helping the BBC to find screen-time for oddities and obscurities. Will we ever see Moviedrome or its like again?

Ieuan Franklin


[1] Andy Medhurst, ‘Box of Delights’, Sight and Sound, January 1995.

[2] Richard Scott, ‘Cox steers a path through cult cinema’, The Times, 14th May 1994.

[3] Mark Sanderson, ‘Little and Large’, Time Out, 14th-21st June 1989.

[4] It was once the case – as late as the mid 1980s – that distributors would provide a 35mm print and offer individual reels for telecine. Footage cost approximately £100 per minute. Visions generally showed very long clips, certainly by today’s standards; to take an example at random, an item on Indian cinema broadcast on 2nd February 1983, for example, included 9 film clips, the shortest being 1 minute 17 seconds and the longest being 4 minutes and 2 seconds. This liberal approach to the use of clips was soon set to change, however. Fears of piracy became rampant in the film industry, which led to the ubiquity of the pre-assembled promo reel. As Paul Kerr has noted (quoted in an article published in The Independent of 3rd June 1992), since the mid- to late Eighties the electronic press kit has become part of the armoury of film publicity. This was a compilation of interviews, clips and location footage which arts producers were increasingly expected to cannibalise for their shows, in place of direct access to stars and directors (see Sheila Johnston, “Shticks and Stones”, The Independent, 3rd July 1992). Only the same scenes were available to all film programmes, which obstructed any serious or precise analysis. This process of providing clips had historically resulted in timidity on the part of film review programmes in being overly critical of new releases, as major studios could effectively boycott a programme by refusing to provide them with clips in the future.

[5] Farrah Anwar, ‘Short Cuts’, The Guardian, 24th November 1993.

[6] Farrah Anwar, ‘Short Cuts’.

[7] Andy Medhurst, ‘Box of Delights’.

[8] David Robinson, Robinson’s Choice: Films for Channel 4 (London: Comedia, 1985).

[9] Andy Medhurst, ‘Box of Delights’.

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