Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cruising for a vintage fix of Brit telly on YouTube


BBC Broadcasting House 1932


The BBC is a trusted brand. It is known the world over in ways that Netflix isn’t, and never could be.  It has a vast, seemingly infinite archive. Soaps. Dramas. Plays. Thrillers. Comedy shows. Documentary series. All of it high quality stuff rusting in old cans of film, gathering dust in crates and boxes of videotape. 


In the age of catch-up services, and on demand TV, surely the onus is on the BBC to trawl through its muck to make brass on iPlayer or its own subscription channels of the future? There are many viewers who would pay $7.99 or £6 a month for that.

But why, like millions of other people, am I watching cult BBC TV shows and free films illegally uploaded, and infringing many a copyright, on YouTube? Because you cannot buy them on DVD or watch on video streaming services like BBC’s iPlayer, Netflix, LoveFilm Instant or Amazon Prime.



So why pay for digital catch-up, subscription services when you can watch old TV shows and films on the Internet for free?  It took moving to the USA to discover this power of choice. Unable to get BBC’s iPlayer in America, a Netflix account, for $7.99 a month, seemed the next best thing. Netflix might spend $2.7bn (£1.65bn) a year on content, and have 40 million subscribers, but its well-received roster of original drama series and video services (such as personalized genres) soon failed to impress. 

The remake of BBC’s House of Cards, the skinny blonde in jailhouse japes of Orange is the New Black, and the absurd premise of Lilyhammer almost induced a state of apoplexy. Not to mention bad rubbish from the 1980s that you wished you had forgotten about first time around.  Surely no moron, from any age viewing demographic, male or female, would want to binge watch Airwolf, Magnum, Miami Vice, Quincy and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War



Just like satellite and cable packages, Netflix and Amazon Prime showcase endless crackpot documentaries about the Third Reich in glorious Technicolor. And sentimental documentaries by Ken Burns the Leni Riefenstahl of American history telling. Some movie classics you have to pay for on the web streaming service. $9.99 for The Guns of Navarone? You can watch it, with Greek subtitles, on YouTube completely free if you are that desperate for a laugh.  


But it was out of desperation that I migrated to YouTube. And totally, and unexpectedly, on YouTube, I struck gold. Old gold. For YouTube’s video sharing website is where telly addicts can live, steal, hustle, binge and fix on the dirty needles of BBC dramas and documentaries from the past. YouTube is a pirate’s treasure chest. 


Time-coded copies, probably bootlegged from the BBC archive. Kenneth More as a rebellious BBC producer in An Englishman’s Castle a three part Play of the Week set in an alternate 1970s where Germany won the Second World War. Edward Woodward battling Orwellian civil servants in the BBC2 drama series 1990. And stagey, historical fayre like The Devil’s Crown (with French titles and credits). Impressive drama, with big name casts, never repeated on terrestrial or satellite, released on DVD or Blu-Ray high definition discs.


And why splash out £33.75 for a bulky box set of Thames TV’s Armchair Thriller series on Amazon when some geek on YouTube has posted the entire show? The DVD of Yorkshire TV’s The Sandbaggers only costs £17 but, once again, you can watch all three seasons (of the greatest spy show that you have never heard of) for nowt.   The same goes for Southern Television’s Dangerous Knowledge. You might be too hard up to pay £9.19 to watch John Gregson (in his last role) aged 55, with bouffant hair-do and potbelly, beating up bad guys half his own age. But, like so many other videos, uploaded, downloaded and streamed, you can watch them on YouTube without paying a subscription. Or buying a DVD box set.


When these YouTube channels are suspended for infringement of copyright, they often pop up again, a few months later, under another user account name. A cyber cycle of cat and mouse, post, view, delete, repost, view and delete ad infinitum. You can’t keep the boards of a creaking drama down.


Online video viewing is pervasive. And YouTube and Netflix account for half of all the downstream Internet traffic during peak hours in the USA. Streaming of television is second only to live television. Is the modern-day BBC slow on the uptake, or too self-conscious about the spliced film and videotape of its old dramas? No, if only; the BBC is obliged to respect copyright, especially on old shows and BBC plays, which is why they are never broadcast or released on DVD.  It's only been a couple of decades since they brought in their ghastly "all rights in all media in perpetuity" contract. Anything made before that demands special rights payments and time to negotiate.  Which is why the BBC doesn't show them but also why they would jump all over anyone who did.


Given the ever changing way that we consume media in the 21st Century, on TV, tablets, PCs, and gaming consoles, viewing pirate copies on YouTube makes you question online catch-up services altogether. Like many other members of this lost audience, I want to be able to watch the rich heritage of British drama and documentary making on BBC’s iPlayer. Or own it on DVD.


In the meantime, until the rights are sorted and the talent gets paid, I will be cruising for another hit of bootleg Brit telly on YouTube.