For most of the seventies and eighties, Haliwell’s main occupation was buying films and television shows for the ITV network in the UK. In 1982 he was appointed film buyer for the new station, Channel 4, and in this role he was given free reign to trawl the archives of the major Hollywood and British studios in search of those golden oldies he treasured so much. Here are some articles from newspapers and magazines which represent this phase of his life.
This article is from the spring 1986 issue of trade magazine Airwaves, and truly demonstrates the affection Halliwell had for the movies of the Golden Age, and his determination that a new audience be allowed to appreciate them in the comfort of their own homes. He was 57 at the time.
Rediscovering the Golden Age for Channel 4
Programme Buyer Leslie Halliwell tells of the detective work involved in bringing the film classics of yesterday to the small screen.
UST the other day I picked up the phone and found myself speaking to a lady from Godalming. She said she was 67, and wanted to complain that the films on Channel 4 were too old to suit her taste. I explained that although she was perfectly entitled to that view, Channel 4 was designed to appeal to minorities, one of them being the minority which likes old films. Fans of the more recent ones, I added, were adequately catered for on the other three channels, as well as by Channel 4 itself on certain evenings.
Having failed to draw from me the abject
apology she required, the lady hung up abruptly, leaving me pondering the fact
that since November 1982, of the scores of fan letters and calls every week,
she is the only person to have complained about the ‘golden oldies’ which each
year fill about 300 off-peak slots.
Indeed, so strong is viewer enthusiasm for the likes of Conrad Veidt and
Jeanette MacDonald and Deanna Durbin that I sometimes imagine every set from
The appeal of films made 40 and 50 years ago is not only the appeal of nostalgia, though of course old films do provide this as well as offering rich pickings to the social historian. It is primarily the fact that there was an abundance of brilliant talent on screen in those days. It would surely be unthinkable to let the work of such performers as Fred Astaire or Charles Laughton moulder in obscure vaults when they can still be enjoyed by an audience numbered in millions. Not only an elderly audience: young people of my personal acquaintance turn to me in wonder whenever a good film of the thirties is put in front of them, and tell me they had no idea that old films could be so entertaining. In the first place they may have been deterred by the fact that the film is not in colour, but by the end of the entertainment they usually agree me that black-and-white, for certain purposes, is s richer than colour, as poetry is to prose; for colour can only show the world as it is, whereas black and white, in the hands of skilled photographers and set designers, can encapsulate a dream. Think if you can of The Third Man or Citizen Kane in colour, and you will know what I mean.
The other great asset of old films is their optimism, a commodity not easily available today. To call my golden oldies inspirational would be absurd, but they certainly taught me to look at the stars rather than the gutter. Besides, they are the art form of the 20th century: to let them pass from sight would be as barbarous as to burn a Picasso or a Matisse.
For late, the greatest days of cinema were the days when the cigar-chomping moguls sat in the front office, instinctively knowing better than their employees what was best for both of them; and when every studio under contract had an army of master craftsmen capable of producing almost any kind of magic on command.
These days ended around 1953, when the increasing popularity of television caused film producers to assert their superiority by photographing their entertainments in colour on real locations, and by stretching out the results on super wide screens. Unfortunately these steps coincided with the decline of the moguls and the increased power of the talent, which is hungry for money and seldom knows its own best interests lie.
The studios came to be put out for hire by each individual production unit, and as Billy Wilder said, henceforth the creators spent 80% of their time making deals and only 20% making pictures. Whether or not the results were sharper, more in tune with the times or merely cruder, they were different, and they appealed to a younger, brasher audience than the one which had loyally followed the more glamorous talkies of the thirties and forties.
The cinema audience dwindled as admission charges grew, and although by the sixties a selection of major films had become available to British television, the majority remained undiscovered.
It was not until the advent of Channel 4 that the curtain could rise again on the pre-CinemaScope world by way of a careful selection of all that was best in family and social drama, crime and mystery, outdoor action, romance and music, music hall and sophisticated comedy of those bygone days; a selection which had previously been seen only by patrons of the National Film Theatre. ‘Gold dust’, said a senior executive when he looked at a list of titles which evoked only the most fragrant memories. And a delighted audience echoed his sentiments.
It is one thing to decide on a policy, another to carry it out. There would be no point in reviving these elderly entertainments if one had continually to apologize for fuzzy, scratched, jumpy prints which reduced the original value to a fraction. This should have been no problem, for Channel 4 was prepared to pay for new 35mm prints to made from the best available negatives. But not all film owners look after their property, and film stock deteriorates with age. One out of every four prints ordered has had to be rejected for technical reasons, and sometimes cannot be bettered.
The next step is to find whether there is in existence a good used print which call be transferred to videotape, and here one often thanks heaven for the National Film Archive, which since 1934 has been taking better care of movies than the people who own them.
Next may come complications of copyright. One might think that this would rest with the company which paid for the film to be made, but sometimes contracts with writers or directors expire after a specific number of years, in which case fresh negotiations have to be undertaken before any sale call be achieved. It is fascinating work, but it takes time, even after one has located the problem. I have published two books celebrating movies of what I have been pleased to call the Golden Age; and out of approximately 200 titles, more than 20 could not be played by Channel 4 until a great deal of detection had taken place. Here are some of the reasons.
Bob Hope’s The Cat and the Canary was a wholly owned
The Old Dark House, a superb macabre comedy of 1932, was produced by Universal but based on a J. B. Priestley original, the rights to which lapsed after 25 years and were bought up by the same smart lawyer. Universal finally gave up the battle but while the film lay in limbo, the original negative was mislaid, so the film these days can be seen only in very dim copies, wreaking havoc with its wonderful set design.
Brown, starring Alec
Guinness, was a Columbia British picture, but
of the Demon, the only
film version to date of an M. R. James ghost story, was in a similar
state. Though it was made in
The classic comedies made by Laurel and Hardy between 1927 and 1940 have for the last three years been the subject of a million dollar law suit, and still cannot be shown until it is settled.
Margaret Lockwood is an unfortunate star So far as rights are concerned: we still cannot clear Dr Syn, or Owd Bob, or Dear Octopus, or Alibi, and only after great and various difficulties did we trace A Girl Must Live, The Stars Look Down, The Girl in the News (print problems are still being dealt with), Jassy, and Bedelia. Night Train to Munich was one of the few films still held back by FIDO (Film Industry Defence Organisation) which was set up in 1958 to prevent the sale of films to television but which was failing by the mid-sixties: it now plays regularly to universal delight.
All That Money Can Buy, that superb American version of the Faust story, almost disappeared altogether. (A few films do.) Only one halfway decent print could be tracked down, under the title Daniel and the Devil, and that is a cut version: still, it contains all the best scenes and will have to do. Pygmalion is another famous film which survives only through one rather battered print, with the sound of frying eggs on the soundtrack. (Channel 4 makes tape copies of all its purchases for protection.)
Granada Television itself has to be thanked
for preservation of three films staring the
One could tell a similar story about several of the official government documentaries of the Second World War. And even when one has found a print, there re films like The Blue Angel and Stage Door Canteen, where all claims seem dubious and one ends paying the man who shouts loudest or will give one an indemnity.
Sometimes one has to rely unofficially on the enthusiasm of amateur 16mm print collectors, who of course have no rights but may be sitting on the only print of a masterpiece. This seemed to be the case with the 1936 film The Passing of the Third Floor Back; starring Conrad Veidt, and we gratefully made arrangements for the collector not to be sued if we used his print; but on the very week of transmission the Rank laboratories who owned the film but had denied all knowledge of facilities, rang to ask where they should send the new 35mm print they had just made.
also saved in the nick of time when we transmitted the Claude Rains version of Phantom of the Opera. Not a decent colour print was to be had, and
the negative had deteriorated beyond recall.
We were gloomily preparing a very scratched and battered print found in
The survival of the 1940 version of Gaslight, with Anton Walbrook, is another ‘accident’. When the rights were sold to MGM for the Charles Boyer remake, it was a notorious condition that all copies of the original should be destroyed. Luckily, for this is a genuine masterpiece, one print was hidden, and the so the film can still be enjoyed.
Having acquired one’s films – more than 2,000 of them at an average royalty of £10,000 each – it is both pleasant and desirable to play them in sensible seasons, with helpful introductions. Samuel Goldwyn Jnr introduced his father’s work; Launder and Gilliat looked back over their own careers; I introduced several seasons of Second World War films, along with a series called ‘What the Censor Saw’ and another called ‘Yesterday’s Britain’. The classic horror films have been programmed in consecutive sequence, and the run-up to the Second World War was illustrated under the heading ‘The Gathering Storm’. Whenever possible we play musicals on Sunday afternoon, and nostalgic drama on Sunday evening, where earlier this year audiences were able to re-evaluate the marvelous films of the ‘swinging’ sixties which of late have been so seldom revived.
And still the suggestions pile in, and
still we have more than a thousand unplayed films. Some seem worthy of only one transmission;
others will eventually have three; some we try out experimentally in the
afternoons, and, if they seem to work well, bring them back later in the
evenings. Every week produces some
delightful surprise for the viewer who is hooked on the great days of
black-and-white. How about Max Miller in
Don’t Get Me Wrong, not seen since
before the war? Or Remember Last Night, a sprightly comedy mystery from 1935? Or Errol Flynn’s first
Going back a few years, this article (from the Sunday Times, Feb 8, 1981) tells the remarkable story of the bidding war between the BBC and ITV over the television rights to Gone with the Wind.
By Peter Lennon
HOW, you may have asked yourself, did the BBC ever get itself into a position where it was willing to pay – at last Monday – ten million five hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars (or £4.5 million) for the TV rights to Gone with the Wind?
Embedded in the answer is a story of manipulated market forces, topsy turvy values, and above all two men – Gunnar Rugheimer, film purchaser for the BBC, and Leslie Halliwell, buyer for ITV.
We have been able to reconstruct this gothic tale by interviewing the two antagonists separately; by listening to some soothing words from the ‘auctioneer’ of the sale; and by receiving some valuable help from a couple of people who prefer to stay in the deep end of anonymity.
Leslie Halliwell, a stocky man with a
Brigham Young beard and a way of giving you frequent glances of expansive
disdain, operates from an office in
“Things became fraught,” Halliwell
told me, “when Gunnar Rugheimer came to the BBC in 1970. I used to enjoy going off for a recce to
But it was not just Rugheimer’s arrival, Halliwell explained. Television was rapidly consuming all the old “family” pictures, while the fornicating films of the 60s and the rampaging violence of the 70s meant that few replacements were coming up. The struggle for possession of what is known in the trade as really ‘great’ films became ferocious.
“You mean great classics like My Darling Clementine and Shadow of a Doubt?” I suggested innocently.
“They are the kind of films you and I would watch on a Sunday afternoon,” Halliwell sneered. “They are worthless.”
“Worthless!” I exclaimed. “John Ford and Hitchcock worthless!”
“They are masterpieces of course,” he said impatiently, “but they have no value. Well, maybe £25,000. When I put on my TV buyer’s hat I look at these things differently.”
Here already, I realised, was an example of throbbing human tragedy. For Halliwell, author of a film guide to 8,000 English language films, is one of the world’s great film scholars. I am a bit of a film buff myself but to give you Halliwell’s measure I will bet that he is the only man in England who, if I were to talk about The Three Mesquiteers would not, like some dunce, rush to correct me. (The Three Mesquiteers, John Wayne, Ray Corrigan, Fuzzy Knight, 1933.)
But when he is wearing his buyer’s hat, he has to describe as ‘great’ films like The Sound of Music (BBC-owned) or Dr Zhivago (ITV-owned), films with huge empty hearts and gooey centres, around which everyone from granddad to dewy-eyed granddad to dewy-eyed granddaughter can cluster at peak TV hours and raise the level of moisture in the drawing room.
“Gunnar dealt a stunning blow to the market when he agreed to pay $4,150,000 for The Sound of Music in 1978,” Halliwell complained, virtuously indignant. “He distorted the whole market.
“After the ‘Wind’ sale” he said, “I went out with some people from MGM and I said ‘Come on, admit it. What was the rest of the ‘Wind’ package worth?’ ‘One and a half million?’ they said. So Gunnar paid $9 million for one film.”
“The kind of man Gunnar is,” Halliwell said, a look of unreliable impartiality coming into his eyes, “is…”
But I decided I’d better find out for myself.
has offices in Shepherd’s Bush. A giant of
a Swede, built on Ernest Borgnine lines, he slid side-saddle into a wide chair
and then stretched his legs across the arm rests of two other chairs. From the first question, “Do you have to go
He stretched out exploratory fingers
as if testing for the exact level of immodesty and said “
“Mr Halliwell said you distorted the market by paying $4,150,000 for The Sound of Music.” I said reproachfully. Rugheimer jerked up from chuckling insouciance to combative alertness. “And what about Leslie’s Bond films?”
“Can you tell me how much he paid for the Bond films?” I asked politely.
“I can tell you precisely,” Rugheimer said. He raced out of the room and was back in one minute. “He paid £960,000 sterling, nearly a million pounds, and that was 1972-73. Typical Leslie. When things reach the fairly bitter end he done what I call clerical garb and begins to go on about the awful spending in the BBC.”
For ten years, both these gladiators
have been after the mightiest film of them all, Gone with the Wind. Here we
can introduce the third character in this drama – Bill Davis, stationed in
“Every year I met Gunnar and Leslie in
Last May in
But just when Halliwell thought it was safe to come out of the water and grab Wind Rugheimer snapped at him with Jaws.
“Since it was already afternoon in
“I take a bath twice a day to relax,” Halliwell told me “and while I am not a drinking man if things get tense I take a crème de menthe frappe.”
By close of business that evening they
had to make their final bids. But
instead of turning up for the auction Rugheimer did an extraordinary
thing. He rang
It was a clever move. By revealing and publicly criticising ITV’s bid, it suggested an embarrassing level of extravagance. ITV was now under some constraint as it entered the Gone with the Wind auction.
“Nevertheless ITV has much more money than the BBC,” I said. “So why did you let him have Gone with the Wind?’”
“Oh, we felt if we bought it he would only raise another stink about how ITV was spending money. So I let him have it,” Halliwell said carelessly.
That was not quite the whole story. This is precisely what happened.
MONDAY morning Bill Davis, who had come over from
The bidding opened at an agreed base figure of $8,700,000 going up in minimum units of $50,000.
The first bid was made by Halliwell at
just one minute to eleven. The bid was
$9m. We do not know how Rugheimer
reacted to this onslaught.
What we do know is that Rugheimer’s riposte two minutes later was a mild $50,000 bid. Halliwell smashed back with a double bid: $100,000.
From then on the pattern never varied. Halliwell, fighting mad, was trying to scare Rugheimer off with double bids, but Rugheimer, who is usually the aggressive one, played a steady, stubborn, mild game of minimum advances. The bids came steadily at never more than two or three minute intervals.
You will observe on the chart a gap of ten minutes between 11.18 and 11.28. That was because Rugheimer had to go for a pee.
At precisely 11.36 Halliwell took them through the $10 million line. At the stroke of two bids were made in rapid succession. Halliwell’s $10,500,000 followed by Rugheimer’s $10,550,000.
Then there was silence. The silence lasted 15 minutes, and then Bill Davis knocked the lot down to Gunnar Rugheimer.
Thus, on a $10,550,000 deal the BBC had got the greatest ‘package’ in film history for just $50,000 more than its rivals. The auction had lasted 61 minutes.
We have some clues to what Halliwell alone in his office, did then. We think he pulled open a drawer and took out of it a Chinese print in which a large man, possibly of Scandinavian appearance, is undergoing unspeakable torture. He put an adhesive label into his battered old typewriter and, his Brigham Young beard quivering with rage, pasted a name under this hapless, this lucky man.
Here’s a 1984 article from Primetime magazine in which Halliwell explains the process (and the pitfalls) of buying American television shows for a UK audience.
IT LOOKS JUST LIKE EALING BROADWAY!
“ITV and C4 programme buyer LESLIE HALLIWELL writes on seeking & selecting TV material in Hollywood for consumption on your home dial.”
When I first went to Hollywood in 1967, I took one disappointed look at the famous boulevard and remarked to the taxi-driver: “It looks just like Ealing Broadway”.
It was true: yet in those days there were still corners to be found of the old Hollywood The backlots were more or less intact, on many corners one could recognise locations from famous films, and when one lunched at The Brown Derby or Chasens one did so cheek by jowl with such stars as Groucho Marx, Ingrid Bergman, Fred MacMurray and Cary Grant. It was the end of an era, for the backlots of the big studios were being sold as real estate, and the studios themselves would soon be taken over by conglomerates who quickly saw that with a diminishing cinema industry the only way to remain solvent was to lure television film makers over from New York. And so the hallowed sound stages soon came to echo with the wisecracks of situation comedy series rather than the grandiose swashbuckling of Errol Flynn.
And so the hallowed sound stages soon came to echo with the wisecracks of situation comedy series rather than the grandiose swashbuckling of Errol Flynn. One by one all the great names moved their distribution offices to Hollywood, where the action was: Columbia, Fox, Warner, Paramount, Universal. I had begun to go to New York twice a year to find out what was new in television production, but soon it became unnecessary for me to go to New York at all, and so twice a year now I take the longer flight over the pole to look at the latest offerings being made to the three majors American networks who essentially control what America (and subsequently the world) sees as representative of Hollywood television production.
It is sometimes
said that they have as their image of the typical American viewer a fat little
guy in Milwaukee, slouched in an armchair with an empty can of beer in one hand and
a ‘zapper’ button in the other. This may
not seem too far from the truth when one watches such series as THE A-TEAM and MIKE HAMMER, though one always has to remember that there is
another side to American television in the shape of so-called public
broadcasting, which is partly subsidised by public subscription and has won
acclaim by showing a succession of British ‘masterpieces’ including THE FORSYTE SAGA and UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS. This channel however is seen by only a small
minority of American viewers – the equivalent perhaps of Channel Four – and it
cannot afford to make more than a few productions of its own. There is also cable, which is slowly gaining
ground, but here the quality channels have been disastrously received, and the
tendency of cable on the whole is to reduce American standards still further.
One should not of course damn Hollywood television production out of hand. The film city has an eighty year history of providing glamorous, easy entertainment interspersed with the occasional prestige offering, and the three networks all take some care to ensure that several times a week their schedules include something of real quality. It may be a tv movie, of which one could nominate many splendid examples among the dozens of time fillers and the incredibly large number of stories about people dying beautifully of obscure diseases. It may be some item of documentary reportage, at which the Americans are second to none. It may even be a film or tape series. The tapes are largely confined to half-hour comedies, and although the current crop is not exactly stimulating it should be remembered how brilliantly American writers have inserted both social commentary and a genuine feel for quirky character into shows as diverse as DICK VAN DYKE, MARY TYLER MOORE, SANFORD AND SON, ALL IN THE FAMILY and CHEERS. This tradition of honest wisecracking has been carried over into the one-hour film dramas, which usually have a background of greater diversity. Here the best current examples are HILL STREET BLUES and ST ELSEWHERE, both ‘slice of life’ melodramas set against police and hospital backgrounds respectively, with a large cast of characters all professionally upstaging each other on their way to possible tragedy at the hands of cynically ‘honest’ scriptwriters. Two of these slices of low life are probably enough, so we may be fortunate that a baseball version, BAY CITY BLUES, mysteriously died after only four episodes.
Most of the network choices are of a lower artistic level but a higher commercial one and since the name of the game in Great Britain, for BBC1 and ITV at least, is ratings, there has come about, twice a year in January and May, a simultaneous migration to the west coast of America by senior executives from both channels, anxious not to be left out of the running for whatever new series seems likely to be fashionable. Not everything is bought at these times, since most of the American suppliers have offices in London, but the executives based in them make the twice-yearly trip to Hollywood anyway. This is because it is only on the spot that one can learn from producers the likely development of the format under discussion and the attitude to it (encouraging or otherwise) of the network which has selected it from the hundreds of suggestions which are constantly on offer. One’s calendar certainly includes useful meetings in other places: one can talk with the same or similar groups of people in Monte Carlo in January, Cannes in April, and Milan in October.
But these are occasions for consolidation rather than decision, and the April event in particular, because it is constricted by hotel availability and the imminence of the more important Cannes Film Festival, must perforce take place in what has come to be the last week of the television year, because it is the week when all the producers are waiting with bated breath for the decisions of the network. The result is that the world’s most influential buyers and sellers attend to sit around helplessly in the Riviera sunshine, too frustrated to do much but chat about old times, because four or five days later they will all fly to the west coast where the heat is really turned on. From ITV’s point of view the hours spent there in May are a miracle of timing and transportation, because the senior executives involved are too busy to spend more than one week at the other side of the world. This virtually means that all the screening has to be crammed into five days, and movements have to be of clockwork precision. The phone calls begin at 7am, and the cars leave at 8.30 for the first screening.
One has to bear in mind that Los Angeles is the biggest city in the world in surface area, so that some of the studios are forty minutes away from each other, and one tries to allocate each day to studios which are relatively close to each other. From 9am till 12.30 there will be a constant screening of anything from movies through pilot films to five minute presentations. These may be interrupted by brief chats from producers and studio executives. There will be a quick lunch in the studio commissary, or in some cases sandwiches during the screening, and then at about 2pm the cars will take us to another screening, if possible the lightest one of the day, which will last till about 4pm. Back at the hotel, there is time off for a bath and a few phone calls before the cars take us off again at 6 for an evening screening which may last until 10pm or later and will almost certainly be accompanied by a running buffet to save time. These are exhausting days, and they are not over when we get back to the hotel, because time must be found, perhaps over a midnight drink in the Beverly Wilshire bar, for comments and decisions on what has been seen, and the planning for the next day’s strategy. The buyer, of course, has an even greater problem than his masters, for he has to find additional time to consult with the sellers and do the deals, and in my experience this may well take place over a 7am breakfast, or a 2am bottle of Perrier. I have also been known, when time permits to stay over the weekend, to conclude deals worth millions of dollars over a Macdonalds’ hamburger, in a hospital sick-room and in the middle of Death Valley, for as Hollywood always knew, an interesting location can add zest to a tired old plot.
It has to be remembered that the BBC will be having its own screenings of the same material at roughly the same time, and among the suppliers there is a gentleman’s agreement that they will not make selling signals until both interested parties have viewed. The moment this has been accomplished, however, they are eager to conclude deals before their rivals lap up all the gravy, and the atmosphere naturally grows tense until the division of spoils finally becomes known. Even then, those who appear to be the winners may not be so in fact. In May one is buying, on the strength of pilots, series which will not begin shooting until June, and may well undergo several changes before October, only to be shot down by critics and public, disappearing from sight within a few weeks of their first episodes. It is because of these heavy battle losses that another trip is necessary in January, by which time the network schedules may show up to a dozen cancellations and as many newcomers, apart from mini-series which will have been produced during the intervening months.
The difference in January is that the new series we look at are either on the air already or just about to take the big plunge. It has been known for new year series to be cancelled the day after they have been bought by either BBC or ITV. January 1984 was fairly typical. The BBC liked and purchased a half-hour comedy series called EMPIRE, a kind of spoof EXECUTIVE SUITE, with Patrick Macnee as the head of a vast industry conglomerate. We laughed at it too, but guessed that it would not appeal to the fat little guy from Milwaukee. It was cancelled after six episodes. The chief competition was for an ambitious entertainment series called AIRWOLF, which had echoes of James Bond as well as RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. ITV had superior bargaining power because it owned several other series from the same studio, all of them about to require renewal, and so to the BBC’s chagrin ITV walked away with AIRWOLF as well as the new Alan Alda series THE FOUR SEASONS. Neither however, at the time of writing is an unqualified success. AIRWOLF is in a difficult slot, opposite DALLAS, and is not getting the numbers which would justify its colossal expense. The network could of course move it to a safe time period, but may well elect to cancel it instead and get something cheaper. As for THE FOUR SEASONS, it started very well, but it often happens with American comedies which start in winter that they somehow fail to survive the long summer gap. We shall see. Meanwhile the BBC had to have something to put against CORONATION STREET, and so were forced to take the lamentable BLUE THUNDER, a television version, on comic strip level, of Columbia’s superior action movie. It seems unlikely to improve the corporation’s prestige, any more than the BBC purchase from Fox, AUTOMAN, another comic strip action series which met with critical derision.
On a different front, there has been stiff competition this year for mini-series, which since the tremendous success of THE WINDS OF WAR have been enjoying exceptional success on the American networks. Not unexpectedly, the most successful have been the most sensational. The BBC acquired THE THORN BIRDS by dint of paying a record price without being able to see a foot of film. The fuss when they subsequently showed it may seem to serve them right, except that THE THORN BIRDS itself is neither better nor worse than several others of its kind. The BBC’s cardinal sin was to schedule it knowingly against Granada’s more rarified critical success THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, which was effectively demolished as a consequence, thus arousing the wrath of thinking people, not to mention politicians who don’t watch television anyway, and giving American television production a worse name than it deserved. Undeterred, the BBC has bought up nine hours of a hokey opus called MASTER OF THE GAME, with Dyan Cannon aging unconvincingly over a seventy-year span; and ITV has not been idle, having acquired the tv versions of such best sellers as LACE and PRINCESS DAISY, not to mention a ten-hour ‘sci-fi’ original called ‘V’. More mini-series are in the offing and this particular corner of the industry has never been busier. There probably is not enough scheduling time available for British audiences to witness all the results, and at the moment I would not care to predict whether you will see CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, GEORGE WASHINGTON, PETER THE GREAT, or any of the proliferating miniseries about aspects of the Kennedy clan. There are also several with Olympic themes, including, JESSE OWENS, GOLDEN MOMENT, GOLDEN GIRL, and THE FIRST MODERN OLYMPICS: and there are some revived classics such as THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, THE SUN ALSO RISES and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS. Modern novels coming to the big screen include THE KEY TO REBECCA and James Michener’s SPACE. However, none of them will come from Universal, the studio which started the trend eight years ago with RICH MAN, POOR MAN. They have decided that miniseries cost too much money and don’t have a second run in them, so they are concentrating on action one-hours like MAGNUM and SIMON AND SIMON, which have certainly stood them in excellent stead. ITV’s problem in May will be how to buy any new shows unless a few of its current long-runners are cancelled. Indeed, a few items confidently purchased, such as YELLOW ROSE (David Soul, Sam Elliott) and SCARECROW AND MRS KING (Kate Jackson, Bruce Boxleitner) are still in the pipeline, looking for a good slot. In television, it always seems to be too little or too much. Nothing is ever easy, or ever perfect.
This one is an interview from Films & Filming, January 1987, and speaks of Halliwell's impending retirement from the world of TV buying, and his determination to write more books celebrating his love for the movies -
The film buff’s guru LESLIE HALLIWELL, who soon departs from his powerful post as ITV film buyer, speaks in praise of the past.
IF ANY one person can be said to have been chiefly responsible for the popularising of the cinema’s ‘golden age’ in the past couple of decades, it is Leslie Halliwell. As author of successive editions of ‘Halliwell’s Film Guide’, and of several other reference books, he has unabashedly championed the Hollywood cinema of the Thirties and Forties, and has sometimes been pretty acerbic about films of more recent vintage.
Halliwell can hardly be accused of having surveyed the movie business from an ivory tower: he has since 1968 been film buyer for the ITV network, and has functioned in the same capacity for Channel 4 since its inception, and in the latter role has been responsible for the televising of a rich crop of golden oldies.
He recently announced his impending resignation, on amicable terms, from his IBA post, but as the following extracts of conversation make clear, he is scarcely going to be inactive. Our talk was prompted by the publication of ‘The Dead That Walk,’ first volume in a projected series of books called ‘Halliwell’s Moving Pictures’. The book deals with the evolution of the horror genre, with particular emphasis, it is perhaps unsurprising to note, on the Universal classics of the 1930s...
“For a long time, my publishers had been asking me to write not just encyclopaedias but about the films I particularly liked. That led to ‘Halliwell’s Harvest’ and ‘Halliwell’s Hundred’. But we kept thinking of how we could freshly and nostalgically cover genres. I decided to take a genre and see how the public responded to it and how it changed. I took horror because it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed – within limits – and there’s a lot to say and quote. A lot of books talk about films without really giving you the feel of them, but if you go back to the scripts you can do that, especially as in this case I’ve been able to find some lost scenes. The lost sequence from The Bride of Frankenstein... I don’t think anybody’s seen it before. If it hadn’t been that I had a bit of influence with Universal, I’d never have got to read it. But because for years I’ve been the buyer for ITV, you can go to Hollywood and say, ‘By the way, can you do me a favour?’ – they’d have said no to anyone else. But they’ve been quite nice about it and allowed me to quote at some length.
‘The next book is going to be called ‘Double Take and Fade Away’, and as you can surmise, it’s about comedy. That’s a rather different approach – it’s really a series of essays on different aspects of comedy and comedians, right back to ancient times. It centres on movies, obviously, but it will also take in radio and television. The third one is going to be called ‘Transformation Scene’, and it’ll be subtitled something frivolous like, ‘Movie characters who are seldom themselves’. Basically, it’s about people who change, whether from Lawrence Talbot into the Wolf Man, or from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, but also about the whole question of change and contrast in the movies...
“And then the fourth one will be called ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ and that’s about utopias and ideal communities in the cinema. Obviously, Lost Horizon will play a large part – and incidentally I’ve just been told that they’ve finally got 132 minutes of film and soundtrack (the length of the original release version) put together, and that will be shown on Channel 4 this coming year.
“And after that, I thought I might do westerns; but I don’t know, I’ll have to see if I can find a fresh twist. And there are several others percolating around...”
There is something of a consensus view that Halliwell’s love of movies exists to a large degree in the past tense – a view he proves happy to endorse.
“As everybody says, I operate back in the pre-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? days, which is quite true. And I think most of these books will operate in that era, because Virginia Woolf was a real cutting-off point. Not that particular film, but because that point cut off one entire kind of audience from another. Until about 1965, there was a sort of winding down from the great period of the Thirties and Forties. All the great stars were still around, getting older but still playing romantic leads. Cary Grant retired in 1966, the same year as Virginia Woolf, and I think you’ll find it was around then that a lot of people stopped going to the cinema. In a way, circumstances dictated it. If you’re going to be nostalgic, you’re nostalgic for the things you did in your youth. People got older and a fresh generation came along with different interests. Although, of course, a lot of young people like the old cinema, they write in to tell me so, and the other week we got an audience of nearly six million on Channel 4 for Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers. But there is still a strong feeling nowadays that if it’s in black and white, they don’t want to see it.”
Black and white, I mention, is generally held to be the kiss of death in the video rental field. “Well, video’s appealing largely to the sensationalist element. You don’t need to have a good film to be successful in video, you just have to have a nice gory cover, and for £1.50 nobody’s going to complain...
“I’ve always harked back to a tradition of quality. My heroes were Sam GoIdwyn, despite his imperfections, David Selznick, Irvine Thalberg, and people like that, who tried to equate commercial success with quality. Nobody’s trying to do that any more, they’re just trying to make money – Hollywood’s run by sharp young men in business suits. All right, there are some good films being made today, which the critics appreciate, but they appeal to a minority audience. In my young days, going to the cinema was a family affair, but nobody goes to films en famille anymore, not even to the Disney revivals. Films now are aimed at people between 16 and 24: at 16, they’re supposed to have money to spend, and by 24 they’re assumed to have seen all the horrors once and to be getting bored, and anyway they’re going to get married, so they won’t be available. Of course, occasionally you get a film like Prizzi’s Honor, which appeals to a somewhat more sophisticated audience. And about once a year you get a Gandhi or a Chariots of Fire or an Out of Africa, which brings out people who never go to the cinema but want to make an exception to the rule because they think this is something they can attend with dignity. Whether the films are all that good, I don’t know, but once a year it becomes fashionable to go to something like that.”
Of course, Halliwell still does see quite a lot of modern films. “I probably enjoy them well enough at the time, but they don’t have a continuing meaning for me. I can’t really think of one that I’ve seen in the past year that I would want to go back and see again. I note them as a kind of historian – and what I try to do in my books is to give the judgement of posterity; you have to wait a few years to see if a film keeps its reputation. And I don’t really have that much time to keep up with new films, until they appear on TV.” In terms of TV acquisition, “cinema films have come to be less important than TV films: I’m too busy looking at episodes of The A-Team or whatever. I suppose, really, that less and less do I go to the movies. But perhaps once I’ve resigned I’ll start going more – maybe somebody will ask me to be a film critic.”
Finally, by way of a footnote to his engaging memoir of his early life, ‘Seats in All Parts’ – and, hopefully, an appetiser for a second volume – I ask how he came to embark on his long career in television.
“I came to Granada in the first place for three weeks as a research assistant on a programme to be called Flashback. It was an idea Denis Foreman had: he’d come from the BFI and he said, ‘There’s some marvellous stuff in the archive – we must find a way of using it’. I suggested a series of British silent films. Frankly, the films aren’t very good, but I felt somebody ought to do it. We put together a half- hour programme – the reel’s still there somewhere at Granada – and I went to see Ernest Lindgren at the National Film Archive to see how much we’d have to pay. He mentioned some absurd figure, and I said, ‘That’s an awful lot of money’. He said, ‘Ah well, you tell Denis Foreman that when he was here at the Institute he used to say that we were sitting on a gold mine and as soon as commercial television came in, we’d make a fortune’. I said, ‘I doubt if he’ll see it in that light now’. So the programme never got under way, simply because we couldn’t agree a fee with the archive. I’ve still got all the notes I made at the time. Who knows, perhaps I might go ahead and do the programme myself, better 30 years late than never, once I’ve retired...”
Return to Top
The Four Star Films |
A Four-Star History |
Brief History of the Guide