19 Dec 2023

Where has all the classic television gone?

From Widescreen, 2:36 pm on 19 December 2023

The rest of the world gets to enjoy decades of great television on dozens of different streaming services. What is there for New Zealand, asks Dan Slevin.

Sam Neill as Reilly, Ace of Spies in the 1983 British drama series of the same name

Sam Neill as Reilly, Ace of Spies in the 1983 British drama series of the same name. Photo: Euston Films

I know I’ve been talking about the preciousness of physical media a bit recently but one of my most prized possessions id a DVD called The Best of Dad’s Army – six episodes of the funniest television ever made. It’s precious to me because it’s the only place I can find those shows. Dad’s Army – and the vast majority of all the best television ever made – has not made it on to any streaming service in New Zealand and doesn’t look like it’s going to any time soon.

In the UK, the BBC’s archive is regularly remastered and made available through their iPlayer. In the US, streamers like Hulu (owned by Disney), Peacock (NBC) and Paramount+ make their greatest hits available. Sometimes they move around a bit as titles are licensed to different platforms. Apple in the US actually lets you buy classic (and recent) TV through their iTunes store. That functionality has never been available to us here in Aotearoa.

This was all brought unhappily to mind by the recent news that the 1980s classic romantic-comedy Moonlighting (starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis) had been rendered into high-definition and was streaming on Hulu. L.A. Law has also recently had the treatment. It’s possible that both might migrate to Disney+ here at some point but for the time being we wait.

And it’s not because there isn’t demand here. Madman Entertainment continues to release DVD versions of classic TV shows because viewers want to see them again and own them. Their December catalogue alone featured a box set of all 26 Raymond Burr Perry Mason TV movies made between 1985 and 1995, a Blu-ray box set of all the Tara King (Linda Thorson) Avengers episodes from 1968-69, 15 seasons of David Jason’s detective series A Touch of Frost across two box sets, seasons 12-14 of Bonanza … the list goes on.

But the pickings on our streamers remains tragically light.

They don’t make it easy to search for older shows but I hunted for programmes that had been made in the last century to see if there was anything to feed our gogglebox nostalgia.

AMC+/Acorn

Promo shot for the 1990s British crime drama Cracker starring Robbie Coltrane

Photo: Granada Television

Cracker (1993-1995)

The Acorn arm of AMC+ has the best selection of classic British TV, including all the episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s essential crime drama starring Robbie Coltrane in the definitive performance of his career.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1978)

The first two seasons (of seven) of John Mortimer’s legal drama starring Australian Leo McKern as the irascible defender of the underdog are on Acorn. McKern owned that role so completely that you not only can’t imagine anyone else playing the part but you can’t imagine McKern playing anyone else either.

Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983)

Sam Neill made his big international television splash in this limited series based on a real-life Russian-born agent for the British Empire during the early 20th century. Neill was so good that he got a shot auditioning for James Bond as a result.

Disney+

Promo shot for the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Photo: The WB

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001)

Disney+ hides some its best content very deep as they really want you to watch their expensive new stuff, but a lot of the value in a subscription is from the vault. Joss Whedon announced himself as a writer-producer with seven seasons of comedy-romance-horror, inspired by the 1992 film (which he wrote). It’s a shame that Whedon has found himself cancelled because I know many people who are die-hard fans of this show who are now somewhat conflicted.

M*A*S*H (1972-1983)

All eleven seasons (256 episodes) of this beloved comedy are available, including the last one, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, which lasted two and a half hours and was watched by 105 million people in February 1983. It’s a cultural touchstone that we are unlikely to experience again.

NYPD Blue (1993-2005)

Imagine my surprise to discover that NYPD Blue ran for two more seasons and five more episodes than M*A*S*H, although not to the same impact. Because of my advanced age, I prefer Hill Street Blues to this but that show is missing in action here in New Zealand.

Netflix

Still from the TV show Gilmore Girls featuring Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel

Photo: Netflix

Gilmore Girls (2000-2006)

Netflix has made a very limited commitment to classic TV, preferring to spend big money on trusted brands (Friends, Star Trek) or shows like Gilmore Girls that it can make follow-ups or sequels to (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life in 2016).

SeaChange (1998-2000)

Because we essentially have Australian Netflix here, there are a few bits of classic Oz TV in the lineup, including this well-liked romantic drama starring Sigrid Thornton as a big city lawyer going to the coast to escape the pressures of the big smoke. Made David Wenham (‘Diver Dan’) into a star.

Seinfeld (1989-1998)

All nine seasons (180 eps) of Seinfeld are available on Netflix, still one of the big global drawcards for the streamer. I don’t expect you need me to introduce it to you and it will make an epic Christmas binge for someone this holiday.

Prime Video

Promo shot for season five of The Tribe

Photo: Cloud 9

The Tribe (1999-2003)

Back in 1999, Wellington New Zealand wasn’t yet known as a film and TV production powerhouse. That would come with Lord of the Rings a little bit later on but there was a kind of rehearsal for a while with the post-apocalyptic kidult drama The Tribe that played for 260 25-minute episodes and launched the careers of Antonia Prebble among many others.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

I’ve written about this le Carré adaptation before abut I’m glad to see it’s still available and I hope like heck that one day it will get a restoration. Currently it’s still only DVD quality standard definition but it remains one of the greatest examples of British television drama of the 1970s.

The Vicar of Dibley (1994-1998)

Only the first two seasons (of three plus seasonal specials) of this much-loved comedy series, written by Love, Actually’s Richard Curtis especially for Dawn French, are on Prime so it’s a short binge.

TVNZ+

Still from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice featuring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth

Photo: BBC

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Considered by many to be the definitive version of Jane Austen’s novel, this BBC six-parter stars Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth and plenty of other familiar TV faces. In 2000 it was included in the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century by the BFI.

Frasier (1994-2004)

Frasier has just been given a reboot so maybe it’s time to go back and enjoy the early seasons of a show that once felt as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. There are eleven seasons in total and they are an example of an American sitcom culture that knew exactly what it was doing. Seemingly effortless entertainment.

Tangata Whenua (1974)

Last but definitely not least, Barry Barclay and Michael King’s six-part primetime documentary series showcasing the lives of contemporary Māori has been given a stunning restoration and quietly uploaded to our state broadcaster. Essential to our understanding of the past, present and future.

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