The Best Years of Our Lives

A reflection by Richard Armstrong


    Since the ‘90s there has been a lot of nostalgia about the ‘70s. This mood has permeated the popular mainstream and academia alike. Movies like Boogie Nights, The Last Days of Disco and Charlie’s Angels unabashedly celebrated the decade, while Summer of Sam, The Ice Storm and Donnie Brasco offered food for thought. Flares and platform heels made a reappearance on our streets. Writers from Peter Biskind to Peter Krämer documented the time, while newsstand movie magazines still sift for the coke stains and ancient poolside slurs. The ‘70s were the golden years, the last time there was an American cinema that really counted. New Hollywood has become the multiplexer’s idea of the classical.
    But nobody ever writes about the movies we saw on television in the ‘70s. I was not old enough to have caught the New Hollywood thing as it crested in the cinemas. But I did catch the broadcast backwash of that efflorescence. I may not have been in the West End to witness the queues for Bonnie and Clyde. But I was there in front of the box for its impact on that Monday evening in the long hot summer of 1976. In the year I left school, I began a rich education.WTENmoviead1961.jpg
    In the late-70s British television was a valuable part of the national patrimony. We blanch now at the racist and sexist excesses of those sitcoms, but BBC drama from that era still elicits hushed reverence. And compared with the cable era, the variety of movies remains startling. There were only three channels then: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, the commercial (and déclassé) alternative to state television. Part of the state-owned BBC’s remit was to educate, and this could be felt in everything from nature documentaries to Jimmy Cagney programmers. Between 1976 and 1979 you could see Chabrols, Sauras, Widerbergs and Satyajit Ray, Wyler, Sirk and Bette Davis. Accompanying a Davis documentary in the summer of 1977 were out-of-the-way releases like June Bride, Dangerous and Deception playing late Fridays on BBC1. In 1978 there were seasons of William Wyler, Henry King and Hollywood musicals. You will never again find the Eleanor Powell vehicle Lady Be Good playing a midweek terrestrial schedule to a mass national audience as it did on 25 May 1978 at 9:00 on BBC2.
    As part of some research for a book, I recently looked up some dates and times in the Radio Times microfiches at the British Film Institute National Library. It seems inconceivable now that a documentary on Henry King could air in prime time accompanied by weeks of the likes of Chad Hanna, Maryland, State Fair and Little Old New York as it did in the late spring of 1978. Around Easter, there had been a major Wyler retrospective. These are not now regarded as major studio era auteurs in the way that Welles, Ford and Hawks are. But that someone at the BBC felt that they deserved such tributes suggests a feeling for the system’s genius that would impress Thomas Schatz, or even Bazin himself. And this just as auteurism was giving way to genre in academic corridors. I will never forget that Sunday evening in April when I sat down to watch The Best Years of Our Lives on BBC2...
    By the late-70s, what Pauline Kael had called “that tangled, bitter flowering” of New Hollywood had begun its passage into legend as the likes of Harold and Maude, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid and The Last Picture Show began to air in prime time slots. Over 1978’s late May bank holiday The Godfather riveted the nation for two consecutive nights. Who was more shocked by Harold and Maude, we or some Polish visitors we had that October evening in 1977?
    Of course, things have changed. On Christmas morning in 1978 I read in Films Illustrated that there was a revolution on the horizon. The warning was accompanied by some bad monochrome shots of clunky metal boxes they were calling VHS and Betamax. The ‘80s saw the deregulation of UK broadcasting and the proliferation of satellite and cable channels. Video reached saturation levels. Channel 4 arrived in 1982 to push out the boundaries. The choice of movies is now bewildering.
    And yet you will be lucky to find regular broadcasts of foreign-language movies or seasons devoted to foreign directors anywhere. In 1979 BBC2 ran a tribute to the recently passed Renoir that lasted several weeks in August and September. In 2005 Channel 4 ran a season of Iranian cinema during the graveyard shift. I thought I was dreaming!