More years ago than I care to remember, I decried the lack of opportunity we had to view some of our comedy greats. Now seems as good a time as any to review the situation. And things are very definitely looking up.
There are two factors in this improvement. The first is the arrival of the Talking Pictures channel. This is an offshoot of Renown, a production/distribution company that's been knocking around the lower reaches of the British film industry for the best part of a century. In that time it has acquired the rights to a large number of films which it has been quietly releasing on DVD over the past few years. Now it is making that back catalogue available on its own television channel. Though not broadcast in HD it is carried on the HD band so you'll need a TV capable of receiving an HD signal, but it is free to air on most platforms including Freeview.
Renown's back catalogue, though big, is not hugely impressive, but they have now partnered with other distributors including the BFI so Talking Pictures now offers a great selection of British films.
The other factor is the acquisition by Network of the rights to release Studio Canal's back catalogue. Over the years French company Studio Canal has managed to gain the rights to many British films including those made by Ealing, EMI, British Lion and Associated British Pictures Corporation - about half the output of the studio years - but had chosen to cherry-pick the classics when it comes to releasing them on DVD. The deal with Network changed that. Over the last couple of years Network has released hundreds of British films, filling in many gaps in our understanding of popular cinema.
So, what's left to do?
British silent comedy is still an unknown country. Granted, it's not one of our glories, but the films of Walter Forde deserve an outing at least. Ernie Lotinga, Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtneidge, Sydney Howard and Jack Buchanan are all still underrepresented but at least we can see samples of their work. Leslie Fuller and The Aldwych Farces are now very well represented with more to come.
As far as individual comedies are concerned there are gaps such as On Approval and Quiet Wedding. Quiet Wedding seems to have disappeared from circulation but surely it's just a matter of time before On Approval gets a release.
If you're going to buy DVDs then you can, of course, check out Amazon, but sometimes it's cheaper to buy direct and the DVD producer gets more income.
The Network site
The Renown site