As media nerve centres go, it is a far cry from the usual glass-and-chrome Soho office, stuffed with plush designer furniture and high-tech gadgetry.
But despite operating from nothing more glamorous than a modest shed in a Home Counties village, Talking Pictures TV has become one of the most unlikely success stories in broadcasting, counting even the Queen among its fans.
Run by a 72-year-old film buff and his daughter, the channel’s reassuring blend of classic movies and vintage TV serials has proved a winning formula during the lockdown, and according to the latest ratings now reaches 3.5 million viewers a week.
While Her Majesty is known to have tuned in for Laurel And Hardy comedies, she is just the pinnacle of the station’s celebrity fan base.
Sarah Cronin-Stanley and her father Noel, are keeping Britain going by showing old films on the freeview channel Talking Pictures TV, which they run from home
Vic Reeves and Jools Holland adore its stylish 1960s crime capers, while actors Kenneth Branagh and Brian Blessed agree on a classic film they can watch at the same time and discuss afterwards.
Astonishingly, the operation is all run from Noel Cronin’s back garden in the Hertfordshire village of Chipperfield, where he uses a pad and pen to put together a schedule from his library.
It’s a collection that includes early Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, 1980s cop shows, screwball comedies from the golden age of Hollywood and forgotten masterpieces such as Sydney Poitier’s Cry, The Beloved Country; The Spy Who Came In From The Cold with Richard Burton; and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.
British actor Alec Guinness (Sir Alec Guinness de Cuffe) and British actress Celia Johnson acting in the film ‘The Captain’s Paradise’. 1953
Film: His Girl FridayCary Grant & Rosalind Russell
‘What I like,’ says Noel, ‘are films which don’t rely on a car chase, big booming special effects or a scantily-clad lady.
‘I also like them to have a proper ending, not a cliffhanger. Our loyal audience, which we can see growing as new viewers come for a bit of comfort and nostalgia, seems to feel the same way.’
His daughter, Sarah Cronin-Stanley, says her father – who began his career as a post boy with the Rank Organisation – has always been passionate about preserving film history and has spent years building up his eclectic library.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Sons Of The Desert (1933)
‘He was very clever in the 1960s and 1970s,’ she says. ‘Buying the rights to features no one else was particularly interested in.’
At first, he sold them to mainstream channels for their ‘old black-and-white matinee slots’.
‘But the big broadcasters stopped showing them,’ she adds. ‘It was as if streaming, TV-on-demand and box-sets would render the oldies obsolete. We disagreed as we knew there was an audience who would otherwise be ignored.
‘We were also terrified that thousands of brilliant old films would be obliterated from memory, the stars and their scripts forgotten.’
The father-and-daughter team repeatedly pitched the idea of a dedicated old movie channel to terrestrial broadcasters, banks and satellite TV companies – but always in vain. So in 2015, they launched Talking Pictures TV themselves, as a free-to-view channel, in the hope it would be financed with advertising.
‘Everyone said, ‘You’re mad, no one wants to watch black and white any more,’ ‘ remembers Sarah, 31. ‘But they were wrong’ – as the latest viewing figures prove, with the channel growing from being the secret pleasure of a few connoisseurs to a mainstream hit.
Brian Blessed loves the channel so much that he sent them a fan email saying he’s watched ‘lost favourites and little-known gems’, adding: ‘We’ve all heard the cliche they don’t make them like they used to… but we neglect the arts at out peril.’
Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee Cry in The Beloved Country – 1951 Director: Zoltan Korda
At Christmas 2016 when the Queen was too ill to attend church, it was revealed she watched reruns of Laurel And Hardy on Talking Pictures. Other celebrity fans include Sir Ian McKellen and theatrical impresario Bill Kenwright who, like Blessed and Branagh, enjoy watching the same films and discussing them.
Available on Virgin, Sky, Freeview and YouView, Talking Pictures TV’s catalogue also boasts the 1940 comedy His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; Alec Guinness and Celia Johnson in The Captain’s Paradise; and TV series such as 1960s crime drama Gideon’s Way; Second World War drama Danger UXB from the 1970s; and 1980s favourites Widows by Lynda la Plante, John Mortimer’s Rumpole Of The Bailey and The Gentle Touch, with Jill Gascoigne.
The programme viewers most ask to see is the long-running police show Z-Cars, which starred Blessed alongside Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor – but Noel and Sarah have never been able to persuade the BBC to part with it, nor with Dixon Of Dock Green, which viewers are also keen to see again.
They also struggle to locate many films that have disappeared into the vaults of major studios.
‘It’s a tragedy,’ says Sarah, ‘because they are pieces of history which should be preserved – and as we have proved, there’s an audience longing to see them again.’
This content was originally published here.