Friday, March 16, 2012

The Travails of a Classic British Film Buff

It is not always easy being a classic film buff. While such rubbish as all three Transformers movies and even slightly older rubbish such as Cocktail (1988) remains widely available on DVD and even Blu-Ray, many classic films have not even had their first DVD release. In these instances one can only wait for such films to be shown on Turner Classic Movies or show up on YouTube. The situation can be even worse for an American classic film buff if he or she loves classic British films. Even when a classic British film is available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United Kingdom, it might not be in the United States. Worse yet, it might rarely, if ever be shown on Turner Classic Movies (the rights to show a British film can become very complex here in the United States).

Sadly, I have had a love of British classic films since childhood. When I was a lad, the local television stations would often show old movies on Saturdays and Sundays when there was no sport to broadcast. Most often these films would be American feature films, usually one of the many series Hollywood churned out (the Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Blondie movies were very popular). There would be those times, however, when the local stations aired British films.  The British films local stations would show most often would fall into one of three categories: the films Sir Alfred Hitchcock made while he was still in the United Kingdom; the classic Hammer horror films, many of which received widespread distribution in their initial release in the United States; and any number of Rank Organisation films that also received widespread distribution in their initial release in the United States. More rarely one might see one of the Gainsborough melodramas (most often The Wicked Lady, albeit the bowdlerised American version), Ealing Studios films, or one of the many spy spoofs produced in the United Kingdom in the Sixties (Hot Enough for June and others).

In part it would be the local television stations that would give me my first taste for British classic films. The other source would be The Beatles. Now it might seem odd to some that a British rock band, even the greatest rock band of all time (British or otherwise), to lead one to love British film, but that it is the way it happened. As a young Beatles fan I watched A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine at an early age. As soon as I became aware that Richard Lester directed the first two Beatles movies, I sought out his other films. Among these was The Knack...And How to Get It. The Knack...And How to Get It led me to seek out other British films to the Sixties. This in the end would lead me to the kitchen sink dramas of the era and the British New Wave. The Sixties would become my favourite era for British film.

Unfortunately, my love for British film would become a bit of a burden with the passage of time. Despite the existence of specialised sport channels such as ESPN, sport would overwhelm the weekend schedules of local television stations, so they no longer showed old movies. And when there was no sport on a Saturday or Sunday, the local stations would fill their schedules with infomercials.  Even the advent of AMC and TCM would not solve these problems, as they would mostly show American fare, along with some of the better known Rank pictures.

One would think the advent of DVDs would have solved the problem of seeing my favourite classic British films, but it would only prove to be a source of frustration.  Various regions of the world are divided into region codes, a technique of digital management meant essentially to keep a person from one country from watching a DVD made in another country. Sadly, while Canada and the United States are in Region 1, the United Kingdom is in Region 2 (even though all three countries speak English and watch many of the same movies and TV shows). This would prove to be a source of frustration, as I would often see that a British classic was available on DVD, only to find out it was only available in Region 2 . This is still largely case for many classic British films and even classic TV shows.  In fact, unless a film was directed by a big name director such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell,  or Carol Reed, one can safely assume that it might not be available here in the United States. This is even the case with more recent films. One of my favourite films of all time is Quadrophenia. One would think that since the film is relatively recent (it was released in 1979) and is based around the music of The Who that it would never go out of print in the United States. Sadly, this is not the case. While it has been released on DVD several times in the States, it has always gone out of print. And unfortunately the surviving copies sold here in the U.S. tend to be very expensive (I've seen copies go for over $100 on EBay).

The advent of YouTube and other video services would alleviate the problem of seeing my favourite British films to a degree.  Classic films of all sorts would find their way onto the video service, including not a few British films.  Indeed, not only were some of these films not available on DVD in the United States, but they were not available in the United Kingdom either.  It is because of YouTube that I have been able to see several classic British films I had never seen before and many favourites I had not seen in years. Of course, even YouTube was not the best solution to the problem of seeing classic British films. Often a particular YouTube video would infringe on the copyright of a work and would be removed. And, on my old computer, at least, I might have to put up with the video buffering and the screen quality not being the best. Still, it was better than nothing.

Now one solution to my problem would seem to have been an all region DVD player. The problem is that all region DVD players tend to be very expensive. I have also read that they tend to be rather dodgy. I have read several horror stories of people who bought all region DVD players only to find that they did not work or they ceased working after a time. I could not see paying hundreds of dollars for a device that might or might not work. I also tried various computer programmes that claimed they could play Region 2 DVDs to no avail. My old computer simply refused to play them.

Fortunately, computer technology would come to my rescue. When I bought my new computer I stuck my Region 2 DVD of Quadrophenia (sold to me on the cheap by an Aussie who must have thought the U.S. was on the same Region as the UK) in my DVD drive. A screen then came up informing me that it was a Region 2 and asking me if I wished to set my computer's DVD drive to Region 2. Naturally, I clicked, "Yes." After all, I already had a Region 1 DVD player...

The end result is that I can now watch Region 2 DVDs. Now I not only  own Quadrophenia (which I can now watch), but The Wicked Lady, Bank Holiday, the complete run of Adam Adamant Lives, and so on. It has proven to be a godsend for me. Now the downside is that I cannot watch Region 1 DVDs on my PC, but given I own a Region 1 DVD player it does not really matter to me. I might add that this has not only benefited me. Both Amazon UK and HMV have seen business that they may not have seen otherwise!

My hope is that one day that the DVD region codes will be disposed of entirely or, at the very least, classic British films will become more available in the United States. There is definitely a demand for them. I know of several other classic film buffs in the United States who love classic films (in fact, I have one friend who would gladly own every film Sir Dirk Bogarde appeared in) and would gladly buy them if only they were available here. Beyond proving frustrating to someone who loves classic British films, I must say I've always thought it was silly that the English speaking world is divided between three different region  codes (Region 1 for the United States, Region 2 for the UK, and Region 4 for Australia and New Zealand).

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