(Review of Noel Cronin's Reel to Reel: A Life in Film)
One of the treats of the working week for many film critics is the quick perusal of the Talking Pictures schedule to see what's coming up. Since its launch on 26 May 2015, the channel has shown hundreds of old British films that haven't seen the light of a television screen since the BBC and Channel 4 decided to fritter away their resources on asinine daytime TV shows about DIY, cookery and antiques.
Run from a family home in the Hertfordshire village of Chipperfield, Talking Pictures TV is the broadcasting equivalent of a Werther's Original and it's delightful that young and old can come together to discover the monochrome gems that the terrestrial titans seem to have forgotten.
But how did TPTV come about? The answer lies between the covers of founder Noel Cronin's memoir, Reel to Reel: A Life in Film.
A postwar baby boomer whose first home was on London's famous Abbey Road, Noel Cronin was one of seven children born to Alfred, an Irish electrician, and Hilda, a secretary from Yorkshire. Times were sometimes tough, as ill health and alcohol limited Arthur's employment opportunities. But his time as a soundstage sparks at the Rank Organisation enabled Noel to get a foot on the film industry ladder when he left school in the early 1960s.
Interestingly, in providing some background information about his new employer, Cronin mentions a religious film that J. Arthur Rank had produced, only for it to be spurned by the major cinema chains. This was Norman Walker's Turn of the Tide (1935) and it's somewhat surprising that Cronin doesn't identify it, as it has been shown on Talking Pictures.
Starting out in the post-room of Rank's advertising base in Acton, Cronin recalls the odours emanating from the nearby steel works and the Guinness factory. However, on joining the technicians' union, he was able to relocate to the company's cutting rooms in Soho, where one of his workmates was Terry Nelhams, who would go on to find fame as Adam Faith. A handful of his films and the hit series, Budgie (1971-72) have since been screened on Talking Pictures TV.
Resistant to having orders barked at him by ageing editors, Cronin settled into checking and cleaning the advertising reels that were shown around the country in Rank's Odeon cinemas. But he only got to feel at home in the film industry when he landed a job writing the dialogue for performers to loop at the De Lane Lea studio in Old Compton Street. His description of the painstaking process is fascinating and will bring a nostalgic glow to those with fond memories of the BBC's dubbed version of the French series, Belle and Sebastian (1965-70).
Always seeking pastures new, Cronin joined the Central Office of Information, which produced short films for the government. Among the staff members were Peter Greenaway and Chris Tarrant, who left an impression with his larking around. Initially bored with the material, Cronin became a respected editor, although he doesn't mention any of the films on which he worked. He does, however, remember that he went to see George Dunning's Yellow Submarine on his first date with Joyce Randall, who became his wife and defied medical advice over a congenital heart condition to give birth to two daughters, Sarah and Rosemary.
Taking something of a risk, Cronin became a freelance editor and set up his own Dandelion Films company. He also had a nice sideline cutting news items for the American networks. Moreover, he struck lucky when he acquired a collection of American aviation and military titles and founded DD Films to make a tidy sum from the nascent home video market.
As much of an entrepreneur as an editor, Cronin changed lanes in setting up
Dandelion Distribution. With John Clutten as his wingman, he discovered a talent for wheeler-dealing at film fairs in Europe and the United States and was soon handling New World titles like The Wonder Years and the early animated TV series spun off from Marvel Comics. He clearly enjoyed the cut and thrust of the market place, as well as its more convivial aspects and his affection for the colleagues who have remained firm friends is very touching. He's also rather modest, as he managed to turn a small-time operation into a genuine player in a highly competitive (and often ruthless) sphere. But, while it's forgivable to name drop neighbour Peter Sellers, we could have done without the anecdote about Ingrid Pitt's bosom.
Ever ready to spread his wings, Cronin moved into production with String of Pearls, the company responsible for such modest hits as Double X: The Name of the Game (1992), with Norman Wisdom, and Home For Christmas (1990), which starred former child star Mickey Rooney, who always referred to himself in the third person. While he has fond memories of working with Bernard Hill on Shepherd of the Rock, Cronin would rather forget Little Devils (both 1993), a project he admits went wrong from day one. He doesn't mention director George Pavlou by name and obliquely refers to an actor who tried to throw his weight around. However, he might have said more about collaborating with performers of the calibre of Russ Tamblyn and Stella Stevens.
Perhaps because his role as executive producer often kept him away from the film set, Cronin makes only passing reference to outings like To Catch a Yeti (1995), which starred the recently departed Meat Loaf, and Jim's Gift (1996), a children's teleplay that saw daughter Sarah take a small acting role. However, he opts not to allude to Midnight Fear (1991) or The Big Game (1995), while he might have discussed film series like Sprockets (1991-95) and Film Breaks (1999), as they sound intriguing and ripe for transmission on TPTV.
As the millennium dawned, Cronin quit production after pairing Prunella Scales and George Cole in The Ghost of Greville Lodge (2000), which was made under the banner of Renown Films, which had been founded by George Minter in 1938. However, he was about to endure a nightmare period that saw him lose his wife (at the age of just 50) and his company, thanks to the duplicity of an unnamed American producer (whose name is easily discoverable online), who wound up behind bars for a scam that almost cost Cronin his reputation.
With the help of Sarah and her new husband, Neill Stanley, Cronin was able to build a library of Renown DVDs. At the heart of the catalogue was a collection of old British B movies and the TV output of Four Star Productions, a company that had been founded in 1952 by Hollywood legends Dick Powell, David Niven, Ida Lupino and Charles Boyer. As the label developed a loyal following, the Cronins decided to launch their own independent television channel to show the kind of films and programmes the terrestrial majors had dropped from their schedules during the reality boom.
The section on scheduling and viewer reaction is intriguing. The majority of the features shown on TPTV were made between 1940-70, although titles from the decades either side are sometimes shown. Despite the audience seeming to prefer British oldies, Hollywood films do crop up occasionally. But it's a shame that greater screen time isn't given to the more niche items, as this is the only place they will ever be screened and they will disappear forever if they're left on the shelves. Besides, who knows where the next cult favourite will come from?
Given the print press's readiness to carry profiles of the Cronins and to exploit TPTV's censorship run-ins with Ofcom, it's disappointing how little space they actually afford its films in their listings. As one who has tried urging various high-profile outlets to include a weekly Talking Pictures column, it's hard not to conclude that the British media doesn't care a jot when it comes to our cinema heritage. That said, TPTV also misses a trick in relying on trailers to drum up interest in forthcoming attractions, when they could easily produce short, twice-weekly promos to flag up the week's highlights.
Little gets past Noel Cronin, however, and he capably adds autobiographer to his CV with this lively volume. Such is the chatty style that the reader feels as though they are being given a personal guided tour behind the scenes. Glitz and glamour merely form the tip of the showbiz iceberg and Cronin's accessible insights bring to life the daily doings of an industry that has long passed its heyday in changing beyond all recognition since the advent of digitisation and streaming.
Long may he continue to guide TPTV's fortunes and here's hoping that it keeps sharing all our yesterdays for generations to come.