How a new channel dedicated to golden oldies is shaking up TV

Judi Dench and Michael Williams in A Fine Romance
Judi Dench and Michael Williams in A Fine Romance

When a new TV channel launches this week, first-night viewers will see dramas such as Return of the Saint and Department S, followed by comedies Drop the Dead Donkey and Clive Anderson’s Whose Line Is it Anyway?

No, you have not fallen through a wormhole and gone back in time.

Instead, the creators of Rewind TV are looking to ride the nostalgia wave and bring back much-loved, if seldom re-aired, hits. The channel, which will specialise in 1970s and 1980s entertainment programmes, lands on Sky satellite services this week and its founders plan to expand to Freeview and Freesat in the near future.

It is the brainchild of Oscar Beuselinck and Jonathan Moore, two friends who work in video and DVD publishing. Other shows that they plan to air include Hancock (a predecessor to the better-known Hancock’s Half Hour, which has not been since its ITV debut in 1963), The Beiderbecke Affair and Hammer House of Horror.

Beuselinck and Moore, both 55, despair at the state of modern television. We speak the day after the TV Bafta awards, when several of the winners and nominees were dark crime dramas, such as Happy Valley and The Sixth Commandment. “I personally find those gritty dramas insufferably painfully depressing,” says Beuselinck. “I’m not sure why you’d watch them. ‘Oh, there’s another horrible murder.’ ”

Moore reckons that the streaming giants have started “commissioning by algorithm” and using data to try and predict what premise, location, director and actors will guarantee a hit. Crime, especially true crime, does particularly well by those metrics.

Peter Wyngarde in Department S
Peter Wyngarde in Department S - Alamy

“That’s so formulaic. Humanity has lost,” he says and points to shows they are airing such as Enn Rietel’s 1980s sitcom The Optimist and 1960s cult classic The Prisoner as a way of showing how times have changed. “What’s so nice about these [old] shows is that they are old-school in terms of technology, but also it’s basically human creativity. It’s people writing a good script, and it’s a decent actor without the benefit of a load of CGI and special effects. It’s the film-making and the actual photography and scenery, rather than any trickery. There’s something a bit more human about that.”

Beuselinck reckons that if shows such as Fawlty Towers were pitched today that they may never have made it to air because of the shift towards data. “There’s a lot of lowest common denominator stuff going on with a lot of modern productions, which means the slightly quirkier stuff might not get made,” he says.

One of the biggest potential pitfalls when curating a nostalgic TV channel is navigating what may be politely described as changed attitudes towards women, ethnic minorities and gay people. The added complication for Rewind TV is that Beuselinck and Moore plan to air shows in their original timeslots, and what was once acceptable before the watershed may not be able to air before 9pm today.

Shows such as On the Buses may prove a challenge in an Ofcom-regulated world. “It’s amazing that attitudes have changed so much that even what you think of as completely innocuous shows do sometimes have attitudes to women and racial stereotypes that creep in that are frankly not acceptable these days,” says Moore. “But back in those days, they were just run of the mill for pre-watershed broadcast TV.”

The pair are determined not to censor the past, but Beuselinck says that they “know the content that is the really difficult stuff and we probably just wouldn’t touch it anyway”. The likes of Love Thy Neighbour, say, “need to go away quietly”.

Many of the shows that they plan to air are on the internet or streaming services already, though viewers will have to dig deep to find them. So why bother going to the effort and expense of launching a linear TV channel? The pair reckon that there is a large market out there, particularly among older people, who experience “choice paralysis” when confronted with the streamers’ bounties and yearn for a more curated offering.

“We want to have a channel where you pretty much guarantee there’s going to be something you’re gonna want to watch,” says Moore. “That’s our job: we’re the human algorithm.”

Rewind TV is clearly part of the booming nostalgia industry for those sick of what terrestrial scheduling has to offer and also won’t get on board with costly streaming services. Established channels include That’s TV and Talking Pictures TV which gets six million viewers each week.

1960s cult classic The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan
1960s cult classic The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan

“Talking Pictures is a huge success, and shows you it can be done,” says Beuselinck. “We were very encouraged by them.”

He adds that he does not want Rewind to become a “cult channel” and plans to programme mainstream hits in a schedule that feels familiar to those watching first time around. Above all, they are looking to recreate the shared experience which streaming has all but destroyed.

As people whose careers have been built on selling videos and DVDs, Beuselinck and Moore are also aware that some great TV will become lost as the streaming world continues to grow. “As physical media goes into its sunset years this content is disappearing and we’re conscious of that,” says Beuselinck. “We’re not by any means the saviours of classic television, but it’s good and we just want to give it a new lease of life.”

Beuselinck’s father is Paul Nicholas, the Just Good Friends actor who is currently treading the boards in the West End adaptation of Fawlty Towers. “He’s well excited about the whole channel,” says Beuselinck. “Every time I speak to him, he comes up with a show we should air.” One of the programmes Rewind TV will air shortly after launch is Bust, the ITV comedy drama in which Nicholas, now 79, plays a wheeler-dealer who goes bankrupt.

Phyllis Logan and Paul Nicholas in Bust (1987-88)
Phyllis Logan and Paul Nicholas in Bust (1987-88) - ITV/Shutterstock

The pair planned to launch the channel before the coronavirus pandemic started but had technical difficulties that delayed things. It is probably just as well, because the Covid-induced advertising crash meant they “would have lost our shirt”, according to Beuselinck.

It has taken hundreds of thousands of pounds, including cash from family and friends, to get to this position. Much of the spending has been on securing rights to shows — many are relatively cheap but it can be time-consuming for the pair to track down who owns what decades after broadcast — and their technical infrastructure.

By contrast, Disney’s annual content budget is $25 billion (£20 billion), while Netflix’s is $15 billion. Even the BBC spends the sharp end of £2 billion each year. “We’re not a big corporate with deep pockets so it’s quite a scary leap that we’re taking,” says Moore.

Rewind TV launches on Sky channel 190 on Thursday May 23