May Forces TV be with you: the unlikely nostalgia channel you should be watching

<span>Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the summer of 1984, TV viewers were in one of two broadcasting camps. It was either the Los Angeles Olympics on BBC One or, if you had any sense, a sci-fi horror on ITV called V, about Nazi-like lizard alien invaders who could devour guinea pigs in a single gulp. Those who caught this mega-hyped miniseries probably feel it defined their decade. Those who watched Carl Lewis winning four golds must be finding this opening paragraph a bit of a head-spin.

Thankfully, Forces TV is on the side of fortysomething fanboys like me. Not only has the channel recently rebroadcast the original V, but also its sequel V: the Final Battle, as well as the short-lived V: the Series (by which point, a once-great fantasy concept had admittedly morphed into Dynasty in Spandex).

It might seem like a strange combination; Forces TV is a strange, low-key channel at the outer limits of your EPG, pitched primarily at veterans of the armed services, who are well catered for with news updates and commemorations of past conflicts. But it is also a home to niche 80s imports that attract a more general (read: nerdy) audience. How has it become this striking hybrid?

“When we launched in 2014, we were buying series with obvious military links. The Phil Silvers Show, M*A*S*H, Hogan’s Heroes,” explains Adam Hardwick of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which oversees Forces TV. “But we have a whole schedule to fill, so we’ve evolved. We’ve expanded into dramas about security, espionage, covert activities and fighting forces.”

Edward Woodward in The Equalizer.
Edward Woodward in The Equalizer. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

These are all terms that could be used to describe the resistance movement in V, as well as characters on other archive dramas that have recently been dusted down. Anyone who has stumbled across or sought out the channel knows that, by day, there is the expected mix of documentaries about aviators and sailing vessels. By night, it is transformed into a cult telly goldmine, with prized finds including greatcoat-wearing vigilante The Equalizer and the disco-influenced Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The channel’s audience is 65% male, with up to 1 million watching its offerings over a week – a growing number of whom have no connection to the military. “It’s my new favourite channel,” says the political commentator and “televisual archaeologist” Mark Thompson. “And I love their continuity announcers, who are very honest and make you feel part of the club. I was watching Sliders the other night and the continuity guy said: ‘This episode is basically a rip-off of Tremors. Enjoy.’ When V: the Series started, he introduced it by essentially saying: ‘This starts off OK, but it tapers off and, by the end, it’s nonsense.’”

It is an inclusive approach, Hardwick says, which stems from the fact that Forces TV is the commercial arm of the charity BFBS, which provides TV and radio for serving members of the armed forces and their dependents overseas. “With BFBS, we’re connecting people who are far away from home with things like Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor final or Eurovision. We want people to feel like it’s a community.”

For those of us whose idea of comfort television is the sight of Joanna Lumley and David McCallum investigating a haunted railway station, it has been something of a godsend. Back when Gold was UK Gold, it delighted in showcasing hard-to-classify oddities such as Sapphire and Steel and Quantum Leap. But a rebrand in 2008 has left it trapped in a vortex of back-to-back Only Fools and Horses repeats, with Del Boy seemingly destined to be falling through that bar until the end of time. What Forces TV has realised is that there is still a market for these fringe shows that haunt the memories of a certain generation.

John Rhys-Davies, Jerry O&#x002019;Connell, Sabrina Lloyd and Cleavant Derricks in Sliders.
John Rhys-Davies, Jerry O’Connell, Sabrina Lloyd and Cleavant Derricks in Sliders. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

“There’s proper cultural weight behind programmes such as V,” says the cultural commentator Tim Worthington, who curates pop-culture curios on his podcast Looks Unfamiliar. “This isn’t a case of sticking on a film and people liking it just because it’s old. V has this association of children having to sneak around to watch it if they weren’t old enough and sharing rumours about what was going to happen next.”

Is Forces TV perhaps also a salve for those viewers daunted by the mountain of fresh content on Netflix? “Yes, this is television that’s fallen through the cracks in the pavement,” says Worthington. “For obvious reasons, you’re not going to get the likes of the Edward Woodward version of The Equalizer on Netflix because it doesn’t fit their profile. But there is still an audience for it. Perhaps we haven’t moved on as far as we’d like to think in terms of linear TV.”

Here’s hoping that in a media landscape obsessed with the shock of the new, Forces TV continues to indulge our love for the old. Especially if it involves rodent-eating lizard aliens disguised as humans.