When lockdown 1.0 arrived in Britain nearly 12 months ago, the nation dived headfirst into an ocean of on-demand television as a distraction. We were blessed with a flow of meme-worthy content, from Tiger King’s bizarre cast of characters, to Connell’s chain in Normal People and the revived debate about the “coughing major” after three nights watching Quiz. But as the days turned to weeks, then months, millions of us turned to more familiar comforts. Netflix might still be churning out a couple of new series every week, but the popularity of archive content has never been higher. A recent Radio Times survey of readers’ viewing habits found that 64% have rewatched a series in lockdown, while 43% have turned to nostalgic shows for comfort. So what have we been watching, and what do our choices say about the nation’s psyche?
Subscriptions to BritBox – the streaming platform set up by the BBC and ITV to house the broadcasters’ vast archive – have boomed, with new sign-ups surpassing those of Now TV and Apple TV+ in December. “People are really enjoying this treasure trove of archive content,” managing director Will Harrison tells me (although he is keen to stress that BritBox also screens new programming). “Half the reason people are watching so much is that there’s more available now than there ever has been.”
In common with all its competitors, BritBox is cagey about its subscriber numbers and viewing figures for commercial reasons (although all platforms seem happy to tout big numbers when a show is a success). Yet the quick growth of a service made up almost entirely of old shows illustrates a turn to the past in our viewing habits. Harrison believes there are five reasons for that: “The first is pure nostalgia – wanting to revisit something that we’ve loved. The week we launched Grange Hill, it was more popular than classic Love Island, usually one of our most-watched shows on the service. Second is the binge factor: if you’re a fan of, say, Doctor Who, you can go to season one, episode one, and go the whole way through… a kind of completist thing for the real fans.
The third is a reawakened interest in an old show because of something else going on – for example, you might be watching It’s A Sin on Channel 4, then come to BritBox and discover Queer As Folk [both written by Russell T Davies]. The fourth reason is what I call the bucket list: the classic TV you know you should have watched but haven’t got round to.”
In familiar stories, everything is made sense of, unlike the world now, where you don’t know how bad it’s going to be
That might go some way to explaining the huge interest in The Sopranos over the past 12 months, top of the list of most popular archive shows for Sky/Now TV. It is also a show that fits neatly into most of Harrison’s categories: nostalgia for a simpler time (it first aired in 1999, five years before Donald Trump became host of The Apprentice); an excellent binge watch, with six seasons and 86 50-minute episodes to soak up our locked-down hours; and there’s a prequel on the horizon to revive interest, with Michael Gandolfini – son of James, the former lead actor – due to play Tony Soprano in the delayed film, The Many Saints Of Newark.
The absence of James Gandolfini from that project (the actor died in 2013) brings us neatly to Harrison’s final explanation for why people watch the shows they do. “It sounds a bit morbid, but there’s a kind of ‘in memoriam’ viewing,” he says. “Recently, when Barbara Windsor passed away, people loved to come and enjoy her work: Carry On movies and classic episodes from EastEnders. [But mostly] I think people were going for comfort viewing.”
No surprise, then, to see familiar favourites such as Only Fools And Horses and Midsomer Murders proving popular. Both have a vast catalogue of episodes for the completists, while maintaining consistent tone and structure over decades, which means, even in a show with so many murders, there’s nothing to cause undue stress at a time when the outside world is worrying enough.
“Midsomer Murders is dealing with horror in this very normalised, competent, cosy way,” says psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose. “‘Comforting’ is definitely a word people have been using a lot in therapy sessions. In those stories, it can be a complete experience and everything is made sense of. It’s so unlike the world at the moment, where you just don’t know how bad it’s going to be. It’s nicely contained – it’s controlled.”
There are more prosaic reasons why a show such as Midsomer might appeal at the moment: the lovingly shot scenes of bucolic English countryside. A desire to escape from our surroundings is also evident in the show that has proved a roaring success on All 4, Channel 4’s streaming service. Relocation, Relocation was spun off from the popular Location, Location, Location, but with a focus on people escaping their current life to start afresh, usually in the countryside, at the same time as opening a business in a nearby town. While its parent show is still going strong, Relocation finished in 2011, meaning it never gets close to the horrors of the present day.
Its host Kirstie Allsopp is unsurprised that people are discovering the show at a time when an unprecedented number are daydreaming about a new life.
“If you weren’t happy with your house before Covid, it’s unlikely you became more happy with it in Covid,” Allsop says. “There’s a release in watching these shows. Relocations was people changing jobs, a major life shift. And in dark times, lots of people are looking to change everything.”
Plus it has that nostalgia element: “I’m desperate to see things from the past,” Allsopp says. “I know some people have this thing now where they see a crowd scene or they see someone hugging, and it makes them feel uncomfortable because of the ‘New World’. But I just long to see a reminder of how things used to be. Relocations and Locations are just someone out and about, seeing into people’s houses. And there’s the pubs! All our shows begin and end in a pub or a cafe.”
Meanwhile, on iPlayer, the huge success of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air also reflects the effects of a life change, albeit in a slightly different way: Will Smith’s fish-out-of-water who moves to live with his wealthy extended family. “There’s something about his realness in this kind of plasticky world that he’s suddenly transplanted to,” Grose says. That’s evident from the moment he arrives in LA, a pop of colour and modernity in the drab, artificial mansion of his extended family, wearing a bright green T-shirt and singing Soul II Soul’s Back To Life as he knocks on the door. It’s not hard to see how that resonates with the surreal nature of the past 12 months.
Even more importantly, sitcoms allow us to laugh in a safe environment, where nothing ever changes. “You can predict the reactions of great sitcom characters the same way you can with mates you know well,” says Andrew Ellard, screenwriter and script editor for sitcoms including Chewing Gum and Detectorists. And while other forms of comedy might date, the humour in the best sitcoms, whether it’s Basil Fawlty attacking his car with a branch, or Will Smith hiding from the family’s butler while crawling through the kitchen, is often timeless. Of course, Fresh Prince is rooted firmly in the 90s, but the jokes still land. “Carlton being Carltonesque, and Will’s reaction to that, are evergreen,” Ellard agrees.
Broadcasters say that, of the sitcoms we’ve been watching over the past year, those filmed in front of a live studio audience feature prominently: Fresh Prince, Only Fools, Friends. “Done well, the laughter is like a score, matching how you feel,” Ellard says. “It makes you feel part of something communal; who doesn’t want to feel part of Fresh Prince’s audience?” And who doesn’t yearn for that sense of communal enjoyment when theatres, music venues and clubs have been shuttered for almost a year?
Maybe that sense of being part of something partly explains the success of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which topped the streaming lists for Amazon and All 4 when it made the move early in the pandemic. “I just had a whole session with a client talking about Buffy,” Grose laughs. “Vampires are obviously so relevant. It’s all about the threat of infection, yet it’s far enough away from our boring daily reality to be diverting and distracting.”
I put this idea to Kristin Russo, one of the hosts of the hugely popular Buffering The Vampire Slayer podcast. “I think that’s fascinating,” she says. “But, more so, shows that are fantasy in nature are popular because of the power they have in storytelling.” She believes Buffy’s enduring appeal, and resurgence in popularity, is more to do with the quality writing and lovable characters. “The themes are timeless, and resonant. That’s why people rewatch it: you’ll be struck by different characters and storylines depending on your context.” In her view, the recent accusations against its creator, Joss Whedon, won’t stand in the way of people enjoying it (Whedon is accused by multiple cast members of creating a “toxic environment” on the show).
“Joss has obviously shown himself to be problematic in many ways,” Russo says. “And there are problematic aspects of the show – such as the way they treat characters of colour: that’s true of every show that’s 20 or 25 years old. We enjoy discussing those issues together as a community. In our most recent episode, our producer Alba and consultant Mack, a black woman and a brown woman, use the episode Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight [in which Clea DuVall’s character becomes literally invisible as she is ignored at high school] to discuss the issues around the invisibility of black, Indigenous and people of colour in society. Buffy brings people together; our podcast has been an unbelievable example of that.”
Of course, archive TV has the advantage of being almost limitless. Filming any new series is still hard due to coronavirus protocols that limit physical contact and film crew size. The effects of the pandemic on TV schedules will continue to be felt for at least 12 months: the new season of Line Of Duty has fewer episodes than usual, the number of bakers in the Bake Off tent is reduced, and even Netflix is bound to struggle for fresh content soon enough.
But even if we never have any new TV again, there’s still 70 years of classic television to while away the days, from Smiley’s People to Spooks. And if things get really desperate? Buckle up for 40 hours of Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps.
Watch again? Five of the best old shows
The West Wing Seven seasons of endlessly rewatchable, pure liberal-fantasy bliss (All4)
Yes, Minister From ill-informed ministers to tricky spads, the laughs hold up in this classic sitcom (BritBox)
Prime Suspect Helen Mirren is superb and the storylines great, even if you know whodunnit (BritBox)
Deadwood It ended too soon, but David Milch’s exploration of frontier America is joyous (Sky/NowTV)
Battlestar Galactica Unrelenting tension and subterfuge in this reworking of the shonky 70s sci-fi (iPlayer)