The Sopranos James Gandolfini

The DVD has served us well for over a decade now, and many have adopted Blu-ray as their format of choice. Sadly, the selection of TV shows in the HD format remains poor, especially for British viewers.

Unfortunately, some great TV shows would not benefit from an HD upgrade due to the way they were filmed. From classics such as Only Fools and Horses and many older episodes of Doctor Who, to contemporary series such as Nighty Night, the filming methods of these shows dictate a standard definition future. But there are still a whole raft of shows shot on both film (which can be transferred to disc in HD) and in digital high definition that have been neglected by their distributors.

So, as part of a new season celebrating the the Blu-ray format (which will lead us up to our ‘BluChristmas’ 100 Disc strand this autumn and winter), here is the first 10 in a carefully curated list of TV titles that deserve a Blu-ray outing.

Damages Series

Damages
Five series (four of them not on BD). 2007 – 2013. Digital HD.

Glen Close was the perfect casting choice for the terrifying lawyer Patty Hewes in this glossy and gripping legal thriller. The first series was released on Blu-ray when the format was still rather new and sadly it didn’t sell well. After that, distributors Sony decided on standard definition only releases, which is a shame, since each different season has a distinct visual ‘look’ primed for magnificent HD.

Inspector Morse Series

Inspector Morse
Eight series. 1987 – 2000. 16mm film.

ITV’s fabulous crime drama changed the face of British television. John Thaw’s remarkable performance of the kind (though occasionally grumpy) cross-word solving, opera-loving Oxford Detective captivated the world. The series is made up of 33 feature-length films, some original screenplays and some adapted from the novels of Colin Dexter. Inspector Morse has been remastered in high definition – anyone with Sky can see some of the HD episodes on ITV3 HD – but alas, the only way to buy it is the DVD boxset which sadly boasts some shockingly fuzzy transfers. Doing a direct comparison between how they look on the DVD compared to the lush HD editions on ITV3 HD is startling and really show how appalling the DVDs are. Come on ITV, do your crown jewel justice!

The Sopranos Series

The Sopranos
Six series (five of them not on BD). 1999 – 2006. 35mm film.

Shot on beautifully grainy film stock, this landmark in American television starring the late James Gandolfini should be seen in HD. And it can be…for the first series that is (and when it crops up on Sky OnDemand). But, for some odd reason (probably to do with money) Warner Home Video decided not to give any of the later series a Blu-ray release (apart from a US Season 6 offering). Such a shame.

Cracker

Cracker
Six series. 1993 – 2006. 16mm film.

Mixed series and feature-length films. 1993 – 2006. 16mm film.
Robbie Coltrane, in possibly his best onscreen role, is a brilliant presence. Cracker took him from comedy to hard, serious drama. And what a terrific drama it was too. Terrible crimes committed by complex people. And Coltrane’s criminal profiler shines a light on their motives. Stunning.

Poirot Series

Agatha Christie’s Poirot
Thirteen series. 1989 – 2013. 16mm film & Digital HD.

The good news is, this show is available on Blu-ray if you don’t mind importing from Spain or the USA. The bad news is, it’s not easily available in the UK (which is bonkers, considering what a wonderfully British show it is). Because I’m a Poirot obsessive, I imported all the Spanish Blu-rays (the cheapest way – they are half the price of the Region A US versions) and they look utterly fabulous! The series can be divided in different ways, but roughly it fits into two camps: 1989 – 2001: the ‘Classic’ years, and 2003 – 2013: the ‘Cinematic’ years. The first bunch of episodes and films are sumptuously done, but are very much Poirot’s show and feel televisual. From 2003 onwards, ITV went in a new direction, choosing to concentrate on Christie’s novels rather than simply Poirot’s comedy value. This has allowed the various directors to experiment with different styles and for David Suchet to explore the darker side to Hercule Poirot.

Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect
Seven series. 1991 – 2006. 16mm film.

As far as I can tell, this Helen Mirren crime drama which captured the attention of the world when it premiered in the 1990s, has not even been remastered in HD, let alone released anywhere on Blu-ray. So it’s going to take some time and effort if we ever do see Jane Tennison in hi-def glory. But ITV are steadily restoring their library of drama titles, and it was shot on film, so we can live in hope.

UPDATE (12/08/13): This show has now been remastered in high definition from the original 16mm negatives. It’s been released in a glorious Complete Collection edition from Acorn Media and is available……only in the USA. So once again, Britain misses out on seeing one of their best shows in HD. Typical. Please, ITV! Give your home viewers a chance!

A Touch of Frost

A Touch of Frost
Fifteen series. 1992 – 2010. 16mm film.

David Jason turned in a terrific performance as the cantankerous and unorthodox Detective Inspector Jack Frost in this long running series. Once again, ITV are in the process of giving this series a good remastering (and, rather interestingly, the early episodes have been ‘opened-up’ into widescreen versions). You may think the cinematography on this grey-looking series is not worthy of high definition. However, given the right treatment, the 16mm film stock gives this series a satisfyingly deep, rich feel.

Silent Witness

Silent Witness
Sixteen series. 1996 – Present. 16mm film (S1 -10) and Digital HD (S11 – 16).

The BBC’s fabulous transfers to DVD of this long-running crime drama demonstrate how good they look in standard definition. So imagine how great it would look on Blu-ray! The later series especially feature some of the most inventive and exciting uses of cinematography in recent television. From grainy, grim, muted tones to bright, pin-sharp, glossy, handheld camera shots. This is the crime drama for those who like their murder served up looking ultra-stylish.

Accused

Accused
Two series. 2010 – 2012. 16mm film (S1) and Digital HD (S2).

This is one of the best dramas in recent years – part anthology series, part serial, each episode features a character accused of a terrible crime. Did they do it? We find out over the course of the episode. Written by Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Cracker), the stories are first-class, and some of the performances are Oscar-worthy. The highlight is a beautifully handled turn from Sean Bean as a transvestite accused of killing his lover’s girlfriend.

Doctor Who Series

Doctor Who
Series 1 – 4 plus Specials. 2010 – 2008.

UPDATE: This list previously featured the BBC’s 2005 – 2008 series of Doctor Who which were incorrectly labelled as productions shot on film. Sadly, it has now been learned that the episodes were largely filmed on standard definition digital video, and so would not be suitable for an HD upgrade, therefore this show has been removed from the list. However (the plot continues), despite this, BBC Worldwide are releasing HD up-converted editions of the SD versions on Blu-ray disc in the United Kingdom and United States this November, ‘remastered in 1080p’.. There is currently no news as to the quality of these upscales or whether they will be released in the UK.

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  • Fitz
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    Agree on most of these, but sadly Doctor Who (2005-2008) was actually shot on SD video and then filmised (not very well, arguably). Nonetheless, upscaled blu-rays are being released in the US (and presumably the UK) next year. Would love to see Cracker out on blu-ray (I’ve been holding off buying it on DVD) alongside Between The Lines,

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  • John
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    Interesting piece. Do you have any information on the timeline when Standard definition was the default format for UK TV and when that changed to HD video? Im assuming it was all the 90s and early/ mid 2000s. IMDB unfortunately doesn’t list filming methid info for TV series

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  • Barnaby Walter
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    Hi John, thanks for your comment. Information on this is sketchy, and yes it isn’t helpful that IMDB doesn’t list filming methods for many British shows. As far as I can tell, 16mm film (which is dubiously viewed by broadcasters as standard definition) was the format for many UK TV drama productions up until rather recently. The BBC did shoot some content on the more cinematic 35mm film (which they rightly count as HD content) throughout the late 20th Century – all of which could therefore theoretically be remastered in 1080 HD quality. British TV dramas started seriously dabbling in digital high definition video in a big way around 2005 and the first notable example is the BBC’s big-budget, multiple-episode series of Bleak House which aired during the autumn of 2005 on BBC One in standard definition. It was shown in HD in 2006 as part of a trial of the HD format on the then-titled ‘BBC HD’ channel, and was one of the BBC’s first releases on Blu-ray a couple of years later. Around the same time, the BBC were experimenting with other HD content, such as the documentary series Planet Earth and the historical drama series Rome (which was a co-production with HBO, and so could therefore afford to shoot on Super 35mm film stock which was then transferred to digital HD). Shows such as Hotel Babylon followed, and as time pressed on UK broadcasters have switched to digital HD and in turn have made shooting on film a thing of the past. Some shows stuck to the format for a long time (Spooks and Waking the Dead all stayed, even though HD had become more-or-less the norm, and New Tricks only switched to digital HD a couple of years ago). These days it is rare to find a drama shot for broadcast in standard definition. The BBC’s dismissal of 16mm content as not good enough for high definition (and therefore regarded as standard definition by default) has cause controversy amongst filmmakers and cinematographers, resulting in many attempts to reverse the decision (a very detailed look at this can be read here: http://www.imago.org/index.php?new=434). ITV, however, have been kinder to 16mm film and have been very proactive in remastering shows shot in the format in glorious full high definition for broadcast on ITV3 HD. They even allow some directors to shoot using the format occasionally (I think parts of their series The Poison Tree last year used film stock for some parts to give it a certain look and feel). Generally speaking, however, whatever the broadcaster, it’s digital high definition all the way, with occasional uses of 35mm if they team up with American broadcasters or are commissioned by companies with lots of cash (such as Sky). Hope this helps! You may find the following links interesting:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4753607.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4793774.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4417202.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4754305.stm
    http://www.theguardian.com/media/2005/nov/07/bbc.broadcasting1

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    John
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    Thanks for the detailed reply, Barnaby. You mention Only Fools and Horses in your piece. I was trying to find out how this was shot to see if a Blu-ray release was possible. I thought it would have been 16mm, but was standard definition video a viable format at this time? Also, you mention how 16mm was considered standard definition, but was SD video widely used? Im thinking for non-drama such as comedy series during the 80s/90s/2000s. I know recent US comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm were shot in SD video, but classic 90s sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld were 35mm if I’m not mistaken.

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    Barnaby Walter
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    Hi, no problems, happy to help – I find it all so fascinating myself. In terms of Only Fools and Horses, the situations is somewhat problematic (I must say that my knowledge is only based on what I can gather from info I’ve read, so cannot be entirely sure, but here is what I think is the most likely state of affairs). I believe Only Fools and Horses was shot using two formats: 16mm film for outside scenes and PAL video (a non-digital standard definition format) for most of the interior studio-based scenes (particularly the Trotter’s flat). This means, in a perfect world, one could theoretically remaster the 16mm segments into digital HD and upscale the PAL video parts to 1080p HD (albeit still in near-SD quality). However, the problem with this is two-fold. First, it seems highly likely the show was transferred as a whole in standard definition to PAL video for editing, and therefore the complete copies of the show held by the BBC are probably all in standard definition. I think one would have to re-edit the show entirely, going back to the 16mm source prints, if they are still surviving, and cut them together with the PAL segments. However, even if this expensive process was completed, the end result could be somewhat disconcerting to watch, as the show would jump from superb-clarity HD to noticeably poor SD clarity, which could result in a somewhat odd viewing experience.

    During my time in writing about the HD format I’ve spoken to a number of people who work in the companies who control the release of HD editions and many of them say that there just isn’t a solid enough market (in the UK at least) for old shows remastered on Blu-ray to justify the costs. A very sad fact, but one can understand their situation from a monetary perspective. Sadly, it doesn’t look as though anything too extensive is going to be done about the Only Fools and Horses situation. There is a chance an upscaled Blu-ray could become available. BBC Worldwide has done this as previously mentioned with the 2005 – 2008 series of Doctor Who, and have put other shows that were shot in 16mm but transferred to SD digibeta then upscaled and ported onto Blu-ray (a weird, though cost-cutting, decision) – e.g. Blu-ray releases of Madame Bovary, Sense & Sensibility and North & South, released in Spain by distributors Llamentol.

    In terms of digital SD video, my knowledge on the format is more limited, but as far as I can tell this was used mainly for lower-budget factual programmes and comedies in Britain during the late-90s/2000s, especially shows that were made for the UK’s less-mainstream channels (such as BBC Three and BBC Four). For example, the comedy series Nighty Night and Funland. A lot of entertainment show content, prior to the mainstream revolution of HD television, was shot in standard def SD video, such as Dancing on Ice and The X Factor (though both have now switched to digital HD). Now, however, even cheap daytime TV shows about property development and quiz shows and studio-based comedies are shot in digital full high definition.

    In the USA I believe it wasn’t uncommon for sitcoms, like the ones you mentioned – Friends and Seinfeld – to be shot in 35mm, but sadly in the UK such budget-draining formats didn’t – and have still not – taken off.

    A final thing on Only Fools and Horses: I believe the most effective remastering of the show that has been achieved so far are versions that channel GOLD stated airing in the UK a couple of years ago, though as far as I can tell this was entirely a standard definition remastering (probably due to the reasons discussed). There is an image comparison here: http://www.ofah.net/blog/remastered-only-fools-horses/

    Apologies again for another essay-length response! I hope it helps!

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    John
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    Thanks for that. Great information there

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  • Harold Wilson
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    I’ve watched Dr. Who since 1972. Lived in the UK for five years, OZ for another year, and New Brunswick for another year. With a name of Harold Wilson, what did you expect? Now living in Texas and cannot watch US TV, it is that bad. Please make Morse Blu Rays!! And Frost!! And Poirot!! We watch these on DVD now and can’t wait.
    Cheers!

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  • Ian Baker
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    An interesting post, and one of interest to many. As a Brit resident in the US I have resigned myself to having both a US and UK blu-ray player to cover both regions A and B.
    I see that the Sopranos complete series is being released in the UK on blu-ray – not in the US as far as I know,.
    You might want to add Foyle’s War to your list. The only place to get seasons 1-7 on blu-ray is Australia, which I got for $80 AUS recently.
    Sherlock Holmes (the Jeremy Brett version) has of course been available inJapan and Spain remastered. It is due to come out in the US finally, but at $220 for the complete series. I got the Spanish version for 38 Euros from Amazon.es.
    Endeavour seasons 1 and 2 are available on blu-ray in the US from PBS – both excellent, but not in the UK. Similarly, later seasons of Lewis are available in the US for PBS on blu-ray.
    Morse is the one gap, not available anywhere in blu-ray worldwide, as far as I can see.

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