Why the demise of Network Distributing is a hammer blow for niche DVD and Blu-ray releases

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As the wonderful physical media distribution company Network reportedly goes into liquidation, a few words on the work that’s rightly given it such a strong reputation.

If there’s an old British film or sitcom in your DVD or Blu-ray collection, there is a good chance it was released by Network. Giving long overdue physical releases to a plethora of homegrown films and television shows stretching from the 1930s to the present day, the company has been part of the lifeblood of film and television archiving in the UK.

While the idea that streaming is taking over and physical media is dying may be hyperbole to a certain extent, news that the firm was reportedly being liquidated is a real blow, especially as the majority of Network’s products did not exist on any platform until it released them.

For me, visiting the online Network shop was like entering Aladdin’s cave, a treasure trove of rare films that you couldn’t possibly hope to find anywhere else. Where else would you find Bottom’s Up! (a film adaptation of the Jimmy Edwards sitcom Whack-O!, written by Michael Pertwee, Frank Muir and Denis Norden and directed by Mario Zampi in 1960) or Frankie Howerd vehicle The House In Nightmare Park (written by Clive Exton and Terry Nation and directed by Peter Sykes in 1973) and many, many more like them?

Then there were the films that you simply can’t imagine anybody else having the wherewithal to release due to their niche audience, but Network prided itself on its range of material. There are many further examples.

Take Death At Broadcasting House, a 1934 British mystery thriller based on a novel written by actor John Gielgud’s brother Val and featuring early roles for Ian Hunter, Jack Hawkins and Donald Wolfit. The plot follows an actor as they are murdered on air during the recording of a radio drama, and the detective who must find the culprit amongst his fellow players.

Or how about Horrors Of The Black Museum, a wonderfully grisly film written by Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen and directed by Arthur Crabtree in 1959. Michael Gough stars as a crime writer who hypnotizes his assistant into committing murders to provide plots for his novels. It was released with the Hypnovista gimmick, whereby a short prologue had a hypnotist talk to the audience, the idea being that it involved them in the story. Of course, this prologue is included on the DVD, a small slice of cinema history. And lest we forget hidden treasures like Scum director Alan Clarke’s musical/fantasy/ horror/comedy/sports/drama film Billy The Kid And The Green Baize Vampire, which really has to be seen to be believed.

Billy The Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

I also write for the British Comedy Guide, and Network was one of the most valuable resources for gathering information and being able to watch old sitcoms and obscure comedies. While it did release well known shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Johnny Speight’s Til Death Us Do Part and Vince Powell and Harry Driver’s controversial Love Thy Neighbour, it was the rarities that really excited any vintage TV fan.

Again, who else would have released Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden’s surreal 80s sitcom Astronauts, Slinger’s Day (Bruce Forsyth’s sole outing into sitcom), On The Buses spin-off Don’t Drink The Water and Cowboys, which starred Roy Kinnear and also features a terrific comic performance from Colin Welland, better known as the Oscar winning screenwriter of Chariots of Fire. Even The Goodies couldn’t be found on DVD until Network released The Goodies – At Last! in 2003.

Several of acclaimed screenwriter Russell T Davies’ series are available thanks to Network, including a selection of episodes from Revelations, the soap opera he co-created in 1994, and 1997 ITV series The Grand. It also released the complete series of fellow Doctor Who scribe Steven Moffat’s first show Press Gang.

Perhaps the best example of how Network catered to a very, very specific audience is one of its most recent releases – to coincide with Davies’ latest drama Nolly, Network released a 94 disc collection of soap opera Crossroads to celebrate star Noele Gordon.

And it also made Jimmy McGovern’s astonishingly powerful television film Hillsborough available, which somehow went unreleased until 2009.

The list goes on and on, and this is all before even beginning to mention things like commentary tracks and featurettes on various releases, the likes of which are rarely, if ever, made available on streaming services. Network’s commitment to physical media has been quite something. And very much appreciated.

Make no mistake though, the demise of Network is not something that should only be mourned by vintage media obsessives and collectors. Although it catered to a niche audience, making this material available was about more than just commerce: it was a public service. How many of those shows that you saw once and loved are now languishing in a vault somewhere, never to be commercially released? Network righted that wrong for so many shows and films over 25 years of trading. There are many more sitting in those vaults.

So, the question is, what happens now? Network have thus far not released any public statement about what will happen with regards to its archive and unsold stock, and, to quote a famous Monty Python sketch, its website has ceased to be.

While archive material is slowly appearing on streaming services like ITVX and BBC iPlayer, it is nowhere near the amount unearthed and released by Network. It begs the question of what the future holds, because if a physical media company is no longer sustainable, and with studios being less eager than ever to make things available in perpetuity on streaming (you only have to look at the ongoing writer’s strike and Disney+’s recent exodus of material to see why physical media is still absolutely vital), how will we be able to gain access to, never mind physically own, certain films and television shows?

If you’re browsing a secondhand DVD or charity shop in the near future and spot the Network logo, take a punt, not just because these releases will soon be rare and out of print, but because they represent an incredibly important part of our culture.

You can view the extensive list of all of its comedy television and film releases here. 

Here’s hoping someone steps in to save the firm, and its works. And here’s hoping the people who worked at Network land on their feet too.

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