We’re sitting in the middle of the street, a truck is heading toward us, and we can’t move. Not on principle — we’re not staging a sit-in. It’s because we’re mic’ed up and shooting a TV show at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. King Street is closed, but festival-approved vehicles still have the right of way. Luckily, the driver sees us and as soon as it passes, without skipping a beat, our host launches into “Hello, and welcome to BBC Culture at the Toronto International Film Festival. I’m Tom Brook.”
With decades of experience under his belt, Brook is unflappable. No wonder his show, “Talking Movies,” is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. If you’re a movie lover and have never heard of “Talking Movies” there’s a gaping hole in your cinephilia: this half-hour show airs monthly in the US and around the world and routinely examines topics in film culture that not only most entertainment TV programs won’t take on, but even many print publications won’t. Each half-hour show, divided into four or five segments, is built around a theme – the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, say, or Indian cinema, let alone the annual 30-minute reports from Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto. There’s simply nothing else on air like “Talking Movies.”
“I didn’t realize that we were the only remaining monthly magazine-style film program until other people started telling me about it,” Brook said.
“Every time I see Tom, I say, ‘You’re the only one left! The only one left!'” indie film publicist Jeff Hill said. “His support and love of film is extraordinary.”
“Talking Movies” is one of the best-kept secrets in English-language film journalism today: its viewership is low in the U.S. but its visibility among filmmakers and the organizers of Sundance, Cannes, and TIFF remains sizable. Still lamenting the loss of “Siskel & Ebert”-style TV film criticism? “Talking Movies” is even better, as it features interviews with filmmakers whose movies typically wouldn’t have even been considered “major” enough to warrant reviews on a show like “Siskel & Ebert.” In an era of histrionic YouTube reviews and obsequious junketeers, “Talking Movies” stands out for the range of its coverage, its independence, and its editorial depth.
So why aren’t you watching?
There are probably a few reasons: “Talking Movies” airs every month on the BBC World News Channel, the BBC’s international 24/7 cable news network that’s listed as Channel 209 on Spectrum in New York City. It’s buried so far down the channel lineup that not only have you likely never watched “Talking Movies,” you might have never even heard of it — you may not even know there’s a BBC World News channel.
But if you have tuned in and watched “Talking Movies” at any point over the last few years you’ll have found a movie-lover’s heaven: maybe a five-minute segment paying tribute to Manfred Kircheimer’s “Stations of the Elevated,” a 45-minute documentary city-symphony from 1981 composed mostly of period footage of graffiti-covered elevated subway trains set to the music of Charles Mingus and Aretha Franklin. Or you’ll have watched a haunting video piece by a former BBC staffer turned European Culture Editor for The New York Times about the Berlin School of filmmakers that takes time to let a quiet, spare moment from an early Christian Petzold film give you a sense of the movement’s aesthetics. Or a segment commemorating the 80th anniversary of “The Grand Illusion.”
Full disclosure: I hosted that last segment, and until I left my role as the Deputy Editor of BBC Culture to join IndieWire last September I frequently presented segments for “Talking Movies” for nearly five years. I’m still amazed, and grateful, that this show can be made: an early segment I presented was a brief introduction to the world of experimental films, part of an entire half-hour show about avant-garde cinema from Marie Menken to Carolee Schneeman. It allowed me to sit down with film critic Amy Taubin and geek out to her over the fact she appeared in Michael Snow’s “Wavelength.” And I repeat, since you will never see anything like this on another show, this became a segment that aired on TV worldwide. Eat your heart out, Mario Lopez.
If you watch the “Talking Movies” 20th anniversary special, airing throughout the month on the BBC World News channel, you’ll get a time-capsule view of just how much the film industry has changed in the past 20 years, and how many things remain the same: a striking clip of Brook interviewing Sandra Bullock in 1999 for the rom-com “Forces of Nature,” has him asking her about pay equality, with Bullock strongly advocating for actresses to be paid the same as their male co-stars.
Brook started as a news trainee at the BBC in the late 1970s. (One of his first on-air assignments was a six-month stint in Belfast presenting the “fruit and vegetable report” on a show called “Good Morning Ulster.”) He moved to New York in 1980 to produce segments for the “Today” program on BBC Radio 4 and has lived there ever since. His first major brush with serious arts reporting was on December 8, 1980, the night John Lennon was killed in front of his apartment, The Dakota, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I was doing my reporting from a payphone opposite The Dakota, calling into London and giving live radio updates on what was going on,” he said. “It’s not difficult to report on a very dramatic situation — you just have to say what’s happening. And it did, in turn, raise my profile.”
He went freelance after Lennon’s death and has been producing reports through his own LLC ever since — though the BBC gives him a budget in advance to produce the kind of show they want. He covered Hollywood diligently through the 1980s and ‘90s for a cinema show hosted in the UK, and intended for a domestic British audience, by Barry Norman. Doing reports for Norman’s show allowed him to interview Tom Cruise, just as “Top Gun” was about to come out, and Bette Davis, for “The Whales of August.” Of all the interviews he’s conducted, he cited Davis as the most challenging one.
“We sat down to do the interview and she had, I think, three cigarettes going,” Brook said. “She smoked like a trooper, it was unbelievable. One in an ashtray on either side and one in her mouth. And then we proceeded to do this interview. One of the crew said to me after, ‘Oh, she made mincemeat of you.’”
When Norman’s show ended in the late ‘90s, Brook finally got the opportunity to host his own show. And he’s been making “Talking Movies” pretty much the same way since that first episode in 1999, with two camera operators who can also edit video. The edit studio is the basement of Brook’s palatial Greenwich Village apartment (his husband Sam is a surgeon and executive at a top Manhattan hospital).
Viewership in the U.S. for “Talking Movies” has historically been low. Though the BBC World News cable channel reaches 430 million viewers worldwide, how many actually tune-in to Talking Movies is unclear due to the BBC’s general unwillingness to share viewership figures for individual shows. It’s rumored that “Talking Movies” has a U.S. audience somewhere in the tens of thousands. But the show has a much larger audience in India, from where, throughout much of its history, it received a sizable portion of its advertising revenue — usually Indian jewelry or luxury companies that wanted to be associated with a little red-carpet glamor.
“India is one of the markets where ‘Talking Movies’ is really huge,” BBC World News executive producer Emma De’Ath said, noting the BBC World Service has recently expanded its presence and investment in India. “And we will have more Indian presenters who love movies on the show. ‘Talking Movies’ will get even more global in the future.”
Even with an exciting recent uptick in advertising revenue, including a sponsorship of the show’s 20th anniversary special by Microsoft, “Talking Movies” is a lean operation because of the BBC’s notoriously low budgets. “We don’t get too much money, but we do have a lot of autonomy, thanks very much to my boss, Emma De’Ath,” Brook said. “I think if we got more money, there would be more scrutiny and oversight, and I really wouldn’t want that. I’d rather put up with having less money and making do. You can be quite creative if you’re a small team and you don’t have much money.” That means it’s still possible to do a segment on Australian Film Noir or an interview with the filmmakers behind a documentary on L.A.’s feminist Latina bicycling crew, the Ovarian Psycos.
But it does mean that producing “Talking Movies” can be a decidedly unglamorous affair. When Tom and I were doing the show from South by Southwest in 2015, our budget meant we had to stay in a La Quinta far outside of Austin, where our only dining option was the Applebee’s next door. We ate at Applebee’s for six nights straight.
Even as lean as “Talking Movies” is, can this show possibly be sustained? “People assume a show like ‘Talking Movies’ will always be there, but it won’t necessarily be unless it’s really supported and loved,” De’Ath, who serves as an executive producer on many BBC World News shows, said. Anyone who saw FilmStruck’s demise has to be worried about the continued viability of serious explorations of film that you can watch on your TV and that put quality first. But De’Ath is optimistic. “We’ve just celebrated 20 years, but we’re already talking about and planning what we want to do the next few years,” she said. And luckily, U.S. viewers will have a new way to watch it now beyond surfing to Channel 209: segments from the show will soon appear on a recently launched hub for BBC video content called BBC Reel.
For his part, Brook is not just game to continue “Talking Movies,” he plans on never retiring. “I’ll be doing the on-camera thing in a wheelchair in Times Square and have someone wheeling me around if I have to. I love doing it and I want to continue to do it as long as I possibly can.”
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