Back in the day, ‘watching the telly’ meant simply that: sitting in the living room staring at the television set in the corner when your show of choice was on. Older readers may even bear the scars of missing their favourite show with no hope of ever seeing it again. Due to an incident with a sibling’s wristwatch and a bedroom window, this writer wasn’t allowed to watch an episode of Doctor Who in November 1979 and still isn’t quite over it. No, listen, it’s OK.
These days, of course, it’s possible to watch TV in all manner of ways; on your phone, your tablet, or your vast HDTV, whether on broadcast or binge-watching at a later time of your choice via a hard drive, DVD, Blu-ray or streaming service. Manchester’s Pilot Light TV Festival seeks to celebrate the whole gamut of the modern television viewing experience, as well as adding in a new one: watching it with a large, like-minded audience.
Pilot Light is the brainchild of Greg Walker, a Salford University graduate originally from Barrow-in-Furness. Three years ago, while working at the Grimmfest horror festival, Walker began to consider the notion of a dedicated television festival.
“I love TV and I was trying to think of TV festivals that are like film festivals. There are things like Edinburgh which are amazing but very much industry-facing, and I can count on my hand the sort of public TV festivals there are in the US, so I just thought I’d start it.”
It was easier said than done, obviously. When Pilot Light started, did people get the idea from the off, or did they react like, oh, it’s a television festival?
“That’s exactly what people were like, yeah. It was quite hard in the first year. That’s why it’s been a steady development as we’ve gone along, because in the first year or so, a few people were saying ‘well, what is it? What does it look like?’. We were like, ‘umm, well, here’s a paragraph about what it’s going to look like’. But luckily, people took a chance on us.”
The first ‘season’ of Pilot Light, in 2016, took in a range of screenings including Nathan Barley, Hoff the Record, The War Game and Her Story, complete with guest panels and Q&As. It also included BBC 4’s cult sketch show Snuff Box, for which comedy star Matt Berry was present.
“That was really good help for PR for the next year,” Walker says. “Then it just kept going. This year’s just been insane because now everyone’s like, ‘right, that’s what it’s looks like – we want to get involved’. This year it’s got to the point where other people in the TV industry are getting excited about it, so it’s easy being to go and have a chat with Channel 4 or AMC.”
Sure enough, the line-up for Pilot Light Season 3 in May, which was recently announced, is a television fan’s delight. Some events – a 20th anniversary screening of Big Train, a big screen preview of the first episode of the new series of Westworld, an ‘in conversation’ event with Christopher Eccleston – are already filling up fast. Elsewhere in the programme there’s a a celebration of Channel 4’s late, lamented show Utopia, complete with creator/writer Dennis Kelly. Walker says: “I’ve wanted to do this since the first year of Pilot Light – celebrating under-appreciated TV shows is something we’ve wanted to do since the start – and it was the first one we confirmed for this year. Once we’d decided, right we were going to do it, and we got the rights cleared to screen it, Dennis Kelly came back straight away and said that he’d come, so I guess he’s been itching to talk about it.”
“More than it being just being the anniversary, since the very first year I’ve wanted to celebrate Mancunian shows, so The Royle Family just seems like a natural fit really. Going forward there are more local shows that we want to celebrate, but this just seem like a nice place to start seeing as it’s just turned 20.”
Director Steve Bendelack and stars Sue Johnson and Peter Martin will be present for a Q&A. Tragically, of course, the show’s creator Caroline Ahearne is no longer with us. “Ah, it’s such a shame. When we were reaching out to people for that event, there was a little bit of sadness in a few of the replies.”
There’s also The World According to Woke Charlotte, a collaboration with London’s Reel Good Film Club.
“We’re really, really excited about that,” Walker says. “Grace Barber-Plentie who is part of Reel Good came to me and said, ‘it’s Sex and The City‘s 20th anniversary and I’m doing this zine about people of colour’ relationship with the show and how it’s problematic, because they love it but they’re not represented in the slightest’. I’d wanted to do a live script reading for a while so we just put two and two together. So, we’re doing a live script reading of the show’s pilot episode recast with non-white actors, and then a panel afterwards discussing what would have been in Grace’s zine.”
Contemporary television is a broad church even if you’re not a fan of ITV crime dramas starring Olivia Colman and, over four days at HOME in Manchester, Pilot Light’s line-up seeks to cover as many bases as possible. There are events around children’s shows Blue Peter and Sarah & Duck, industry behind-the-scenes panels, programmes of web series and indie TV pilots and screenings curated by Pilot Light mainstays Walter Iuzzolino of Walter Presents and director Michael Cumming. There will be a special career-spanning event in which Julie Hesmondhalgh will be presented with Pilot Light’s inaugural ‘Excellence in TV’ award. There’s also a showing of I Told My Mum I Was Going on an RE Trip, BBC Two’s acclaimed drama from last year.
Walker says: “It came from 20 Stories High in Liverpool and Contact Theatre, a story about abortion and young women encouraging dialogues about the subject rather than everyone keeping it to themselves. It was on at 11 o’clock at night and it still managed to get a quarter of a million viewers. We’re screening that, and we’ve got the director, producer and writer coming along.”
With the current wave of interest in and respect for television, Pilot Light couldn’t have come along at a better time, and Walker says that its creation was no coincidence. “That was one of the reasons for starting the festival, seeing that TV was so huge and there were no TV festivals alongside it. There’s no longer this thing of ‘oh, it’s not as good as film’ any more. I think they were always a bit lame, but you’d get all these quotes like ‘TV is the new film’. It’s not, they’re completely different mediums, but I think the scale and the quality of TV right now has helped to change that.”
It’s a mark of the medium’s sheer popularity that many monthly film magazines have long been covering television in their pages too. Indeed, the makers of Empire have just announced a new small screen-centric title to be called, with spooky synchronicity, Pilot TV. Walker laughs, “let’s hope they don’t do a TV festival like they do with the Empire one”.
“We do consciously think we need to serve all TV’s audiences as much as possible. We do get a select handful of people who come to absolutely everything, but we get such a variety of people through the doors. For every event, there’s a whole new bunch in, so we get to meet all different types of people and usually they’ll all hang around and chat to us afterwards.”
Seeing a TV show, especially an old favourite, in a busy cinema can be a curious experience, but it’s a pleasant one. As per its motto ‘Let’s Watch TV Together’, that’s what the Pilot Light festival is all about.
“We get a really good reception from the crowds, but also from programme-makers as well. [Brass Eye, Toast of London director] Michael Cumming said that TV is not designed to watch with the audience you bring it to. He said that watching Brass Eye 20 years on was the first time he’d watched it with an audience and that it made it a completely different show.”
Pilot Light TV Festival: Season 3 is at HOME in Manchester from May 3-6, 2018. For full details, click here.