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Netflix: the ultimate disrupter

Kennedy Wilson on the female Beatles, chalets for crossdressers, HBO and Hitchcock’s storyboards

In his new book Pandora’s Box (Allen Lane) film writer Peter Biskind looks at the changes in TV over the last few decades. The American terrestrial networks – NBC, ABC, CBS – had rules about bad language, violence, nudity and sex scenes to save the blushes of Middle America. This was a time when TV was bland – a result of the networks not wanting to offend advertisers and seek out big audiences for lowest denominator fare like I Love Lucy, The Flintstones, 77 Sunset Strip and Rawhide.

Writes Biskind ‘if the result was ineffably dull shows whose Wonder Bread characters never swore; never expressed a political opinion; never entered a place of worship other than a church; never lusted after somebody else’s wife or husband or, worse, someone of the same sex; never had a baby out of wedlock – so be it’. But new cable stations (paid for through subs rather than ads) would offer more risky, adult fare.

HBO began in 1971 showing major sporting events and uncut movies without ads. Its main backers, Time Inc, hitched HBO to a new satellite giving the channel national reach by 1975.

By the 1980s HBO was a rampaging success that played 24/7. When the VCR arrived, HBO turned to original programming. Its first success was the Larry Sanders Show (1992-98), which satirised late night telly. Another success was the startling Oz (1997-2003) a grimly compelling prison drama: violence, blood, sex, drugs. ‘There had been nothing remotely like it on American television, and nothing ever since,’ writes Biskind. From Oz a direct line can be traced to Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. HBO went on to make Sex and the City which broke many taboos too.

And then came the ultimate disrupter Netflix which started in 1997 renting DVDs in the mail. Ten years later it began streaming and the rest is history. Netflix ‘water-cooler moment’ shows had huge budgets and Hollywood-style production values (The Crown is said to have cost over £250,000 per minute of screentime).

Once Netflix looked impregnable with no opposition, now it has to contend with Disney+, Amazon Prime, Paramount+ and the rest. And like all streamers, Netflix is susceptible to consumer belt-tightening when viewers cancel their subs. The streaming services are already offering cheaper options with ad breaks and may well offer safer and more predictable shows and will end up looking more and more like the TV of old.

The Beatles are the gift that just keeps giving. Think of the 2023 hit Now and Then. What’s less well remembered is another Mersey combo The Liverbirds, once labelled ‘the female Beatles’, who only lasted from 1963-66. The group’s story is retold in The Liverbirds (Faber) by band members Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders. Although there had been a lot of ‘girl singers’ around at the time, the Liverbirds were hard rockers with electric guitars and drumkit. McGlory and Saunders were joined by Valerie Gell and Pamela Birch. Their hero was Chuck Berry and in ‘64 they played support to the legendary rocker in Berlin. Berry was impressed and his manager said he wanted to take the girls to Vegas but only if they agreed to play topless. They demurred.

In 2004 at a new York flea market a cache of photographs was discovered that shone a light on a little-known aspect of Big Apple life. The Catskills, a country retreat outside the city, had long offered an escape for harried New Yorkers (especially in the sweltering summer). One getaway was different from the rest. Casa Susanna (Thames and Hudson) by Isabelle Bonnet and Sophie Hackett tells of the pioneering ‘bed and breakfast of the cross-dressing community’ that was a haven in the 1960s when transvestism was against the law and dangerously transgressive.

Casa Susanna offered rented chalets and was founded by crossdresser Tito Arriagada (whose female alter ego was Susanna) and his understanding wife Maria. The place became a sanctuary for a select band of middle-class men who, ‘dressed’, could have cocktails, conversation and card games with like-minded souls without fear of blackmail or having their reputations destroyed.

It’s well known that Alfred Hitchcock meticulously planned his movies well in advance of a single frame being shot. Part of this involved production drawings and elaborately worked out storyboards that showed camera angles, set design and lighting.

By the time he got to the set and the cameras were about to roll he’d almost lost interest. ‘Such was Hitchcock’s reliance on storyboards he often said he rarely looked through the camera,’ writes Tony Lee Moral in the large-format Alfred Hitchcock: Storyboards (Titan). There’s no shortage of famous film sequences featured: the scene in North by Northwest with Cary Grant buzzed by a crop-duster plane or Tippi Hedren smoking a cigarette in The Birds as black crows ominously descend on a jungle gym behind her. And there’s the most famous film sequence of all: the shower scene in Psycho.

All were painstakingly preplanned leaving no room for dithering when it came to the shoot. It should come as no surprise that Hitch started his career as an art director on other people’s movies. ■

X: @KenWilson86


The Liverbirds by Mary McGlory and Sylvia Saunders (Faber £20)

Chuck Berry was impressed by the girls and wanted to take them to Vegas, but only if they played topless…



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