… what a wonder-ful world!

10th December 2014

On Sunday at BFI Southbank the estimable programming strand Miss Believed Wiped presented a screening of the ground-breaking 1967 BBC Television satellite broadcast Our World. The strand usually showcases programmes that were once thought lost but have been recently found. Our World, however, was featured because a fine new archival recording had been recently reconstructed and because the programme as a whole, thanks to certain rights restrictions, is very rarely shown. The BBC had preserved Our World as a tele-recording, which was created by filming a screen at the time of transmission. But 50 years ago this process was inferior to 2” video recording, which was what Norwegian television had used to make its copy of the international broadcast. Except that that copy had been dubbed with a local voice-over, so to make what we saw on Sunday the BBC matched its audio to the Norwegian pictures. The result was spectacular, and in a quite specific sense, sublime.

On 25 June 1967 Our World, drawn together by BBC executive Aubrey Singer, set out to link 17 countries around the world in a single live broadcast assembled by crews, ground links and satellite signals. Electronic reports were woven together in London from Australia, Japan, Morocco, western Europe, Canada, the United States and Mexico. Cliff Michelmore anchored the show from BBC Television centre which was transmitted back out around the world. It was a staggering achievement for the comparatively new technology of satellite broadcasting, which had previously linked Europe and the States via Telstar only in 1962 and Britain and Australia for the first time in 1966.

In his fascinating (and very readable) paper ‘The technical history of Eurovision’, which is freely available online, former EBU Senior Engineer Brian Flowers sketches something of the background:

It was an undertaking of incredible complexity, involving control rooms around the world, three geostationary communication satellites (Intelsat I, Intelsat II and ATS-1), over 1.5 million km of cable and ten thousand technicians and programme staff. The programme concept was to link up the world, to demonstrate that we are all part of “our world” – all brothers and sisters. The ground rules for the show included that everything had to be live, and that no politicians or heads of state must be seen.

Four days before the broadcast, five of the participating countries dropped out. The Eastern block countries were protesting at the West’s response to the “Six day War” in the Middle East. But the show went on, with an offer to do it again with them – if ever the Eastern block countries could agree to take part. The audience was spread across 31 countries and totalled between 400 and 700 million people. The live feeds into the programme showed babies being born, sports and arts events, and samples of “cultures” around the globe. At the time it was a technical marvel, and it was in “black and white” television, soon to be replaced by colour television.

Tom Hurlington interviewed the writer of Our World Anthony Jay for a 1999 edition of The Smithsonian:

“We were trying to make it something which was a program in its own right, that was about something and yet had to carry with it–and this was the problem–all the different nations,” recalls Antony Jay, the writer recruited for the project. “And so we decided to make population growth–which was one of those preoccupations, like global warming is now–a kind of theme of it. We wanted something to try to capture the maximum audience at the beginning, so we thought: Let’s have babies. Typical bit of meretricious television programming, but it gave us a way of getting into it.” The program would begin by attending the births of various children in hospital delivery rooms around the world, then examine the world into which they had arrived. It would consider population growth and the means of supporting people on the planet, and also delve into the worlds of culture and science.

Looked at today the programme has an almost apocalyptic obsession with population growth, with a ticking metronome featured at several points (each representing three new births) and diagrams underlining how little space there will soon be for each of us on the planet. The graphics of the programme, created with screens, projections and models in a huge, wonderfully-lit studio at Television Centre, are one of the glories of the programme, achieving a brilliantly distinctive “look” and facilitating story-telling of great economy. It came as no surprise to see a closing credit to the great television designer Richard Levin.

The content of the programme is for much of the time subservient to the self-reflexive celebration of being able to bring the world together by technology, and certain sections are little more than prosaic reports about the departure of the first tram of the day from a depot in Melbourne, a swimming world record attempt in a pool in Alberta, and an unintentionally hilarious and also rather desperately sad section about life in the modernist utopia of Cumbernauld. But each of these components was done as a live electronic outside broadcast, and reflection on that constantly reinforces a sense of wonder.

At the same time there are a number of sequences astonishing because of their specific content. The Beatles and George Martin recording All You Need is Love at Abbey Love Illustrated above) is perhaps the best-known, but there is also Wolfgang Wagner rehearsing Lohengrin on the stage at Bayreuth with a full orchestra and a vast chorus. Here too is Franco Zeffirelli and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis shooting a scene of Romeo and Juliet in a Tuscan church with Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey and Milo O’Shea. Leonard Bernstein is in there too, as are Alexander Calder and Joan Miro at the Fondation Maeght in the south of France.

I found it completely absorbing, both for its picture of what 1967 was like around the world and for what I can only call its innocence. Soon after this, with the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the 1970 World Cup, we would quickly accept live pictures from around the world as entirely natural. We would become blasé about international spectacles made possible by satellite, such as Live Aid in 1985. But here the new sense of wonder evoked by seeing a baby born just then in Japan or a deep space signal picked up at that moment by a radio telescope in Australia was genuinely moving.

What struck me most perhaps was the programme’s fascination with the processes of its own production, and in this as well as other aspects it struck as one of the purest examples of television as ‘technological sublime”. The idea originally comes from Leo Marx and was developed by David E. Nye in his 1996 book from MIT Press American Technological Sublime. Nye quotes the OED definition of the sublime and suggests that this can be applied to the Golden Gate Bridge or the launch of a space shuttle just as much as it can be associated with the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls:

Of things in Naure and Art, affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspite awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion by reason of its beauty, vastness or grandeur.

Which is most certainly what, as a product of technology, Our World aspires to, and for my money achieves in a way that precious few television broadcasts do. There is so much more to say about the transmission – and I dearly hope that it can be made more generally available, at least as an object of scholarly study – but here’s a quote from Nye about the sublime which, while it might seem hyperbolic, sees to apply without too much of a stretch to Our World:

One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. The sublime tap into fundamental hopes and fears… [I]t is an essentially religious feeling, aroused by the confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the earth-shaking launch of a space shuttle… In a physical world that is increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men with transcendent significance.

‘You like me, Kate?’ #AnAgeofKings

10th December 2014

Let’s get this on the table at the top: we believe our 5-disc box-set of the 1960 BBC Television series An Age of Kings, which adapts all eight of Shakespeare’s great History plays, would make an excellent Christmas gift. You can purchase it from us online here, and it is also available from Moviemail, Amazon and other online retailers.

As a holiday treat, and as part of our entreaty to make a purchase, we are releasing highlights from the series to our YouTube channel on each Tuesday and Thursday, and yesterday we presented a scene from Episode 8: Band of Brothers. This is from Act V Scene 2 of Henry V with an implausibly youthful Robert Hardy as the wooing king and Judi Dench as the French princess Katherine. Which seems entirely appropriate given that Dame Judi celebrated her 80th birthday yesterday. Here she is 54 years ago, responding to Henry’s entreaties and being flirty and flighty and haughty and (despite the accent!) captivatingly charming.

John in space

9th December 2014

Tonight’s NT Live broadcast of DV8 Physical Theatre’s John was not exactly business as usual. Absent was a live introduction by the bubbly Emma Freud. Instead we were treated to a video message from a serious-looking Nick Hytner telling us that while the subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste (gay sex, drug use, incest, rape and more) what we were about to see was most definitely art. Then we had a voice-over statement from creator Lloyd Newson illustrated with extracts from films and performance footage of previous DV8 shows. Which reminded you, incidentally, that both BBC and Channel 4 have funded truly remarkable DV8 productions for the screen, albeit a decade and more back. But what I thought mostly was different was the distinctive approach to filming this uncompromising combination of dance, movement and verbatim theatre.

I can see what critics mean when they say that the 75-minute piece feels broken-backed, being a first half about the deprivations and degradations of John’s early life and the remainder about the everyday life of a gay sauna. But for me the two elements came together, at is were, most satisfyingly in a closing sequence of considerable power. I found John entirely compelling, and there were moments when I was open-mouthed with admiration at the performances of Hannes Langolf most especially, but also the rest of an extraordinary troupe of dancers. Lloyd Newson’s choreography is at moments astounding, and throughout there is a rare level of invention.

As for the approach of screen director Robin Lough and the camera team, I was struck by how their treatment took the show out of the theatre and into a kind of electronic virtual space. Yes, there was a shot of the Lyttleton auditorium at the top, and we returned there for the curtain calls, but for the duration of the performance we were in an abstracted screen space woven from designer Anna Fleischle’s dazzling revolve and pitch-perfect stage lighting design by Richard Godin. The sense of a physical stage seemed to drop away to leave us with bodies moving restlessly and remorselessly in spaces that changed and morphed and multiplied. I found the effect entrancing.

What the live broadcast achieved (and which the trailer below only faintly suggests) was a kind of screen choreography that dancers and directors have at times conjured up when working on film or with digital recording. Indeed that’s exactly what director David Hinton did with Newson and DV8 for the television films Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (London Weekend Television, 1990) and Strange Fish (BBC, 1992). But I am not sure I have ever seen this pure kind of screen dance created, as here, on the fly, albeit with endless planning and exceptional execution. Bravo, bravo. I did, however, have one question. With all of that naked and semi-naked male flesh on show, not to mention a fair few cocks, where on earth did they hide the radio mics?

TV heaven

8th December 2014

I watched some terrific television over the weekend, and not all of it on television. Much of Sunday I spent at BFI Southbank with two screening programmes of the estimable Missing Believed Wiped project. This is the name that the BFI applies to showings of television that was once thought lost but now is found, and on Sunday afternoon that was the very first and the very last episodes of the 1967 comedy series At last the 1948 Show. Bracketed by these was a charming, funny and immaculately performed interview by John Cleese, who spoke about the series – in which he starred with Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman – as a precursor of Monty Python, but what was clear from these two recently rediscovered episodes was that much it was, and remains, extremely funny. Only the a handful of supposed jokes about gays and the unfortunate interstitial elements with Aimi MacDonald felt uneasy in a contemporary context. The ‘Annoying train-passenger sketch’ with Cleese and Feldman was one of the highlights:

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Sunday links

7th December 2014

I am touched and encouraged by the expressions of enthusiasm for this supposedly weekly offering, and I will now endeavour over the coming months to post it consistently. As before it is a selection of articles and more that have engaged me recently, and it is presented with the usual apologies for not including appropriate thanks to those who alerted me to some of them.

Singular and plural – the films of Jean Grémillon: Imogen Sara Smith at Reverse Shot from New York’s Musuem of the Moving Image (which is hosting a retrospective) on the films of the neglected French master.

Reese Witherspoon has always been wild: Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed.

Neither lost nor found – on the trail of an elusive icon’s rarest film: a deeply impressive meditation on Jean-Luc Godard and cinephilia from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at The A.V. Club.

Scholarly striptease. Or, the unintended consequences of Film Studies For Free: a modest but telling contribution from Catherine Grant, with a complementary video essay, to this last week’s series about open access at inmediares; the exchanges in the comments are great too.

The documentary temptation – fiction filmmakers and non-fiction forms: a stimulating read from Necsus by Adrian Martin.

Pure phase – movies melt down: Charlie Lyne reports for Sight & Sound from CPH:DOX about further challenges to the presumed boundaries between cinema and the live event.

The Wednesday Play, canon formation and commercial availability: spot-on argument from Dr Billy Smart at the blog for Critical Studies in Television.

World of faces: T. J. Clark on late Rembrandt for London Review of Books.

You can’t catch Picasso: for The New York Review of Books, Jed Perl on two great Picasso shows on view in New York.

Barbara Hepworth and Gimpel Fils – The Rise and Fall of an Artist-Dealer Relationship: a recently published research article by Alice Correia for Tate Papers that traces in rich detail the complexities of a major artist working with a significant gallery in the 1950s and ’60s.

Phillip King – ‘sculpture is the art of the invisible’: the artist talks with Nicholas Wroe for the Guardian ahead of a Tate Britain showing of his work.

Does Eric Fischl really hate art fairs?: at Christie’s, Sophie Hastings speaks with the American painter and shows some great images of his recent work, which is on view at Victoria Miro until 19 December; the image above is a detail from Fischl’s The Price, 2013.

• Museums and the future history of the information age: Cory Doctorow’s keynote at the Museums and the Web conference in Florence earlier this year:

The Ladybird Book of modern achievements: a great trilogy of posts from John Grindrod at Dirty Modern Scoundrel about images of modernism from Ladybird volumes – the link is to part 3; part 1 is here: The Ladybird Book of modernism; and part 2 here: The Ladybird Book of postwar building.

What should we do with private schools?: David Kynaston for the Guardian marries social history and political analysis in a quiet but powerful polemic.

Saskia Sassen’s missing chapter: a remarkable tale of Adolf Eichmann in the 1950s told by Marc Perry for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The view from a bridge: Adam Gopnik writes beautifully for The New Yorker on the changing face of Paris.

театр любит капитализм [a response almost as inevitable as the award winners]: Andrew Haydon on excellent form at Postcards from the Gods taking apart the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.

The value of inspiration – notes on kickstarting App Store projects: Alex Fleetwood is very good (and honest!) on his Kickstarter experience with the Tiny Games app.

An American in Paris, 1951: I am off to Paris later this week, in part to see the new stage musical production of Gene Kelly’s classic musical. Which is as good a reason as any to embed the original trailer…


6th December 2014

So I loved this week’s episode of The Newsroom on Sky Atlantic. It was Episode 4 of Series 3 (only two more to go) and – spoiler! – it culminates in a wedding and a more-or-less simultaneous arrest for contempt. Not a dry eye on our sofa. Then I found that Aaron Sorkin had recorded a little interview about how he developed this particular show – and here it is…

An awfully big queer adventure

6th December 2014

All producers, I am certain, harbour films on which they would have loved to have had a credit. I should have produced The Godfather and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. One step back from the realms of complete fantasy (yeah, right), I retrospectively covet an involvement with The Newsroom and The Good Wife. And this week I would have loved to have produced NBC’s musical Peter Pan Live!. To have marshalled a major studio show on this scale would indeed have been ‘an awfully big adventure’. And while I have tried to persuade the panjandrums at the BBC and Sky Arts to try a comparable experiment, to date the likely cost, not to mention anticipated stress factors, have acted as constraints.

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5th December 2014

You have just one week to catch the truly remarkable Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, which closes on 14 December. In recognition of this we have posted on our YouTube channel a new extract of our 1987 Channel 4 series State of the Art. The extract, which is taken from History, the first episode of the six-part series, features Kiefer’s work set against the German landscape. The full series is available to purchase on DVD, and I wrote in detail about the its production here. Further extracts, which we have recently re-mastered before posting again on YouTube, are online featuring Antony Gormley, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beuys and Jean-Michel Basquiat together with his friend Andy Warhol. Below I recall the making of the series and of the production’s encounter with Anselm Kiefer.

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An Age of Kings: one year on

27th November 2014

Just exactly one year ago, Illuminations, working with the Screen Plays research project, released a DVD box-set of the BBC’s 15-part series from 1960, An Age of Kings. The series is an extraordinarily ambitious live studio production of all eight of Shakespeare’s History plays, embracing the Bard’s chronicle of England from the troubled reign of Richard II to the downfall of Richard III. You can purchase the 5-disc DVD set here.

The release has been a considerable success – and we would love to follow it with further DVDs of great plays from the BBC archive, although we cannot persuade BBC Worldwide to work out an appropriate relationship for this. To celebrate our modest anniversary, and also to draw your attention to the fine new iteration of our YouTube channel (revamped by Todd Macdonald), we are going to release key scenes from the series on each Tuesday and Thursday between now and Christmas. I will also provide some further background to the series on the blog, together with links to other writings. This is the first, from Henry V and Episode 7, Signs of War, with Robert Hardy as the king.

David Hockney live from LA

25th November 2014

To the Clapham Picturehouse for an evening with David Hockney. First up was Randall Wright’s new film biography of the artist, Hockney, which has been co-produced by the BBC. This was followed, to make it more of a cinema event, by a 35-minute “live and exclusive” visit to Hockney’s LA studio in the company of his friend Charlie Scheips. Judged by the standards of television, this added attraction had aspects of a car-crash.

The satellite feed went down a couple of minutes in and was off for three or four minutes. Sporting a remarkable retro bow-tie, when he was back on screen Charlie couldn’t keep quiet for a second. He seemed to have little sense from moment to moment of where the encounter was going, and he was palpably as nervous as a ferret on a freeway. At one point he and David cued up an extract from the mid-1980s documentary A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China but getting out of this was messy.

The vision mixer was irritatingly restless and the Steadicam operator became increasingly desperate to find yet another irrelevant floating shot. And most frustrating of all, as Hockney talked interestingly about particular works mentioned by Charlie, there were no images to bring up so that we could see what they were talking about. Television has a way of doing these things to make them look effortless. Yet this wasn’t television, and I got the sense that while this hybrid TV/cinema form is perhaps more demanding technically than the small screen, there are aspects of it that are far more forgiving. read more »