To BFI Southbank for the first screening in a short season marking the 60th anniversary of the ITV network that went on air on 22 September 1955. To celebrate the network’s 21st birthday, back in 1976, Thames Television put together a two-hour special edition of This is Your Life, and last night’s showing revealed it as a delightful and delirious, cringe-worthy and compelling (self-)image of what commercial television was like at its height. Here were shiny suits and bad haircuts in profusion, an awful lot of middle-aged men in charge together with numerous women objectified as game-show assistants and chorus girls (above, from Sunday Night at the London Palladium), the remnants of a long-established music hall tradition, and not a single non-white face. But here too were reminders of of t ITV brought to television in the late 1950s and ’60s: a robust approach to visual journalism in News at Ten, the vigour of a populist current affairs tradition in World in Action, and dramas in Armchair Theatre that showed the British how they looked like and spoke, and what they cared about, around 1960.
The format of the show was an uneasy mix of artistes doing a turn, including an accomplished contribution from Frankie Howerd, and short chat-show segments with host Eamonn Andrews speaking with stars and execs, including Armchair Theatre producer Sydney Newman and the first World in Action editor Tim Hewat. Much of the pleasure came, of course, from the plentiful extracts, including some nostalgia-prompting commercials for the likes of Daz and Oxo as well as a remarkable extract from a Liverpool-Arsenal game when commentator Jimmy Hill came on to replace an injured linesman.
Particularly notable, as so often with archival television, was the sense of what I can only call the texture of 1976 – gestures and body-language, the spoken language dripping with assumptions and associations, the details of clothing and make-up, all of the elements that are caught in visuals and audio fragments from that moment and that could never quite be recreated. And then there’s the sense of exactly what television looked like then: overlit and over-saturated colour images with a sharpness to set your eyeballs on edge, but at the same time the lines and the break-ups of an occasionally unstable image. Should you want to immerse yourself, truly and deeply, in the Britain of the mid-1970s, this is most definitely one place to start.
But let me also note one sublime fragment at the heart of this extravaganza. Writer-producer Andy Allan had his share of some truly terrible ideas. These included a bizarre appearance of a majorette band that marched through the audience and around the re-united team of the ITV sitcom The Army Game(1957-61), several of the cast members of which had clearly spent a fair while in hospitality before coming on stage. But Allan’s masterstroke was booking some fifty or more members of the the Royal Opera House chorus to perform a composition created from the ad jingles of maestro Johnny Johnston. Sublime it was to hear those rich, classically trained voices giving their all to ‘This is luxury you can afford from Cyril Lord’ and ‘You’re going well, you’re going Shell’.
(Sadly, this is not that clip, but rather 3 versions of the Shell ad with Michael Holliday singing.)
Perhaps you’ve noticed that this blog has been sadly neglected over past months. I have kept meaning to return to it but I have been doing so much other writing across the summer that somehow there has never quite been the time. Or perhaps that’s simply a way of explaining to myself why I fell out of love – temporarily, I think ( I hope) – with posting. But as the television world, after the excesses of Edinburgh and before that Tuscany, comes to end of the first week that I have always seen as the start of a new year, I am minded to begin again. Or at least to try to. In part this is because there is a host of interesting projects underway in which both I and the company are involved, including a new iteration of this website. In part I have been encouraged by one or two kind people who have asked recently why I don’t post any longer. And in part I am a proud parent of two offspring bloggers, Kate Wyver (on theatre) and Nick Wyver (on international development issues), and perhaps I feel the need to remain competitive.
One of the reasons I stopped, I think, is that there are so many smart people writing so much that’s smart about television, about digital media, about Shakespeare and about much more, and perhaps I lost confidence that I could offer anything that was different or distinct. But maybe it’s enough simply to point to things that are interesting (as I do on Twitter), and maybe add an occasional footnote. So let’s begin again with a stimulating piece from npr’s monkey see blog titled ‘Some Writing about Writing about TV’.
This article by Linda Holmes is one of a number on the npr blog prompted by the annual US Television Critics Association press tour to California. (There are links to related posts below.) The tour is a beanfeast during which the networks and new content creators like Netflix and Amazon unveil forthcoming shows and parade creators to win over those who write about the medium. Linda Holmes reflects on the changes in criticism prompted by the increased complexity of scripted shows and by new release patterns of episodes, including the ‘full drop’ pattern of online services when a complete series is made available at the same moment (her detailed post on that is here). Combined with the lifting of constraints on space offered by online, the result has been an explosion of writing, often in the form of re-caps of individual episodes, and frequently with a granularity of attention (to fashion, for example, or glimpses of books) that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. But this in itself throws up new problems, of which a key one – common across so many cultural fields now – is that of securing attention.
But just as the increasingly often-heard complaint that now “there’s just too much good television”, the concern about there being too much good writing on television is a problem that we’re lucky to have. As Linda Holmes concludes,
It’s a busy time, and it’s an active time, but it’s also an unsettled time. The sheer speed and volume of writing about TV is impressive, expansive and unnerving, at least for me. Which, again, is also a pretty good description of TV itself.
Except that on this side of the pond the exponential increase in writing about television simply hasn’t occurred – or if it has I haven’t yet noticed it. The Guardian does week-by-week live blogs for the likes of The Great British Bake-off and Strictly… but where is the really considered episode-by-episode engagement from a multitude of viewpoints with, say, BBC Two’s Wolf Hall or Channel 4’s recent Robots. If it’s out there and I’m simply missing it, would you let me know?
We have been on holiday in France, staying in an ancient manor house on the outskirts of the village of Montredon-Labessonié. Tucked away in the countryside between Albi and Castres, Montredon-Labessonié has a church, a bar and a recently opened pizza restaurant, a post office and two small supermarkets. Incongrously, there is a zoo just outside the village but the human population of the immediate area cannot be more than few hundred. Yet the village boasts a very fine 126-seat modern cinema where on Friday evening we watched the new Pixar film Inside Out (Vice-Versa in French, and delightful by the way) which was sparklingly and immaculately projected on a big screen in 3D and 5.1 audio. Three times a week on summer evenings (less frequently in winter), and on certain afternoons also, at Cine Select Maurice Boyez projects films to the kids of the area, to the region’s cinema-lovers and to the occasional tourist, Just as he has since 1957.
I’ve had a wonderful birthday week in France, and now I’m back with all sorts of new challenges to face. Here’s a selection of three things for today, before – inspired a bit by my birthday blog – I start posting more seriously once again.
Today is my 60th birthday. I was born 60 years ago today. No-one, of course, believes that they will ever be 60. I do not believe I am 60 years old. But perhaps writing this short blog post will help reconcile me to the fact.
Indeed, one of my oldest and dearest friends, albeit one I see now more rarely than even I post here, has more or less challenged me on Facebook to write a blog post today. I am sitting in the garden of a house near the French village of Castelnau, halfway through a week’s walking with Clare. It’s very hot and there’s a small swimming pool which is very cold. I’m content – and I’m even content with being 60. Although I don’t know how to write that without sounding complacent.
I am of reasonably sound mind and body, albeit unfit and overweight (and there’s nothing like a walking holiday to prove that to yourself). I have a wonderful wife, with whom I am very much in love after being together for 35 years. We have three tremendous children, Kate, Ben and Nick, of whom I could not be more proud. But perhaps those are not the subjects for a post on the Illuminations blog.
The interests that have sustained me across those years have meant that I saw Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I have seen the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and Ken Russell; I have read Dickens and Tolstoy and the Eliots, George and T.S.; I went back and back to the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls and to the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby; on the small screen I watched United win the Treble and England win the Ashes in 2005 and I saw Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and I cheered as Jonny Wilkinson made that drop-kick; I have thrilled to Mozart and Wagner and Benjamin Britten; I have travelled to India and China and Cambodia and Egypt and Canada and Australia and pretty much everywhere I’ve wanted to go – except Chicago; and I have worked consistently with people who are smarter and more imaginative and more talented than I will ever be – and I am intensely grateful for that and for everything else.
With a colleague I set up Illuminations 33 years ago, so it has been the focus of my professional life for more than half my number of years. I am intensely pleased that it continues to function as a small independent producer and distributor dedicated to the arts and culture. I own the company with my professional partner and friend with whom I have run it for nearly 30 years. Those with whom we work are committed and delightful and smart and challenging and an enormous pleasure to be with.
The company was set up to make programmes for the new Channel 4, which went on air in November 1982. We said that we would produce “distinctive programmes about contemporary culture”, which is what we have done – and what we continue to do.
What I haven’t done in my 33 years with Illuminations is direct a feature film. I haven’t written a novel or a play. I haven’t created a ground-breaking work of philosophy or of history or of cultural criticism. All of which I might once have believed that I could, and would. But I have been involved in, and at times responsible for, a number of television programmes and media productions that have been, and remain, worthwhile in some fundamental sense. And perhaps that’s more than one can expect.
Mainstream television is very different now from what it was in 1982. In some ways it offers fewer opportunities and is less rich. Which I regret, although I hope that in some senses I understand. It certainly seems harder to be a producer now than back then, but perhaps all producers have always felt that at all moments of retrospection. At the same time there are so many new media opportunities – Sky as well as the BBC, event cinema and other large-screen possibilities, and the myriad of online forms. I have tasted of the joys of the web in its earliest days, of 3D social spaces, and of innovative combinations of networks and broadcast, and I hope that there will be other such experiments to be part of in the years to come.
Bliss was it to be alive as Channel 4 came together, but to be involved in media today still is, as Wordsworth sort of had it, very heaven. Even on a day when both a major pitch with which I was involved has fallen short and a key project has been cancelled, it feels as if there are a thousand and more opportunities, had I but world enough and time (and energy). Working closely with the Royal Shakespeare Company remains more of a privilege than I can express, and it is immensely exciting to be developing a major new project with Sky Arts. I even enjoy, after three decades of change and turmoil and occasional heartache and rare triumph, being still on the distant boundary of the BBC.
To be fortunate enough to combine this work as a producer with work as an academic and historian of television and media is also constantly stimulating, and I am grateful through the University of Westminster and with other organisations to have had the chance to do research in depth and to write articles and to create resources with colleagues that make tiny but perhaps productive contributions to what we know about the past.
I haven’t changed the world in my 60 years, but I hope I’ve done more good things than bad. Long, long ago, I came to London as a schoolboy to see a new film directed by Lindsay Anderson. It made an enormous impression on me then, even if subsequent viewings have revealed that it hasn’t quite stood the test of time. But if I can express this without seeming selfish or, again, complacent, its title seems right for the way I feel about myself as I scribble these inconsequential notes: O Lucky Man!
Sometimes there are links between them, oftentimes there are not.
• State of Terror: innovative interactive report from veteran BBC journalist Peter Taylor about the financing of ISIS.
• Martha Graham – goddess of contemporary dance: a strong group of resources from BBC Arts about the great choreographer, with clips and a text by Paul R. W, Jackson, Reader in Choreography and Dance at the University of Winchester.
• British Black and Asian Shakespeare: the film below outlines the AHRC-backed research project exploring a critical history of multicultural Shakespearean performance in 20th-century Britain; I’m going to their discussion, ‘Who Owns Shakespeare?’, later today at Warwick Arts Centre – the image above is a detail of a Angus McBean/RSC image of Edric Connor in Pericles, 1958.
• Next practices in digital: a report from the Association of Art Museum Directors (freely downloadable) with 41 examples of recent digital initivatives in American art museums – lots of great ideas.
• Brave New Camera: a trailer for what looks like a fascinating documentary about the impact of digital photography, connectivity and vast storage systems (I’ve wanted to make essentially this for television for the past five years, but couldn’t interest commissioners); background and additional clips are at The Creators Project here.
• A night at the museum: for Reverse Shot at the Museum of the Moving Image, Fernando F. Croce writes about Tsai Ming-liang’s extraordinary film Face (Visage, 2009, above), for which this is the trailer:
Sometimes there are links between them, oftentimes there are not.
• The A-Z of Carl Dreyer: terrific anthology from Matthew Thrift at BFI about the demanding work of the great Danish director, including his little-known study of the sculptor Thorvaldsen (1949, above).
• Seeing Istanbul again: Orhan Panuk’s translator Maureen Feely writes for The New York Review of Books about the Turkish writer’s vision of the city where he lives.
• Sophia Loren and the Italo-American songbook: apart from being hugely enjoyable, this essay is an object lesson in how to assemble – without commentary – comparatively obscure film extracts to explore an idea, in this case the creation of trans-national identity in ’50s’ cinema; from Bristol PhD candidate Sarah Culhane.