(There is quite a bit of cooking and gardening too.)
To the pleasing Picturehouse in Stratford-upon-Avon for Pompeii Live. This is a live-to-cinema broadcast from the British Museum blockbuster and yet another offering in the increasingly crowded ‘alternative content’ marketplace. The idea is a private view of the show, minus the crowds and with the added pleasure of curators and experts as guides. Slick and smart it most definitely is, with Peter Snow and Bettany Hughes presenting and guests appearances from curator Paul Roberts, classicist Mary Beard, archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli (with the super-ritzy Locanda Locatelli name-checked in his lower-third) and gardening expert Rachel de Thame. I enjoy it in a slightly low-key kind of a way, although on Twitter you can find expressions of near-ecstasy appended to #PompeiiLive (along with the wry reflection – above – from another eminent historian and television presenter). But what I muse on most as I sit through the 85 minutes is (a) what makes this ‘live’ (very little, I conclude), and (b) what difference is there between this and television (ditto). Read more »
On Monday afternoon at BFI Southbank I am introducing two early films by Robert Vas (1931-1978) together with a television obituary of Vas made by Barrie Gavin and colleagues. (The obit is on YouTube but – frustratingly – the embedding function is disabled.) Barrie will be present this afternoon, I believe, along with others who worked with and admired the filmmaker. For I am far from alone is believing that Vas is one of the greatest documentarists to have worked in Britain. He stands alongside Humphrey Jennings, Philip Donellan, Mike Grigsby, Marc Karlin and others, each of whom in their own way forged a distinctive film poetry from reality. Do please watch the film and read Byrony Dixon’s BFI ScreenOnline piece to get a sense of Robert Vas’ work. Yet as I noted in my 2008 post Robert who?, the director is all-but-unknown today and not one of the major films that he produced for the BBC is legally available. (The early films Refuge England, 1959, and The Vanishing Street, 1962, can be found on the invaluable BFI DVD set Free Cinema.) The inaccessibility and consequent invisibility of Vas’ work is – simply – a subject of scandal and concern. Read more »
Eugene O’Neill’s remarkable play Strange Interludeopened at the National Theatre today to some strong reviews. Michael Billington for the Guardian praises the ‘excellent’ production (directed by Simon Godwin) and awards the evening 4 stars. Even at three hours twenty minutes, it’s well worth seeing, with some great performances (including from . Moreover, productions of the play come along comparatively rarely – the last on the London stage was in 1985. Which makes it all the more remarkable that back in 1958 there was a BBC Television production shown in peak-time on two Sunday evenings. In September last year I wrote about this production for the Screen Plays: Stage Plays on British Television blog and I am taking advantage of the National Theatre success to post a slightly revised version here. Read more »
Yesterday, I thoroughly enjoyed the full seven hours of the BBC’s 1953 Coronation coverage which BBC Parliament re-ran in (almost) its entirety. You can read the blog that I wrote here as well as see the numerous screengrabs that I took along the way, and the coverage is on iPlayer (until Sunday 9 June) here, here, here and here. And if you only watch one fragment of it, do take a look at the delightful introduction with Sylvia Peters – who hosted the broadcast in 1953 and who, astonishingly, did the same for BBC Parliament yesterday.
Taken together, this material is a historical and televisual document of the highest order, and I very much hope that the fine new digitally restored print is soon made available on DVD. I was engaged by numerous aspects – by the brief ‘intimate’ images of Price Charles, for example, in the Abbey and framed in a window at Buckingham Palace; by the centrality of the endless military parade in the afternoon; by the realisation that the BBC did not have sufficient facilities to cover the whole of the Queen’s route either to or from the Palace; and by the fact that the engineers in 1953 seem to have saved a roll of 35mm film (on which the recording was being made) by missing out a section of the ‘break’ at 2pm when television was showing simply the front of Westminster Abbey and listening to the bells.
Most of all, the full broadcast showed how ‘light’ was television’s touch on this event. Throughout there was a strong sense that the BBC was ‘simply’ relaying all of this to the nation and the world (albeit in an operation of huge technical complexity). Apart from Sylvia Peters, there were no in-vision announcers, there were no interviews, no studio couches from which experts could pontificate, and only the most modest of graphics. Even Richard Dimbleby and the other commentators allowed lengthy sequences of images simply to unfold in front of us with few words. Television appeared to shrink back from making its own mark, withdrawing from any apparent mediation, even as it was constructing a media event with profound consequences for its own form and for the nation.
Thanks to the BFI, there is a fascinating comparison to line up against the BBC’s coverage in extracts from Long to Reign Over Us, 1953 (embedded below, and from which I have taken a framegrab above). The production is an amateur film of very high quality made by John de Vere Loder, 2nd Baron Wakehurst (he also provides the narration), and it is in sparkling colour. The picture of London in June sixty years ago is both familiar and deeply strange, just as the world appears in all the very best documentary footage.
17:00 So that was great, and truly interesting in so many ways, some of which I’ll try to note down in a further post. A thousand thanks to the BBC for the restoration and to BBC Parliament for the re-run, although I think with just a little more care lavished on the presentation it could have been marvellous. The opening with Sylvia Peters was wonderful, but I wish they had stuck to the original timings and I would really have liked some on-screen credits to round things off. Were there no credits on the original? Could even a basic roll not have been assembled especially for today?
Here is a last quote from Kynaston:
The coverage…, in no small part due to Dimbleby, gave the medium an irreproachable respectability. a sense of it moving for the first time to the centre of national life. “The BBC has magnificently vindicated the noble idea of a public service,” declared the Sunday Times‘s television and radio critic, Maurice Wiggin. “It has behaved with impeccable tact and dignity and has undoubtedly made innumerable new friends… After last Tuesday there can be no looking back.”‘
And here are a couple of thoughts from Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) who has watched the re-run as well:
@illuminations There is an interesting comparison with modern television which would have cut back to the studio for most of this.
@illuminations Or run a film interviewing members of one of these regiments.Or interviewed Kate Williams.
16:58 Chester Wilmott signs off, over a shot of the royal standard flying over Buckingham Palace, with a reminder of the speech that the Queen made on her 21st birthday in which she dedicated her life to the service of the nation. Then,
We pray for her to enjoy a long, glorious amd happy reign.
God save the Queen.
The past is a different country. They do things differently there.
To Richmond Theatre for Headlong’s smart and stimulating adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull(until Saturday, then Bath and Derby). As directed by Blanche McIntyre, a fine cast including Abigail Cruttenden, Alexander Cobb and Pearl Chanda deliver John Donnelly’s remodelled text with passion and panache. This is a Seagull that, in part by developing a dialogue with Hamlet, foregrounds the play’s strong sense of the stage and of story-telling. (There’s a very good set of resources from Headlong’s website here.) It is the second modern staging of the play that I have seen in the past year and the fifth exceptionally fine Chekhov production. Which has prompted me to muse on the playwright, on television, on language and on onanism. Read more »
By making available in perpetuity programmes without too many rights issues, the online BBC archive collections are proving to be invaluable resources for researching television history. A parallel archive release from BBC Four (oddly unlisted on the main archive index page) is a treasure trove of early programmes about archaeology, most of them from the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the films in this new group star the avuncular and mustachioed Sir Mortimer Wheeler who in the 1920s and ’30s, long before he became a television pundit, was a key figure in establishing a scientific basis for archaeology. Wheeler’s post-war television tourism in the classical world appears disarmingly primitive when compared with the CGI-heavy pilgrimages of today. But it allows us to trace with striking clarity the emergence of the television form of the presenter-led journey. This would flower at the end of the 1960s in Kenneth Clark’s landmark Civilisation (1969) and more than forty years on from that series remains dominant in factual television today. Read more »
Back in 2009 we ran a blog post that was based on an article in the New York Times which claimed that the ‘latest digital fad [is] a chain-letter-cum-literary exercise called “25 Random Things About Me”.’ For a while it was big on Facebook, and this was the only excuse the Times needed for its pop psychology: ‘…why this particular distraction has suddenly become a phenomenon is anyone’s guess. For most, it seems to be a creative way to indulge in social networking without coming off as needy or shamelessly self-absorbed.’ The world has moved on a bit since then, as there have been some changes too at Illuminations. Nonetheless, absolved from neediness or self-obsession, we are delighted to offer today the 2013 version of 25 Random Things About Illuminations. Read more »
Recently I sat in a viewing theatre with half a dozen other researchers and watched a truly remarkable 1965 television documentary called Walk Down Any Street. Directed for Associated-Rediffusion by Charlie Squires, the film is a clear-eyed and sympathetic verité portrait of a working-class family in Bermondsey. There are just four extended sequences – a funeral, a 21st birthday party, a hospital birth and a christening – and each is dispassionately observed at considerable length with minimal music that is not from the world of the film and with no voice-over after an opening introduction. I had never heard of the film before, I can find nothing about it online, and I don’t believe there is any critical writing about it in any book or article (I should be delighted to be disabused of this). The film is astonishing, both as film-making and as social history, but just as astonishing is its almost total obscurity. Welcome to the terra incognita of television archives. Read more »
Yesterday was Karl Marx’s birthday and today is a holiday that more or less coincides with one on 1 May that in some eighty countries celebrates International Workers’ Day. On Friday last Illuminations said farewell, after more than a decade’s service, to its Sony DSR-500WS camera, a part of which you can see above (the whole is below). Significant as this event was for us, it is perhaps not obviously connected with celebrations of socialism around the world. But let me tell you a story that brings the two together. Read more »