Rehearsing television’s return

Rehearsing television’s return

British Pathé has just published a wealth of new material on its wonderful YouTube channel (there is more about this from The Drum), and among the delights (only 5 views so far) is a newsreel spot about the return of the BBC television service after the second world war. The service, which had been operating since November 1936 from two small studios at Alexandra Palace (for more, go here and here), shut down when war was declared in September 1939. Although radio remained the BBC’s main focus in the early years of peace, television started again to broadcast the victory parade celebrations on 7 June 1946. This ‘exclusive’ Pathe report, which I’d not seen before, shows a rehearsal for an early broadcast with The Windmill Girls (also in the photograph above)- and it’s fascinating in all sorts of ways.

Let’s put to one side the objectifying male gaze that is shared by the television set-up and the newsreel camera. Although of course it’s interesting to see that this production context is an almost exclusively male world. A woman pianist tickles the ivories just out of shot, much as music was made on the earliest silent film sets, and next to her is a watchful companion. But otherwise all of the work is being done by men.

Traces of early television are rare (there are no recordings of full programmes until 1953), and this brief clip offers one of the best records of what making television involved in the early years of the medium. Note how small Studio B is, how basic is the background settings, how tightly grouped are the three cameras, and how the caption is a painted board which one of the cameras reveals before turning towards the action. Incidentally, the producer calling the shots is Cecil Madden, the BBC’s first head of television planning.

The Edwardians on the South Bank

The Edwardians on the South Bank

Following on from the successful Screen Plays ‘Classics on TV’  seasons ‘Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ (June 2012) and ‘Jacobean Tragedy on the Small Screen’ (March-April 2013), the project is delighted once again to be working with BFI Southbank. In May ‘Edwardian Drama on the Small Screen’ will present six programmes of television productions of plays written between the 1890s and the First World War. The season, which I have curated, includes notable productions of plays by Oscar Wilde (including An Ideal Husband, above), Harley Granville-Barker, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, J. M. Synge and D. H. Lawrence.

In addition, on the afternoon of Friday 23 May at BFI Southbank we are organising a symposium to explore some of the issues raised by these productions, and we are delighted that Dr Billy Smart will open this with a keynote lecture. Further details of the symposium and the programmes will follow, but here is a first look at the productions to be screened. Public booking has just opened at BFI Southbank online, and full details of the programme are below.
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Our Ken

Our Ken

Every conference is a curate’s egg, and you always hope that the good parts make up (and more) for those that are less so. A two-day gathering in Brussels this week dedicated to the films of Ken Russell (above, on the set of Tommy, 1975) had a very decent tally of the good, and at the same time was curiouser than most such events. Taking part in Imagining the Past: Ken Russell, Biography and the Art of Making History were scholars and academics along with some like editor Roger Crittenden who had worked with Ken Russell in the 1960s and ’70s. Present too was Russell’s indefatigable biographer Paul Sutton, who is one book into a projected five-volume ‘Life’ (he it was who suggested the comparison with James Boswell’s life of the good Dr Johnson). And then there was the filmmaker’s widow, the delightful Lisi Tribble Russell (@awhitetable). All of which made for a significantly more diverse discourse than academia usually accommodates.
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Television at the Summer Exhibition, 1939

Television at the Summer Exhibition, 1939

Remarkably, astonishingly, the image agency Getty Images has announced a new initiative to allow the embedding of many of its photographs for non-commercial use in blogs (like this one) and social media channels. A simple new embed tool permits the legal use of more than 35 million images as long as the attribution is included along with a link back to Getty for commercial licensing.

This feels like a game-changing project and I want to reflect on it further in a future post. But I thought to mark the news I would highlight just one image from the Getty millions. Browsing the site, and with my current interests in early television and the arts, I found the glorious shot below of a pre-war television broadcast from the Royal Academy. Getty currently has it catalogued in this way:

circa 1939: A BBC television crew filming artist A K Lawrence varnishing a painting of Queen Elizabeth and her troops at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

I am fairly sure that in fact it relates to the broadcast titled Television Surveys… No 9 at 2.30pm on 24 April 1939. The Radio Times billing is above, and this describes the programme as ‘a visit with Edward Halliday to the galleries at Burlington House to see some of the exhibitors putting final touches to their pictures and sculpture.’ Halliday (1902-1984) was primarily a portrait painter – and you can find 79 images of his work at Your Paintings here. A. K. Lawrence (1893-1975) had been elected as a Royal Academician the year before the broadcast – and there are 33 Your Paintings canvases by him here, including Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury, 1588, which you can see in the photograph. This huge canvas is apparently now in the collection of Essex County Council – I wonder if it’s on show anywhere.

Clues, or readings for True Detective

Clues, or readings for True Detective

The remarkable True Detective started on Sky Atlantic last Saturday, while in the States HBO has already aired the first six episodes of the opening series of eight. As a consequence, there has been plenty of time for the series to prompt a slew of critical writing – and it’s a selection of this that I highlight here. Anything that can stimulate this kind thoughtful engagement from such a variety of perspectives – including Jason Jacobs’ remarkable philosophical musings – has to be special. New viewers and readers might do well to begin with a trailer, of which this is the fourth that HBO released:


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REM-arkable

REM-arkable

For the past several years I have been delighted to contribute some classes to the MA course in Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. With the course leader Professor David Crowley, the students and I explore examples of screen-based media about the visual arts, many of which are drawn from British television. So we look at recognised classics like Civilisation, Ways of Seeing and Pop Goes the Easel (see yesterday’s post) as well as perhaps less obvious programmes like State of the Art and A Bigger Splash. For the fourth of my classes I ask the students to present an example of web-based video that they find interesting, and today one of them contributed this trailer for REM, a documentary about the architect Rem Koolhaas, which is being made by his son Tomas (there’s an Arch Daily interview with him here, with further details about the project). It’s a terrific short film, surprising and beautiful and imaginative, and a very original way of engaging with the spaces of a building (which is the Casa da Musica, Porto, above in an image from OMA).

OFFICIAL TRAILER FOR ‘REM’ DOCUMENTARY from tomas koolhaas on Vimeo.

The only blonde in the world

The only blonde in the world

To the always delightful Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, to catch the exhibition Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman before it closes on Sunday. This is a show from Wave in Wolverhampton and it travels on, slightly strangely, to the also delightful Muzeum Szutki in Lodz, Poland, which owns Boty’s My Colouring Book, 1963, one of the paintings on show. Pauline Boty was an artist and sometime actress who before her death at the age of 28 in 1966 painted works now seen as key to the story of British Pop art. But for many years she was all-but forgotten, and her rediscovery is an essential part of the story that co-curator Sue Tate tells in the valuable catalogue. The show is displayed in just two small rooms and it’s most definitely worth the trip, but what I want to do here is to collect together a handful of the traces and writings about Boty so that you can undertake your own journey through her work and life. Essential exhibit no 1. is Pop Goes the Easel, directed by Ken Russell in 1962 for BBC Television’s Monitor:


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Celebrating Jarman

Celebrating Jarman

To King’s College London on Saturday for the symposium Early Modern Jarman. This was a contribution to the excellent Jarman 2014 celebration of the life and work of the filmmaker, artist and activist Derek Jarman who died from AIDS-related illness on 19 February 1994. Among much else, the day offered the chance to see Pandemonium, an exhibition in the Inigo Rooms at Somerset House, which remains open (and is free) until 9 March. There are other events in the coming weeks including Queer Pagan Punk: Derek Jarman, an extensive films retrospective at BFI Southbank (including The Last of England, 1998, above). And specifically related to the themes of the symposium is a screening on 28 February of Jarman’s 1991 film Edward II in St Nicholas Church, Deptford. The church is the resting place of Christopher Marlowe, author of Edward II and the focus also this year of anniversary celebrations, Marlowe450.
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Schalcken the Painter: a review from Christmas past

Schalcken the Painter: a review from Christmas past

Half a lifetime ago (for those who are counting, it is thirty-four years) I wrote a feature for Time Out about the 1979 BBC television film Schalcken the Painter (above). Leslie Megahey’s ghost story is now newly released on DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI.  A glory from a period of richly imaginative arts filmmaking, the hour-plus film fully deserves this fine new release. Thirty-four years ago, when Margaret Thatcher had been in Downing Street for just six months and Jimmy Carter was President of the United States, this is what I wrote about it in the Christmas edition of London’s favourite listings magazine…
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An Age of Kings, episode 1 #AAoK

An Age of Kings, episode 1 #AAoK

The Illuminations DVD release of the 1960 BBC series An Age of Kings is now well and truly launched – and initial sales are promising. These eight Shakespeare History plays in the 5-disc box set can be bought here, as well as via the excellent Moviemail (who have been hugely supportive) and Amazon (although it’s currently much more expensive on this site). My overview of the series is here, but I want now to begin a critical exploration of the 15 episodes – a kind of virtual viewing guide. Over the holidays my aim is to transfer these posts to a dedicated web site. Episode 1 presents the first half of Richard II, playing through to the end of Act III Scene 2, with King Richard having returned from Ireland and recognising the dominance of Bolingbroke:

Discharge my followers. Let them hence away
From Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day.

Following are my initial thoughts about each scene – timings in the square brackets are minutes and seconds into each episode as presented on disc 1.
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