Back to the future

Back to the future

Picturegoing is a splendid online resource compiled and curated by the estimable Luke McKernan, who also runs another richly interesting blog under his own name and in his spare time is the British Library’s Lead Curator, News and Moving Image. ‘An ongoing survey,’ is how Picturehouse describes itself, ‘reproducing eyewitness testimony of viewing pictures, from the seventeenth century to the present day.’ So here you will find Alfred Hitchcock recalling a virtual railway journey around 1910, the novelist Dorothy Richardson at an early talkie, and The Drifters ‘Kissin’ in the Back Row’ in a song written by  Tony Macaulay and Roger Greenaway. Luke reproduces the diary entry, recollection, song or whatever and adds a minimal but always revealing annotation. The earliest entry is from The Diary of Samuel Pepys with its account of a magic lantern show, and now one of the most recent is my own note first published on this blog of seeing The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD for the first time.

I am delighted that Luke requested permission to include this brief account from 26 February 2007, but as is always the case I was slightly nervous at re-reading something I wrote some years back. In fact, I was pleased to see that the prose is serviceable and that the historical context I sketched seems correct. Moreover, my sense of the significance of the occasion -’On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes’ - has been borne out by the success of The Met’s project, by NT Live and by the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, which I now produce. (Next up is The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Wednesday 3 September – we ran the first camera rehearsal yesterday, and it is a wonderfully engaging and enjoyable show.)

From the start the brief for Picturegoing has taken in accounts of pre-cinema entertainments along with the movies after 1895, and now Luke hopes to extend the range to feature other media related to the cinema. In particular, he want to include further responses to this hybrid form that combines theatre and cinema and that, as he correctly notes, currently goes by a host of names including ‘streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema’. I look forward to Picturegoing offering me further virtual trips to the cinema in its myriad of manifestations.

Ghosts of Richards past

Ghosts of Richards past

To Middleham Castle on Saturday evening for a unique ‘performed screening’ of a 1911 silent film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sited in the glorious Yorkshire dales, the impressive castle, now in the care of English Heritage, is strongly associated with time spent there by the late medieval monarch. The film was Frank Benson’s production from his own staging, in which he stars as the wicked king, and which was shot on the stage of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The occasion was a presentation by Silents Now, a group led by Professor Judith Buchanan and based at the University of York, which is dedicated to exploring new ways of bringing audiences to films made before the coming of sound. And the ‘performed’ element was the contribution of the incomparable John Sweeney at the piano and a group of actors who contributed the verse, together with vivid sound effects, in perfect synchronicity with the flickering images. Nestled inside the ruined, spotlit keep and huddled with my family against the cold, I found it rather magical and rather marvellous.
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Sunday links

Sunday links

After a (rather wonderful) week in Yorkshire I feel connected again – our house had no wi-fi and the 3G felt more like 0.0003G for much of the time. So it’s back to the Links, which are now presented in a stripped-down form (you’ll note I have taken that explanation out of the title) and lacking credits where they have been recommended to me by someone else. Apologies for the latter omission, but – as I have discovered previously – if I try to do that properly I never complete these posts – nor anything else in my life. So these are simply things I have found useful, engaging, compelling and enriching over the past fortnight or so.

Zip, zero, zeitgeist: David Bordwell as good as ever, reflects on the absurdities of reflectionism.

The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, review – ‘a fine, packed volume’: Kazan (that’s him above) is an endlessly interesting figure, and for the Telegraph Philip Horne welcomes an edited volume of his letters.

What hurt feelings – the untold story of the 31-year battle over Flashdance: Soraya Roberts at BuzzFeed on a cautionary and compelling tale from the 1980s.


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Standing up for the selfie

Standing up for the selfie

Only rarely does writing about the arts really rile me. But today I read two pieces on the same topic that I regard as nostalgic, ignorant and elitist twaddle. The topic is the relaxation of the ban on photography for personal use at the National Gallery. The twaddle comes from Sarah Crompton, arts editor of the Telegraph, and from Michael Savage who blogs as Grumpy Art Historian (and who also has other issues with the gallery). In their respective articles Why you shouldn’t take photos in galleries and Trivialising the National Gallery, both express the view that permitting people to take photographs of great paintings that they own (if, that is, they are UK citizens) is a Bad Thing. I want instead to suggest that what is Bad about all of this is the exclusive and patronising attitudes both writers display towards the rest of us.
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Sunday links stripped-down

Sunday links stripped-down

It’s our boy Ben’s 21st birthday today, and we have had an excellent party in Whitstable. This morning’s links have now been added to, with – as before – apologies for not properly crediting those who highlighted for me many of the below.

True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolato on season 2, ‘stupid criticism’ and rumors of on-set drama: Lacey Rose’s cover story for The Hollywood Reporter is a great read.

Hollywood theatrical issues – past, present, and future: Eric Hoyt discusses his new book Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries before Home Video - with added moving images.

Hitch’s ‘favourite stooge’: Philip French in the TLS on a life of scriptwriter Charles Bennett.

The Big Chill – these are your parents: writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham at Criterion on the people in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 movie.

Heinz Emigholz – building in time: from Sight & Sound, Aaron Cutler on film, photography, modernism and architecture, as seen by the German filmmaker.

The Tate affair – then and now: thoughts on the 1950s and now from Rosalind Mckever at Apollo.

Museum under fire for selling its art: the problems of the Delaware Art Museum, reported by Deborah Solomon for The New York Times.

The swimming pool, symbol of Southern California, takes a dip: an engaging short article by Christopher Hawthorne for the Los Angeles Times.

A raised voice: Claudia Roth Pierpoint on Nina Simone, from The New Yorker.

A message from the Amazon books team: really interesting, and an important issue.

Penguin’s new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – securing the image, securing the female child: Jessica Sage posts on the blog for the Feminist & Women’s Studies Association.

The costly business of photo book publishing: the economics analysed by Kris Wilton at Photo District News.

Photographer Garry Winogrand captured America as it split wide open: Jerry Saltz for New York Magazine on a Met show that I would dearly love to see.

The Nether: Holger Syme contributes to the debate.

Clickhole or die – the fight over ‘sponsored content’ is 150 years old: Matt Novak at Paleofuture.

Shining a light into the BBC radio archives: ‘How to process very large archives cheaply, quickly and at scale.

The hi-tech mess of higher education: a piece for The New York Review of Books by David Bromwich prompted by the documentary Ivory Tower.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War centenary?: a very useful round-up of activities from Luke McKernan.

Stratford, the Shakespeare revival and World War 1: a lovely post by Sylvia Morris at The Shakespeare blog, which is where the detail above of an image of Morris dancing on the Avon comes from.

Academics fear for Warburg Institute’s London library, saved from the Nazis: this is important, as Maev Kennedy reports for the Guardian.

A pound here, a pound there: David Runciman on gambling, from the London Review of Books.

• The return of coach Lasso: NBC’s new promotional spot with Jason Sudeikis for their Premiership coverage – silly, but very funny:

Lord K, once more

Lord K, once more

The Tate Britain exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation closes tomorrow, Sunday 10 August. I remain thrilled to have contributed to this by curating the television extracts and writing a catalogue essay about the television programmes that Clark made for ATV between 1958 and 1966. To mark the end of this fascinating – and beautiful – display (curated by Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard) about a profoundly influential figure in twentieth century culture I am republishing an expanded version of a blog post that rounds up reactions to the show.
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Mirror magic with Mobilux

Mirror magic with Mobilux

Following up my post about BBC Television’s 1952 experiment in abstract art, I came across a fascinating piece about the special effects system that, in its earliest form, was the inspiration of the programme. When the BBC producer Christian Simpson first met John Hoppé in 1952, the latter’s technique for projecting abstract moving images lacked a name. But less than a decade later, as a September 1960 article in Popular Mechanics shows, the process was called Mobilux and it was being used for special effects in American television. The image above is a detail from one of the photographs accompanying the piece (reproduced below); the caption reads:

Here the Hoppes co-operate, John on the head and arms, Dotte on the feet, and the result is a very realistically animated image, without the time and expense of animation, but with infinite flexibility of action.


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A ’52 TV ‘experiment in abstract art’

A ’52 TV ‘experiment in abstract art’

At 10.15pm on Wednesday 10 September 1952, just after an edition of the fortnightly film review show Current Release, BBC Television broadcast a 15-minute programme titled Shapes and Sounds. In its listing pages Radio Times described the transmission as ‘an experiment in light and music’, while the ‘Talk of the Week’ column explained that it was ‘designed to explore the possibilities of light patterns on the television screen’. Shapes and Sounds was produced by Christian Simpson, a fascinating figure from the early days of television, and he worked on the show with a group of artists including Rocky Stone, John Keen, Bruce Lacey, Alexis Key and Ivor Broughton.

Media studies records artists beginning to work with television in the 1960s (in the United States) and ’70s (over here). So this little discovery, which I believe is all-but-unknown to scholars (and of course no recording exists), will help re-write the history books. But perhaps it has another lesson for us as well, as the Sunday Times critic Maurice Wiggin suggested:  ’The fact that (in my opinion) the experiment [of Shapes and Sounds] did not succeed is not important. What matters is that the television authorities had the nerve to let Mr Simpson “have a go”.’
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Shakespeare the sailor man

Shakespeare the sailor man

Many of the world’s most prominent Shakespeare academics are meetings this week in Stratford-upon-Avon for the invite-only International Shakespeare Conference. A highlight of the first day was the screening of Shakespearian Spinach as part of the paper by Professor Peter Holland. This 1940 Paramount animation features Popeye and Olive Oyl as Romeo and Juliet – and it is rather special. Here it is as today’s treat…

Waiting for Webster

Waiting for Webster

Tomorrow, at the final preview before Wednesday’s press night, I get to see a production that I have been looking forward to for simply ages. Maria Aberg is directing John Webster’s The White Devil in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford. So that’s one of the very greatest of all plays by one of the very smartest directors around in perhaps the best auditorium in the world. Excited, moi?

If you need an introduction to the play, the Wikipedia entry is a decent place to start. But in terms of this production, see this interview with Maria Aberg:

There is also a very good WhatsOnStage.com interview with Maria. Her production for the RSC of King John in The Swan in 2012 (go here for Peter Kirwan’s review for the Bardathon) is one of the most exciting and challenging productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen in recent years – and I have every hope that her take on Webster is as thrilling. Certainly the great set of production photographs by Keith Pattison that the RSC has just posted online suggests that this will be the case.

The RSC and Dusthouse have made a striking trailer for the show which comes with its parental advisory warning: ‘This trailer contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’.

More later in the week…

Image: Laura Elphinstone as Flaminio in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison, courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company.