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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‘Let wonder seem familiar’

‘Let wonder seem familiar’

There’s something a bit superfluous and a bit naive and a bit daft about this post. But after last night and this afternoon I just want to express how much at present I love the theatre. Of course I am deeply involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the thrilling and thoughtful and hilarious pair of Henry IV productions (coming soon to cinemas on 14 May and 18 June). But I want here to hymn two other productions that have excited me and moved me and provoked me and prompted tears from me over the past twenty-four hours. One is A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, directed by Ivo van Hove (the link is to an excellent Guardian backgrounder) and still in previews at the Young Vic (until 7 June). The other is Much Ado About Nothing which is directed by Maria Aberg and has just opened at the Royal ExchangeTheatre, Manchester (until 3 May, above). Both, in their different ways, left me touched with wonder.
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Changes

Changes

To Clapham Picturehouse for Saturday night’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème. And “live” it most certainly was, for only around five hours earlier soprano Kristine Opolais replaced flu-stricken Anita Hartig in the main role of Mimi. Host Joyce DiDonato mentioned this in her opening remarks and then the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb went out in front of the curtain to explain the change to the house and, although he made no mention of the cameras, to the rest of the world. What made the occasion all the more remarkable was that Ms Opolais had debuted in the title role of Madame Butterfly just the previous night. The soprano went to sleep at 5am and was woken with Gelb’s request some two and a half hours later, as the New York Times reports. She acquitted herself thrillingly well, making it all rather extraordinary. And for those of us interested in live cinema the broadcast had several other notable aspects.
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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.

The city and sex

The city and sex

I am reading a book that drips sex. Émile Zola’s The Kill, in Brian Nelson’s thrillingly good Oxford World’s Classics translation, is one of the most sensuous, sexy books that I think I’ve ever read. This may, I recognise, say more about my sheltered upbringing than the qualities of Zola’s 1872 novel, but I like to think not.

The Kill is the second of the French novelist’s great Rougon-Macquart cycle, but it’s not nearly as well-known as others in twenty-volume series, such as Nana (1880) or Germinal (1885). Given its compelling voluptuousness, this comparative obscurity is perhaps a surprise, although it is connected, I suspect, to the fact that Nelson’s recent translation into English is the first since 1895.

The scene is laid in the Paris of the Second Empire, mostly in the early 1860s, and the story relates the incestuous passion of the thirty-year-old society beauty Renée for her stepson Maxime. The third central character is the avaricious and unseeing Saccard, Renée’s husband and Maxime’s father, and the fourth is the urban environment undergoing the upheavals of Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding. It’s a book about capital and modernity, about the city and sex. And having started reading it via a Kindle app on my iPad, and finding that deeply unsatisfying, I am now devouring the handsome paperback that you see above. Which is tactile, elegant, hard-wearing, responsive, versatile and, in its own quiet way, sort of sexy.

I read a lot of things on my iPad. I read my subscription to The New Yorker. I read scripts and I read the Guardian website. I read academic books about film history and adapting Shakespeare for the screen. But I have definitively decided that the particular pleasure of reading a great classic novel is not to be had from an unyielding glass screen. I need the thoughts of Henry James and George Eliot and indeed Émile Zola to be laid out in distinctive type on particular paper. I want the dialogue and especially the descriptions at which Zola excels to be in the same place on a page when I return to them. And I have to be able to touch the words. I want them to be real.

It is important to me as I consume a novel that I can bend back – but not break – the spine. I delight at the way in which my reading just lightly soils the pages, so that I constantly have the sense of my progress through a volume. And I anticipate with pleasure that I will keep this volume on my shelves, where it will continue to carry the traces and the marks and the memories of my encounter with it. The reading of a great book is, and I think (or trust) always will be, supremely physical.

Don’t make me laugh, Penguin Books

Don’t make me laugh, Penguin Books

Until yesterday’s Guardian article by Gareth Rubin I regret to say that I had not heard of the artist Miriam Elia and her totally delightful website Learning with Miriam. I had, however, seen several of her smart art parodies of Ladybird Books popping up in my Twitter feed. My favourite was the one in which the cover illustration above is accompanied by a facing page of text that reads

There is nothing in the room.
Peter is confused.
Jane is confused.
Mummy is happy.

‘There is nothing in the room because God is dead,’ says Mummy.
‘Oh dear,’ says Peter.

Miriam produced 1,000 copies of her We go to the gallery book and was selling them for £20 each when the m’learned friends from Penguin Books descended and told her she was infringing their copyright. Now she is allowed only to sell enough copies to cover her initial costs and must then cease and desist from making us laugh and making us think and making the world just a little better with her art. What is even weirder, what she is doing may not infringe copyright in a month’s time – and it almost certainly would not be an infringement in the United States, Canada, France and elsewhere.
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Move it

Move it

We have just completed a short film for Christie’s which has gone online this morning. The film showcases Turn Me On: European and Latin American Kinetic Art, 1948-1979a private selling exhibition at Christie’s Mayfair until 7 April. More details are here along with an online version of the catalogue. It’s a really delightful and stimulating show – and entry is free at 103 New Bond Street, London W1S 1ST.

The film was produced and directed for Illuminations over the past five days by Linda Zuck, with Nicole Mandell as production assistant, Ian Serfontein as director of photography and Tor Kristoffersen as editor.

Image: Marina Apollonio, Dinamica Circolare 9B, 1969, on display at Turn Me On.

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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