‘Nobody cares’: return to Reading

‘Nobody cares’: return to Reading

At the end of last week, I posted about the Spaces of Television conference at the University of Reading. I greatly enjoyed the three-day event and I learned a lot from many of the presentations. One of the panel sessions was particularly rich and I want to return to Reading today to draw out some strands from that discussion. For ‘Archives and Access’ the organisers had assembled an exemplary line-up, of which more below. But it was the passionate and (almost) despairing speech by Tony Ageh, Head of Archive Development at the BBC, that made the most impact.

Tony has been working vigorously for the past five years towards the goal of granting full access, through both commercial and non-commercial channels, to everything, everything – programmes, stills, written records and more – of which the BBC has a copy. Given the centrality of the BBC to each of our lives and to national and international history since 1922, this is an aspiration of the most profound cultural importance. Yet as he said, ‘hardly any progress has been made in the past five years’. As we’ll see, this is not entirely true, but in terms of any fundamental shifts towards a world in which such access is possible he is absolutely correct.

And why?

‘Nobody cares’, Tony said. Or rather, ‘Almost nobody cares’. Or again, ‘Not enough people care anything like enough’.
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A subject of scandal and concern

A subject of scandal and concern

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.
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A Strange Interlude for television

A Strange Interlude for television

Eugene O’Neill’s remarkable play Strange Interlude opened 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.
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Coronation cogitations

Coronation cogitations

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.

Television’s big day

Television’s big day

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:

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.

16:57 The final scene.

16:56 The crowds.


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The birthplace of ‘Civilisation’

The birthplace of ‘Civilisation’

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.
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The terra incognita of television archives

The terra incognita of television archives

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.
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Links for the weekend

Links for the weekend

Yesterday at BFI Southbank I saw a fine (although a touch short of immaculate) 35mm print of John Schlesinger’s 1967 Far from the Madding Crowd. Marred by inconsistency in its central performances, this is nonetheless a magnificent film in many ways, with breathtaking 70mm Panavision and Technicolor cinematography from Nic Roeg. But my pleasure was almost spoiled by the opening BFI corporate animation, which I assume to be new, with the Institute’s logo and the tagline ‘Film Forever’. Aaaaaarrrgggghhhh!

Whose ignorant and insulting idea was it to define our central body dedicated to the moving image in a way that excludes most television and all video and digital creation. Why does the BFI feel that it must take refuge in such a retro attitude? How, for example, when the BFI celebrates itself with such an alliteration, are we going to tackle the questions that Luke McKernan raises in his excellent post What is restoration? Luke makes some fundamental points about the low cultural status and lack of glamour associated with video restoration (such as that undertaken recently by the BFI on the BBC’s 1970s series Nationwide, above). But what the heck, eh, BFI? Who gives a f*** in a world of ‘Film Forever’?

Micro-rant over, below are further rewarding links from the past week or so, with thanks for Twitter recommendations to @Criterion, @AnthologyFilm@filmstudiesff and @emilybell.
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Jacobean jottings

Jacobean jottings

We are coming to the end of the Screen Plays season at BFI Southbank of television adaptations of Jacobean tragedy. In the final two screenings, tomorrow night (it’s sold-out but there may be tickets on the door) and on Monday, you have the chance to see two full adaptations of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s play The Changeling together with substantial extracts from the other two surviving versions. Monday night’s showing is Compulsion (2009, with Parminder Nagra above), a modern updating of the play set in London’s Asian community – from which I have embedded an extract below. More details of this and the other adaptations in a moment, but I want also to use this round-up to mention that we have organised a very informal discussion group about the season from 3-5pm on Friday afternoon at BFI Southbank; if you think you might like to attend, do please e-mail me via john[at]illuminationsmedia.co.uk. Below, I am compiling through Thursday and Friday a number of links and a handful of reflections about the season so far.


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