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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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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Malfi light and noir

Malfi light and noir

For all sorts of reasons, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s BBC Four broadcast of The Duchess of Malfi recorded at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. First off, John Webster’s revenge tragedy is one of my favourite plays (along with his other masterpiece The White Devil). Then there’s the fact that this is the first television broadcast of a play from a theatre for at least a decade – and the first Jacobean drama to be seen on the small screen since The Changeling back in 1993. And of course, since I am deeply involved in translating stage to screen producing the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, I have a strong professional interest as well. I saw the production on stage and I plan to live-blog this evening’s broadcast. All of which meant that I was also fascinated to see James Shapiro’s curtain-raiser documentary last night, The Mysterious Mr Webster.
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Lord K

Lord K

Tate Britain this week has opened the exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, which runs until 10 August. There is no sense that I can be impartial about the show, given that I contributed by curating the television extracts (which my Illuminations colleague Todd MacDonald compiled) and writing a catalogue essay about the television programmes that Clark made for ATV between 1958 and 1966. But let me say that I think it’s a completely fascinating – and beautiful – display about a profoundly influential figure in twentieth century culture.

I have long been interested in ‘K’ (as he was always known to his friends) and back in 1993 I directed a BBC documentary about his life and ideas. Twenty years on I have contributed to a new film about him, produced by Kate Misrahi and screening on BBC Two on 31 May (thoughts on that to follow). Here I want to draw together a range of resources about and responses to the exhibition, and over the coming days I will add to this as other pieces appear. I also intend to write further about the choice of extracts included in the exhibition and about the many remarkable art objects that the curators Chris Stephens and John-Paul Stonard have drawn together.
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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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‘This day of triumph’ #AAoK

‘This day of triumph’ #AAoK

Last week the first shrink-wrapped copies of Illuminations’ DVD release of An Age of Kings arrived at our offices. The event marked the culmination of at least two years’ work by my colleague Louise Machin and I, along with our designer Loic Leveque, and the essential support of Todd MacDonald and Tom Allen. It also represents, given the advance paid to BBC Worldwide as well as the design, sub-titling and duplication costs, a significant investment by the company. So go here to buy your copy for the bargain price of £34.99.

We very much hope that An Age of Kings will be the beginning of a major new project to release great television adaptations of classic theatre plays, which we are conceiving in conjunction with the AHRC-funded University of Westminster research project Screen Plays. Before I explain why I believe An Age of Kings is so significant, and how we plan to promote and support the release, here is a taster:


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[ ]amin Britten on Cam[ ]

[   ]amin Britten on Cam[   ]

Each time I return grumpily to the topic of today’s post I feel the need to apologise to regular readers. I know that I have taken on several times before the vandalism represented by forcing 4:3 archive footage into contemporary 16:9 frames, but Saturday night’s Benjamin Britten on Camera (available on BBC iPlayer until 28 November) cries out for attention. This is an intelligent programme about the relationship between the composer and the BBC during the late 1950s and ’60s and it features a wonderful selection of gems from the Corporation’s archives.
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Fifty years on

Fifty years on

Far be it from me to rain on the National Theatre’s fiftieth birthday parade, but allow me to make a few slightly-less-than-gushing remarks about the recent two-part Arena documentary and tonight’s compilation album of extracts. (The two films are on BBC iPlayer for the next four days: The Dream here and War and Peace here – and you have a week to re-run the live gala 50 Years on Stage here.) It has been thrilling to see British theatre given such attention when by and large it remains one of the artforms that is less present than it might be on television. But I have to say that I have found all the self-congratulation just a touch too cloying.
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