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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‘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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‘Opus’ day

‘Opus’ day

This is a little story about the joy of serendipitous discovery in the archives. I am working on a research paper about the ways in which Henry Moore and his works featured on television and in films during his lifetime. Central to the story of Moore on screen are the six films about the artist made by the great BBC filmmaker John Read, about which I have posted on several occasions including here. But for this paper I am undertaking a survey of as many of the other British films that I can find. The search took me yesterday to the always-welcoming and all-round admirable archive of the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green. On my list for viewing was Opus (1967), about which I knew precisely nothing. But what turned out to be a dazzling kaleidoscope of the arts in mid-’60s London was definitely the highlight of my day – before I later discovered it is available on a DVD set released by the BFI that was sitting at home in a (tall) pile waiting to be viewed.
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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.

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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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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A lost masterpiece

A lost masterpiece

On Thursday night BFI Southbank screened Roland Joffé’s 1980 BBC television adaptation of John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This was shown as part of ‘Classics on TV: Jacobean tragedy on the small screen’, a season of television productions of early seventeenth century dramas curated by Screen Plays, the academic research project on which I am working with Dr Amanda Wrigley.

On the basis of my memories of seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore on transmission more than three decades ago and of viewing more recently a poor VHS copy of – for some reason – only the first half, I wrote a Screen Plays blog post about the film. I knew this was a significant television production but I was unprepared for the impact of Thursday’s viewing. For me, as for many others in the sold-out auditorium, seeing the drama on a big screen was quite simply overwhelming. This is a major work of British film – I am not embarrassed by the word ‘masterpiece’ – that is all but unknown. And it is is crazy, crazy, crazy that it is hidden away in the archives and has hardly been seen for the past thirty-three years.
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Out of the past

Out of the past

The Screen Plays season of television adaptations of Jacobean tragedies begins tonight at BFI Southbank. We open with a remarkable 1965 production of Thomas Middleton’s play from 1621 Women Beware Women, which I have written about in detail here. The screening will be followed a discussion with Dame Diana Rigg (who plays Bianca) and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran. The show is sold out but if I get news of any returns I’ll announce them on the @Illuminations Twitter feed. And you can still purchase tickets for future screenings, including the wonderful 1964 Hamlet at Elsinore (above) with Christopher Plummer on the afternoon of Easter Monday. (Yes, I know the play was written around 1599-1600 and so is not strictly Jacobean.) Meanwhile, below is my Introduction to the season which argues that these great plays remain relevant and resonant today.
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Steel on screen

Steel on screen

I have said this here before but it definitely bears repeating: over the past seven years or so a series of BFI screenings, publications and DVD releases has rewritten the history of the British documentary. This is an achievement that has, as yet, been insufficiently celebrated – and of course the task is far from complete. Much of what we’ve learned and seen anew has been to do with cinema and industrial documentaries and we still have the glories of television documentary to discover. But already we can understand more fully and engage more deeply with and simply and straighhforwardly see an enormously rich filmmaking heritage from the early 1930s to the late 1970s (and occasionally beyond). And the latest instalment of the project is this month’s initiative This Working Life: Steel which was launched on Tuesday evening at BFI Southbank. Here’s the trailer…


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On finding your second-hand self

On finding your second-hand self

Wednesday morning, and to kill time I’m wandering around Stratford-upon-Avon. Oxfam Books is – as ever – alluring, and I make for the modest Film and Television section. Not that my shelves at home (or indeed the floors) have any more space, but I am always hopeful of finding an early volume of Briggs or “K’s” signature in a copy of Civilisation. Today, however, slotted between Paris Hilton’s – until now, unknown to me - Confessions of an Heiress and an equally resistible volume titled Mime in Class and Theatre is, yes, a book that I wrote back in 1988, The Moving Image: An International History of Film, Television and Video. The black spine, white retro font and end-frame of Chaplin’s  Modern Times jolts me with the recognition that this is perhaps the first time I’ve found myself in a second-hand bookshop. Quite how do I feel about that?
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