[ ]amin Britten on Cam[ ]

18th November 2013

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.

Included are glorious clips from John Schlesinger’s 1958 Monitor film about Aldeburgh, the 1966 studio Billy Budd, a 1964 Prom of the War Requiem (wonderfully, available in full on BBC iPlayer here), Peter Pears in recital with Britten at the piano (ditto here), Peter Grimes recorded in colour in 1969, and the BBC’s 1970 commission of Owen Wingrave. All of this and more is archive material of the highest importance and it rightly occupies significantly more than half of the programme’s running time. Yet not a single second is shown in the aspect ratio in which it was recorded, thus demonstrating an ignorant and thoughtless lack of respect towards the Corporation’s own heritage and towards the nation’s cultural history.

The issue is simple. Almost all television filmed and recorded before around 2000 was shot on cameras in which the ratio of the width of the frame to the height was (roughly) 4:3. With the arrival of widescreen television this ratio changed to (roughly) 16:9 – the frame that now seems ‘natural’ for the small screen. Filmmakers who wish to include older archive material in contemporary programmes have the option either of ‘pillar-boxing’ – that is, including the full frame and putting black bars to either side of the image – or of carving out a 16:9 frame from the middle of the 4:3 original and so losing around 30 per cent of the picture.

I submit that you would not play a Britten composition and leave out every third note. Nor would you write someone’s name, such as the producer and director of Benjamin Britten on Camera  y King-Da , and omit one-third of the letters in their name. BBC Four would not screen Citizen Kane and remove the tops and bottoms of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s compositions. So why does the BBC feature the treasures from its own archive and toss away almost one-third of the images. Why?

The practice is widespread, but that BBC programme makers hacked here into the key source material of a programme about the BBC archive seems particularly egregious. It’s certainly not done to save money – featuring archive in its original format is no more expensive. Nor is it inevitable – Illuminations has made a forthcoming film about songwriter Lionel Bart and we included in our ‘editorial specification’, which is part of the contract, that archive material would be featured in its original format ratios.

There are those who believe my concern is mis-judged and that re-framing to ensure viewers have their screens filled is perfectly acceptable. After all, what possible difference can shaving off the top and/or bottom of an image make? In response, I can only ask people to compare the header image (which is a 16:9 composition from Saturday’s broadcast) with pretty much the same frame from the original, reproduced here from iPlayer. Do you really believe that not being able to see Britten’s hands moving across the keyboard is an improvement? Or that it doesn’t matter? Really?


  1. John Wyver says:

    One additional thought about the programme is that the colour material of Peter Grimes, recorded on videotape in 1969, demonstrates how urgently we need to tackle restoration issues for such material. The clips were ‘grainy’ and marred by ghosting, and as a consequence their potential impact was greatly reduced.

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