Sunday links

4th April 2020

John Wyver writes: after nearly a week of not posting to the blog, here’s the reading and viewing that has caught my attention over the past week, with just a few elements of Covid-19 related media.

Why the coronavirus crisis should not be compared to the Second World War: exemplary analysis, for New Statesman, from historian David Edgerton, author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, the best history book I’ve read in years….

The real lessons of the Blitz for Covid-19: … and this is a remarkable, detailed, rigorous History & Policy paper drawn from a virtual roundtable held on 25 March, with convenor Henry Irving, Rosemary Cresswell , Barry Doyle, Shane Ewen , Mark Roodhouse, Charlotte Tomlinson and Marc Wiggam – brilliant to see such responsive, informed historical discussion.

Appeasing Brexiteers: while we’re in historical mode, this is a fascinating comparison, published on 26 February, by Dr Andrew Black at The Federal Trust of Chamberlain’s Munich moment in 1938 and recent events among the Tories.

Why this crisis is a turning point in history: John Gray, also for ‘The Staggers’, with perhaps the most thoughtful “what next?” piece I’ve seen:

An advantage of quarantine is that it can be used to think afresh. Clearing the mind of clutter and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.

How to set up an ICU: my goodness, this is good (and scary), on the demands of setting up NHS Nightingale and the like, for LRB by Lana Sprawls, a junior doctor training in paediatrics:

We don’t know what is about to happen. But we can be sure that the question will be asked whether, if we had done more to increase bed and staffing numbers (known to be dangerously low for many years), we would have been better equipped to fight the pandemic. 

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Prepping for ‘Future States’

30th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Today sees the start of the online conference ‘Future States: Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’ which I introduced last week. Organised by the Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, this is operating with a nearly carbon-neutral conference format which over the next fortnight-plus will combine videos delivered by Youtube, related presentation materials on the conference website, links to additional resources and online forums (fora?) and chat. There’s a Twitter feed as well. I’m also delighted to say that the organisers have asked me, along with Barbara Green, professor of English, University of Notre Dame, to contribute some brief closing remarks at the start of a plenary session from 14 April.

I’ve been doing a little prep for the conference, of which more below. I’m hopeful that the contributions and exchanges with other participants will offer some much-needed stimulation — not to mention pleasure — in these dark days. I am deeply intrigued about the conference format and whether this is a viable sustainable alternative to conventional conferences with their huge carbon footprints.

And of course I’m really interested in the conference topic, which Andrew Thacker introduces briefly here, in the first offering from ‘Future States’ (available until 5 April) which has just gone online. Professor Thacker offers the briefest of guides to the field of modern periodical studies and puts forward the wise suggestion, appropriate in pretty much any context, that we will do well to learn from Antonio Gramsci.

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Sunday links

29th March 2020

John Wyver writes: the usual weekly dose of writings that have engaged me over the past week, including inevitably some Covid-19 pieces, complemented by one or two video fragments that I have found especially important – starting with…

The secret thoughts of Laura Jesson (as voiced by Celia Johnson): I love this beautiful video essay, below, authored by Catherine Grant. As she wrote on Friday on Facebook:

I decided to release this video in the wild today. It has been screened in public a lot in the last years. But I hadn’t got around to publishing it. It’s one of my videos about Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) and so also about Englishness and the (for me) terrible sadness of Brexit, as the time of the referendum was precisely when I began making it. It’s a video of and for lamentation, to be sure, and now feels like a good time to share it.

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Hobson’s choices: stage to screen

28th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Earlier this week I introduced the television reviews for The Listener written by Harold Hobson between May 1947 and September 1951. I want to dig into these further, today looking at a selection of the critic’s responses to theatre productions on television during these years. Hobson had been writing about the London stage for the Christian Science Monitor since 1931, and in 1945 he became deputy theatre critic, working under James Agate, at the Sunday Times. As Michael Billington wrote in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Hobson (who died in 1992);

The belated discovery by the Sunday Times‘s proprietor, Lord Kemsley, of Agate’s homosexuality led to Hobson, an approved family man, being appointed his successor in 1947. 

Hobson’s deep interest in the stage meant that in The Listener he wrote about both productions originally mounted in the theatre that were transferred to television and, more often, about television’s own productions of stage plays (which will be the focus of a future post). As a consequence, his columns are of particular interest to those of us who are engaged by the questions of translation from the stage to screens.

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Is ‘theatre’ mutating?

27th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Maybe this post will go a step, or indeed several such, too far. But humour me. I started out from a tiny moment of pleasure this morning when I saw that Andy Dickson had reviewed in the Financial Times the RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon screen adaptation of Simon Godwin’s production of Hamlet (above, with Paapa Essiedu) that I produced back in 2016. I’m going to end up wondering whether one of the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis might be a substantially new conception for us all of the essence of theatre. Hamlet, first, however.

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‘Future States’ online

24th March 2020

John Wyver writes: next Monday sees the start of an intriguing and, especially given the state of the world right now, a potentially significant academic initiative. Over the past fortnight every scholar worldwide has received e-mails cancelling every conference that they had been expecting to attend across the next six months or so. Except, that is, for the ‘Future States’ conference, starting 30 March and dedicated to exploring ‘Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945’. ‘Future States’, organised by Centre for Design History, University of Brighton, was conceived to take place entirely online, using the nearly-carbon neutral conference (NCNC) model. And that’s what the organisers are going ahead with. The topic is relatively niche (aren’t all conferences?), but if it takes your fancy, registration is free and you can sign up here.

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Hobson’s choices

23rd March 2020

John Wyver writes: Childishly pleased as I mostly certainly am with my headline, it’s not my only reason for starting a short series of posts about Harold Hobson (1904-1992). Specifically I intend to explore Hobson’s television criticism for the BBC’s weekly magazine The Listener between May 1947 and September 1951. I was prompted to look at these columns, one or two of which I have used before in my research, by considering The Artist’s Eye (1947-1949) series for a recent post. Like everyone else who recognises his name, I knew of Hobson (above) as a famed theatre critic. When I was a teenager his pronouncements each week for The Sunday Times carried enormous weight, and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Michael Billington rightly celebrates his achievements :

Hobson was often regarded as a wayward, mercurial critic. His lasting achievement lay in his constant championship of avant-garde writers. His most distinctive quality was his ability to discover an epiphanic experience in a single moment…

(Look out for one such epiphany below.) Billington fails to mention that Hobson regularly passed judgement on the emerging medium of television, and his contributions to The Listener are rarely, if ever, cited in media studies literature. Yet he was writing at a crucial time for the BBC’s service and, since he was already established as a theatre critic, his thoughts on the stage and the screen, and on the hybridity of television drama, are particularly interesting. It is Hobson’s writing on television plays that I want to consider more fully in future posts, whereas this offering is more of a general introduction.

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Sunday links

22nd March 2020

John Wyver writes: Some reading – and a little viewing – that might make a tiny contribution to your edification and amusement in self-isolation; Covid-19-related pieces are complemented by a number that are blessedly free of the virus. Stay well.

Under siege – the BBC in a time of national emergency: the estimable David Hendy explores how the BBC coped during the Second World War and comes to a somewhat reassuring conclusion:

In the current pandemic crisis, the BBC – now nearly 100 years old – has some precious advantages over its other media rivals. Hard won experience is perhaps the greatest of these.Simply put, it has been here before. And, with any luck, that means it stands a good chance of helping us through demanding, frightening, and extraordinary times.

Society as a broadband network: Will Davies predictably excellent for the LRB:

With Britain heading towards a shutdown, lasting who knows how long, it will quickly become evident how difficult it is to sustain society without everyday sociality… Having spent decades overhauling the welfare state to promote a more entrepreneurial, job-seeking, active populace, driven by an often punitive conditionality, Britain has little to fall back on when the most urgent need is for everybody to stay at home. 

Feeling overwhelmed? How art can help in an emergency: adapted for the Guardian from her new book, Olivia Laing is really good – and hopeful – with nods to, among others, Dickens, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, David Wojnarowicz, Ana Mendieta, Ursula Le Guin and Derek Jarman.

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Looking at ‘The Artist’s Eye’

20th March 2020

John Wyver writes: researching yesterday’s post piqued my curiosity about the early BBC television arts strand The Artist’s Eye, which ran from 1947 to 1949. Although the standard histories of arts television credit Monitor, which started in 1958, as the first arts series on British television, even on just the basis of Radio Times listings, a strong case can be made for that accolade belonging to The Artist’s Eye. The monthly programmes, each lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, were produced in the studio by the remarkable Mary Adams, who during the run of the series was promoted to be head of television talks. The strand title was also used, as I outline below, for a small number of acquired film documentaries about artists. For much of the information, thanks, as always and forever, to BBC Genome.

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Virtual gallery-going via the BBC

19th March 2020

John Wyver writes: having looked at two early films from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, here and here, and before I return to the topic of museums and media in the United States, I thought I would explore how galleries and museums in Britain started to collaborate with the BBC, initially on radio and then, as early as November 1936, on television too. I’ve already noted that I don’t think there are any films made by a museum or gallery on this side of the Atlantic before the Second World War, but both in the interwar years and just post-war there was certainly plenty of virtual gallery-going over the airwaves.

This feels especially relevant since yesterday the BBC announced the following (which of course is exactly what underpins its legitimacy as a licence-fee funded public service broadcaster):

At a time when British culture is having to close its doors, the BBC, through iPlayer and Sounds, can give British culture an audience that can’t be there in person. We propose to run an essential arts and culture service – Culture in Quarantine – that will keep the Arts alive in people’s homes, focused most intensely across Radio 3, Radio 4, BBC Two, BBC Four, Sounds, iPlayer and our digital platforms, working closely with organisations like Arts Council England and other national funding and producing bodies. This will include guides to shuttered exhibitions…

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