24th January 2017

Although it was published just over a fortnight ago I don’t want to let pass without comment a slightly thoughtless Sunday Times article about John Berger and arts television by Waldemar Januszczak. In ‘A murky way of seeing’ (free registration required) the predictably contrarian critic took issue with the idea that Ways of Seeing (1972) made by Berger and producer-director Mike Dibb (who doesn’t rate a mention) was a significantly influential television series. Rather, Januszczak argues, it was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which preceded Ways of Seeing by three years, and to which the later series was in some ways a riposte, that shaped much of television’s subsequent engagement with the arts, including the scribe’s own humble efforts. read more »

Forgotten TV dramas remembered

23rd January 2017

Let’s for a moment forget the woes of the world and look forward to some television treats coming up at BFI Southbank during February. A second season of Forgotten Dramas (the first was in 2015) features a number of fascinating titles that have mostly remained unseen since they were first broadcast. The season is curated by those exemplary scholars Lez Cooke, John Hill and Billy Smart, and it is associated with the History of Forgotten Television Drama research project based at Royal Holloway, University of London, which runs a very good blog here.

I intend to write about several of the below, but for the moment I urge you to book your tickets – apart that is for the first event which is already sold-out (although some tickets may become available later). I have included the listings information below, which ought to be enough to convince you that there are wonderful things in prospect here, including the brace of experimental pieces on Wednesday 22 and Loyalties on Sunday 26. I should also metnion that I am contributing to the Archives, Access and Research conference on Wednesday 22, about which I’ll post further details in a future post. read more »

Sunday links

22nd January 2017

After a break through the early weeks of January, in part prompted by technical troubles here, let’s return once more to posting. In a dark, dark week for the world, the first links are more or less loosely engaged by ways of resisting – and the later ones are more general. My continuing thanks to all those who alert me to these – and my apologies for not acknowledging that individually.

• Why I cannot fall in line behind Trump: by Peter Wehner, a Republican aide and speechwriter.

• At his inauguration, Trump signals no break from his politics of fear and loathing: there has been much excellent reporting over the past few days – David Corn’s opening paragraph for Mother Jones is close to the top.

Preserve, protect and defend: as so often David Remnick for The New Yorker is essential, here on the inauguration; the magazine’s writing in the past weeks has been just tremendous.

The image above, incidentally, which comes courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol, is from the first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt on 4 March 1933, when he famously spoke of

my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

‘This land is your land’: the Boss in 1985 sings Woody Guthrie:

America, America: Jonathan Kirshner for LA Review of Books:

Having spent three-quarters of a century fretting about enemies abroad, we have never fully processed a lesson of history: that great civilizations almost invariably collapse from within. We are Athens, we are Rome — we are, more than anything, Paris in the 1930s, another society divided against itself, living in what one historian described as “the age of unreason.”

The real story of 2016: Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight continues the vital work of trying to understand America today.

• How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next: a really exceptional Guardian Long Read by the astute commentator Will Davies.

From lying to leering: Rebecca Solnit is brilliant on Trump’s fear of women, from London Review of Books

The threat of moral authority: … and Masha Gessen from New York Review of Books is equally good on Trump and John Lewis.

How jokes won the election: Emily Nussbaum on Trump and television humour, for The New Yorker.

A reading list for the new America: lots of great recommendations here, from artists, performers and others invited to submit to the Walker Art Centre blog.

The shining: Michelle Kuo for Artforum:

In another delirious moment, facing another rise of nationalism, autocracy, and a new world order, Siegfried Kracauer wrote that the artist’s “tasks multiply in proportion to the world’s loss of reality.” The artist must ultimately take on the role of “the observer who not only sees but also prophetically foresees.” Art can and must foresee other pictures, other worlds—to which we can look, and for which we must fight.

read more »

The (Peter) Wright stuff

3rd January 2017

Catching up with television’s Christmas treats I have been watching BBCFour’s The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90. (The 60-minute documentary is on iPlayer for another 22 days.) This is an enjoyably warm celebration of the dancer, choreographer and founding director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, with appropriately gushing tributes from the ballet world’s great and good, and with a wealth of terrific archive. The ever-reliable producer-director David Thompson tells a clear story and assembles the conventional elements immaculately. He elicits engaging anecdotes from Wright himself and interviewees, even if for most of the time discretion wins out over gossip. Only when speaking of Sylvie Guillem, with whom he clearly had an uneasy relationship, does Peter Wright’s politesse slip. read more »

New year links

2nd January 2017

Links to take us forwards into 2017. With no reason beyond me finding them interesting or stimulating. Thanks to those who drew my attention to many of them on Twitter and elsewhere, and apologies for not crediting every one of you.

• The new reality of TV: all Trump, all the time: a brilliant piece by New York Times television critic James Poniwozik.

• Two bubbles of unrealism – learning from the tragedy of Trump: Bruno Latour in translation, courtesy of LA Review of Books.

• Winter is coming: prospects for the American press under Trump: from Jay Rosen – part 1 here; and part two.

World War Three, by mistake: don’t read this just before trying to go to sleep – by Eric Schlosser for The New Yorker.

The best journalism of 2016: you need to read all of these; courtesy of David Uberti at the Columbia Journalism Review (which has had a great Twitter feed this year). read more »

5 x 5 No 4: John’s list

30th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, here is our fourth list of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. This third selection is mine.

National Treasure

It’s hardly original to observe that this really is a golden age of television drama – or at least of a certain kind of genre-based serial television drama. The BBC’s passionate commitment to work of this kind is a key factor, as are the continuing strengths of network and subscription channels in the States, including now Amazon and Netflix, plus our ever-increasing awareness of series from elsewhere in the world. This year I have admired and enjoyed – among a good many others – from the BBC, Line of Duty, The Night Manager and the second series of both Happy Valley and The Missing – exceptional all, as well as the final series of The Good Wife, the second season of The Affair (and I still have to catch up with the third), Showtime’s Billions – and of course the great guilty pleasure that is Netflix’s The Crown. But perhaps the most challenging – as well as the most visually original – series was Channel 4’s National Treasure, Jack Thorne’s remarkable study of a comedian, brilliantly portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, facing a historic charge of rape.

read more »

5 x 5 No 3: Louise’s list

30th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, here is our third list of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. This third selection is Louise Machin’s.

City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London, Wilton’s Music Hall

At the beautifully restored Wilton’s Music Hall near Whitechapel, City Stories is a cabaret love-letter to London, a sequence of interwoven love stories written by award-winning playwright James Phillips. The portfolio of six short plays are linked and punctuated by the heart-stoppingly beautiful original music composed and performed live on piano by singer-songwriter Rosabella Gregory. All the stories are set in and evoke London’s spirit of place and in different ways show the joys, pains and challenges of being in love, also the chances we have every day in the city to embrace or reject life. A simply wonderful and seductive experience.

A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, National Theatre

This is a all-singing and dancing musical about cancer – which is brave because no one wants to talk about cancer (see image above). Witten by Bryony Kimmings (whose young daughter is still being treated) and Brian Lobel, it sets out to demystify the disease by following the highs and lows through stories of a group of cancer patients, which are all based on real life cases. The aim is to sabotage the cliché responses to cancer including the vocabulary of “struggle” that surrounds it.

The advantage of the musical format is that it gives each patient their moment in the spotlight whilst highlighting the collective attitudes. The clever use of fabric that gradually enlarges with air as it slowly and stealthily emerges through the hospital doorways to show the silent spread of the disease, and the garbled, distorted sound of a consultant’s voice as she delivers bad news about a baby with cancer, were particularly affecting. I found it an unusual but heartbreaking celebration of ordinary life and death. 

Jesus Christ Superstar, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre


The is the first decent revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ’70s rock opera telling the story of Christ’s last days, in a very long time. And what a show! Choreographed by Drew McOnie, it is both ruggedly masculine and brilliantly flamboyant at the same time. Despite the austere set (stark industrial cross-shaped girders and a horizontal crucifix that doubles as a catwalk) plus a buff cast in grey tracksuits and hoodies, the show becomes progressively more spangly: Judas stains his hands in a pool of molten silver; Herod is a huge, camp drag queen in gold cloth; red glitter is hurled at the blood-drenched body of Jesus each time he receives his 39 lashes. It is exhilarating, pulsing and very moving. Go and see it in summer 2017 when it makes a short comeback.

Wild Geese: Selected Poems by Mary Oliver


Whilst at a low point during my treatment this year, someone gave me Mary Oliver’s wonderful book. With fresh, stark prose and unerring insight, her writing conveys the connection with nature that Wordsworth writes about experiencing as a child. Except you get the sense that the feeling stays with her always. She writes with a haunting brilliance and this poem is one of my favourites:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

And here is Mary reading the poem:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

As part of a snatched first visit to Berlin in late March, I visited this stunning and beautiful memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, which opened in 2005. It’s in the heart of Berlin between the Brandenburg Gate and the bunker where Hitler eventually committed suicide and covers an area of 19,000 square metres. There are 2711 concrete pillars – known as stelae – of varying heights and these are set out in a grid-like formation on an uneven incline. Which is profoundly disconcerting and unsettling, as it was intended to be, ‘to create a feeling of instability in an apparent system of order’, according to its designer.

I experienced the memorial differently depending on where we entered the site but each time the blocks become higher as we moved into the centre and with little light it was easy to become lost and disorientated. There’s also an underground visitors’ centre with a very moving exhibition detailing the horrors of the national-socialism policies, the lives of deceased Jews in concentration camps and all the struggles they went through.


5 x 5 No 2: Todd’s list

29th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, here is our second list of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. This second selection is Todd Macdonald’s.

Play On for the Almeida Theatre

I have been involved with some really exciting projects this year with Illuminations but working on Play On with the Almeida has to have been my favourite and most fulfilling. In partnership with Arsenal in the Community, this was an initiative in which four writers collaborated with forty young people who hadn’t previously been involved in theatre to create new plays and monologues based on their stories and experiences. These texts were then performed by both professional actors and some of the young people themselves on the Almeida stage. I worked as a filmmaker documenting the process, and I was blown away by the enthusiasm and engagement that the project cultivated. The work the Almeida are doing in the community to open up access to the theatre is inspiring on so many levels, and the resulting film from this project is one that I feel very privileged to have been able to make.

Play On | Almeida Theatre from Todd MacDonald on Vimeo. read more »

5 x 5 No 1: Linda’s list

28th December 2016

For the end of the annus horribilis of 2016, when once again this blog has been less than it should have been, we offer five short lists of five cultural highlights from the past year. Each of the five of us at Illuminations has chosen five things, whether movies, television series, books, exhibitions or whatever, that have meant something significant to us during the year. Up first is Linda Zuck’s choice, offered in no particular order.

O.J.: Made in America, ESPN

A completely compelling epic 5-part, nearly 8-hour, series directed by Ezra Edelman, who is the son of the towering rights activist and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman. Chronicling the O.J. Simpson story and using it to reflect American society in the last 50 years, this is an extraordinary and thought-provoking masterpiece of journalism about race, domestic abuse, celebrity, civil rights, the LAPD, the legal process and murder.

Certain Women

Three short stories of intersecting lives in small town Montana with superb performances from Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, directed by Kelly Reichardt. Normal women with mundane lives whose stories nonetheless powerfully transcend the everyday. The third story is so achingly poignant and poetic that you are left quietly devastated.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate

Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work was a terrific show. Her work was pioneering and her output was prolific. Her achievements made it possible for women to envisage a career as an artist. The New Mexican landscape paintings were mesmerising.

Here indeed are five reasons why this exhibition was not to be missed.

Horace and Pete

Created as a web series, directed, written and financed by Louis C.K. so as to avoid any interference with his artistic vision, and with powerful performances from the main ensemble cast Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange, Horace and Pete is set in a bar run by a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn. It is by turns funny, shocking and extremely dark with lingering silences and Masterpiece Theatre moments — for example, a completely riveting 9-minute monologue in Episode 3 from a woman whose identity you’re not sure of until the reveal.  It is deliberately shot like filmed plays from the 1950s.  As Ian Crouch asked in The New Yorker, was it even really television?

Sadly there won’t be a second season, and here’s why

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

Chronicled by his friend and college room mate, this is the true story of the life of a remarkable young man who escaped crime-ridden Newark to attend Yale. As a stellar student and much-liked by everyone, his trajectory should have been ever upward. But once he returned to the hood, his life spiralled downwards, leaving a host of unanswered questions. A haunting and tragic story, beautifully written.

Reading ‘Radio Times’ for Christmas 1941

21st December 2016

One reason to be cheerful during this endlessly unnerving Brexit+Trump interregnum is a little seasonal gift from BBC Genome and its blog. BBC Genome is the invaluable and all-round essential website featuring all of the BBC’s radio and television listings between 1923 and 2009. And its blog is a treasure trove of trivia and broadcasting history. As one entry in this year’s advent calendar it has made available a .pdf of the 1941 Christmas Radio Times, complete with editorial matter, programme details and advertisements. And what a rich, resonant document this is, conjuring up the traces of Christmas past from 75 years ago. Download it now and dive in with me – I’m going to pick out bits and pieces through the rest of this afternoon and into the evening. read more »