Cinema’s early television

2nd September 2016

If you’re even a semi-regular reader of this blog you will know that I am fascinated by early television, and especially by television before World War Two. What a delight then to discover online an open access issue of the Journal of e-Media Studies from Dartmouth College dedicated to ‘Early Television Methodologies’. As editor Doron Galili explains,

Rather than defining “early television” strictly chronologically, the issue takes a page from the book of early cinema studies and considers “early” as the period in television history that preceded the establishment, codification, and standardization of what became the dominant media practices of broadcast television.

Each of the six contributions to the issue is predominantly concerned with the history of television in the USA – and it’s fair to say that in general the literature on the subject is more extensive in the States than it is here. But there’s lots for anyone interested in the topic to consider, even if the undoubted highlight is ‘Television in the Cinema Before 1939: An International Annotated Database, with an Introduction by Richard Koszarski’. read more »

O Dreamland

1st September 2016

After yesterday’s enthusiasm for The British Library at Turner Contemporary, here’s one more post from our day trip to Margate. After lunch and an ice cream we walked back along the front and turned down into Dreamland. Recently reopened, about which more below, this amusement park with a wooden roller coaster known as the Scenic Railway (currently closed for maintenance) welcomed its first visitors in 1921, with the iconic moderne front and cinema (currently shrouded in scaffolding) being completed in 1935. (There’s a useful if rather relentlessly upbeat history here.)

I came here as a kid on days out in the 1960s and in – I think – 1970 I saw my first rock concert in the Ballroom. That night the band was Deep Purple, soon to be followed by King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer. But probably my strongest sense of Dreamland now comes courtesy of Lindsay Anderson’s 12-minute film O Dreamland that he shot there in 1953 but which was edited later and first shown in 1956, and from which this is a framegrab:


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The British Library

31st August 2016

To Margate for the Illuminations summer outing. Our plan was a high speed train to the seaside, a touch of high culture at Turner Contemporary, a good lunch, a touch of low culture at Dreamland, and a high speed train home. The train out was delayed, we had a great time at the gallery, the fish and fine wine at Buoy and Oyster were terrific, Dreamland was dismally tacky, and the train back was delayed too. A good time was most definitely had by all six of us.

Seeing Round Corners at Turner Contemporary until 25 September is a strong mixed show conceived and co-curated by artists David Ward and Jonathan Parsons. Details including the list of artists featured are here, and a good Laura Cumming Observer review here:

[the curators] have thought very deeply about every aspect of the circle, from its irreducible beauty to its comforting warmth and its fierce self-containment. Every one of the works here, and there are nearly 200 paintings, drawings, videos, performances pieces and sculptures, has its own fascination but suggests some new idea about circles.

My highlights included recent work by Ian Davenport, Vitrine, 2004 by Lisa Milroy, and three tremendous paintings by Paul Nash that I imagine will make their way from here to Tate Britain for the major retrospective starting October 26. But the very best thing was a surprising and engaging and moving installation titled The British Library by Yinka Shonibare MBE.


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Paintings in Madness…

29th August 2016

Paintings glimpsed in movies are often fascinating, and invariably so when they exhibit modernist tendencies. Take a look at the painting below that is granted just two seconds or so in the British Gothic melodrama Madness of the Heart, 1949 (a detail of the poster is featured above). On the left there is what is clearly meant to be a Picasso-like young woman, and to the right is a flower that, along with the lower realm of the picture, we might imagine as refugees from a Matisse canvas of the 1920s. The centre is a good deal more indistinct, blurry even, but that’s most certainly an eye right in the middle.


In the plot of the film the painting is entirely marginal. In a seaside French town our heroine Lydia (Margaret Lockwood) has just visited the local doctor, for a reason that we don’t yet know. Her wealthy and impossibly romantic husband Paul (Paul Dupuis) is away on business and she is invited to have a drink with slacker Max (David Hutcheson), a painter and an almost entirely peripheral character. Lydia asks Max what he’s been working on, and he holds up the painting to the camera as he says, ‘It’s a view of the harbour.’ There’s a beat before he continues with a chuckle, ‘At least, I think it’s a view of the harbour.’ All of which means nothing to Lydia, since a rare and apparently incurable disease has robbed her of her sight.

I want to argue that the painting, which makes no other appearance, opens up fascinatingly complex aspects of a film that has almost no place in conventional histories of British cinema. Robert Murphy, for example, in his authoritative Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in British Cinema, 1939-1948 dismisses Madness of the Heart in a single phrase as a ‘soggy melodrama’. But as I hope to show it’s a great deal more interesting than that. read more »

Hybrid online

28th August 2016

In 1966 the British artists Gerald Laing (1936-2011) and Peter Phillips (b. 1939) made the sculpture Hybrid, which is illustrated above from the immaculate online catalogue raisonné for Gerald Laing’s work. Working in New York, the artists used a polling kit (shown in a Life feature below) to ask 137 artists, critics, curators and others what the form, materials, colours and the like should be for an ideal work of art. The forms the respondents filled in were fed into an IBM computer at Bell Labs which then determined the parameters of the object. As John J. Curley writes in his essay ‘Hybrid sculpture of the 1960s’,

Hybrid is a transnational sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable information. And, furthering the implication of the title, the information was a tabulation of averaged Anglo-American artistic tastes.

Life Hybrid

I came across the fascinating Hybrid tale thanks to an exceptional publishing project that is itself something of a hybrid. Curley’s essay is one element of Issue 3 of the open access online journal British Art Studies (BAS) from the Paul Mellon Centre and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). And I want now simply to pen a couple of paragraphs expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for BAS. read more »

Sunday links

28th August 2016

A holiday Sunday links to articles that I have found interesting or stimulating over the past seven days. Thanks as usual to those who have pointed me towards some of them, via Twitter and in other ways, and apologies for the absence of appropriate name-checks.

Modernism at the seaside: a lovely Heritage England post highlighting some of the best seaside modernism to be found near our coasts.

• The sound of horses – two John Ford westerns: a richly interesting video essay by Will Ross for about the soundtracks for Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine:

The Sound of Horses: Two John Ford Westerns from MUBI on Vimeo.

• 10 great modern westerns: Neil Mitchell for BFI gets the choice about right. read more »

Ghostsigns and wonders

26th August 2016

A shopping jaunt in Tooting today was joyfully enhanced by a ‘ghostsign’ for Meggezones (above). This adorns the corner of Upper Tooting Road and Noyna Road (below), just a few yards from Tooting Bec underground. Encountering such fading painted wall signs is one of the chief joys of being a London flaneur. And if you too enjoy them you need to know about Sam Roberts’ handsome and hugely informative Ghostsigns website. Here you’ll find an archive of great images, details of walking tours and a good if sporadic blog.

Now there’s also an associated academic collection of essays, Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghostsigns, edited by Roberts together with Stefan Schutt and Leanne White, newly available from Routledge. The table of contents (reproduced below) gives a sense of what a rich range of subjects ghostsigns can connect with, but as with so many academic volumes the book retails at an unaffordable £85 for the hardback and just-beyond-my-budget-zone £34.99 for the e-book. As so often, the advice has to be, get thee to a library.

As for Meggezones, it would appear that they were available until recently but have been discontinued.

IMG_5218 read more »


25th August 2016

Primary framegrab with Jackie and John Kennedy during Wisconsin primary, 1960

The 1960 documentary Primary is something of a tonic in a media world dominated, unaccountably and unacceptably, by the toxic D*n*ld Tr*mp. Here’s how the excellent Richard Brody described the film recently for The New Yorker:

The modern documentary was born in 1960, by way of that year’s Presidential campaign. The producer Robert Drew, a Life-magazine editor who wanted to make television documentaries as fluid as photo-reporting, oversaw the development of lightweight synch-sound cameras and recorders. He put the equipment to the test in Primary, an up-close account of the two rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, as they hustled for votes in the April 5 election in Wisconsin and then awaited the results.

And here’s an evocative clip courtesy of The Criterion Collection:

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The White Unicorn

24th August 2016

To BFI Southbank last night for a showing of a rarely-screened British film from 1947 that I’d never even heard of. The White Unicorn (known in the States as Bad Sister) is almost entirely absent from the literature about post-war cinema – apart that is from a valuable discussion of Margaret Lockwood’s persona by Sarah Street in the academic collection Heroines without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-51. I’m not at all going to do justice here to the film’s richness – and its occasional absurdities – but I do want to record a few immediate thoughts. To give you something of a taste of the film’s attractions, here is the original trailer:

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Arts online, part 2

23rd August 2016

At the end of last week I celebrated BFIPlayer’s new collection The Arts on Film which offers 100+ features and documentaries for online viewing. Many are free to access (including those below) and there is much that is unfamiliar alongside a number of well-known titles. Continuing my exploration of the fringes, below are brief notes on six pre-World War Two films, all of which were unfamiliar to me.

None of the six is in any sense a ‘conventional’ film about the arts, and in each one specific artforms are touched on more or less tangentially. The main concerns — a portrait of a place, for example, or a glimpse of a celebrity — lie elsewhere. Nonetheless, they each belong to a kind of ‘pre-history’ of the arts documentary, and each has considerable interest. read more »