Lost encounter

7th September 2013

In March 1958, for the second programme of his ATV series Is Art Necessary?, Sir Kenneth Clark filmed at the British Museum with the sculptor Henry Moore. They did so at night, illuminating the ancient artworks, including the Elgin Marbles, with powerful torches. Many of the programmes in Is Art Necessary? survive in the archives, but seemingly not this one. Apart, that is, from a brief pre-titles sequence, with the two connoisseurs entering the museum. The complete film, far more than any other ‘lost’ trace of British television, is the single programme that I dream one day of discovering.

Clark, who of course was later to write and present the BBC’s series Civilisation (1969), had been the first Chairman of the Independent Television Authority, the regulatory body that established ITV. When his contract came to an end in 1957, the newly established ATV, which held the weekday Midlands contract, took him on as a consultant and presenter. Is Art Necessary? was his first venture into programme-making, and today much of it appears confused and uncertain of its tone or audience.

I am working on an essay about Clark and early television, so you can expect to find further posts about this series over the coming weeks. But it is the programme Encounters in the Dark, broadcast at 9pm on Monday 17 March 1958, that fascinates me most, perhaps precisely because it appears to be irretrievably lost. This is the TV Times feature that accompanied the broadcast:

Among the works filmed for the programme were a head from Easter Island, Egyptian sculpture and parts of the Parthenon frieze. As Clark says in this feature, the aim of the programme was to ‘get back some of the excitement and mystery surrounding these figures. It is lost in the daytime.’

‘By artificial light,’ Moore is quoted as saying, ‘certain qualities and character can be brought out that the ordinary daylight in the British Museum might hide, except for those who know what they look for. Something of the same effect could be produced by bright sunlight, but I cannot recall ever having seen bright sunlight there.’ Moore haunted the galleries of the BM after he first came to London in 1921, and much of his carving over the next twenty years was influenced by works he drew and studied there.

The response of the critics at the time was respectful but ambivalent. The anonymous reviewer in The Times wrote that the broadcast

was worth seeing as a television film out of the ordinary rut and an effort to convey the pleasures of looking at sculpture, even though it did not come off quite as well as one might have hoped.

In the Sunday Times, in contrast, Maurice Wiggin declared the programme a ‘clever and entirely successful piece of enterprise.’

Having searched for Encounters in the Dark ever since I made a BBC documentary about Kenneth Clark back in 1993, I hold no great hopes for finding this. But should you by any chance have any clue to as to where a copy might be found, do please be in touch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *