My moment of digital disillusion

24th June 2013

I want to tell you a story. It’s short and, I hope, a bit quirky. Maybe it has connections with #Dream40 this weekend, but if it does those links are quite oblique. Rather, take it as a little fable about a time long ago. Sixteen or seventeen years back (yes, really that long ago) Illuminations was making a lot of cutting-edge digital media. We had produced four series of the BBC Two series The Net; we had – so I adamantly maintain – first used the word ‘internet’ on British television (in my 1993 programme MeTV: The Future of Television); we had made one of the earliest, if not the first, television show with an e-mail address in the closing roller; and we had set up one of the very first programme-related web pages. By 1997 we were experimenting, with BT, Nottingham University and others, with live television produced from within an online 3D social space.

More or less at the same time, I was starting to produce a television version of Deborah Warner’s production of Richard II. This involved working with a knotty text, with sets and costumes, and with actors, including the very wonderful Fiona Shaw (above). Much like the digital stuff, this too was exciting – and inevitably I, along with others, began to dream about whether we could create high-end, complex drama – perhaps even a Shakespeare play – inside the digital worlds we were building. How great it would be to bring together these two strands of exploration.

And then… there probably wasn’t a single epiphanic moment, but I started to lose interest in all of the digital stuff. Compared with filming Shakespeare’s play, it began to feel – well, the only word that seemed right then, and seems right now, was and is ‘thin’. Compared with the smells and the textures and the sounds and the thingness-es of the studio, the digital world was pale and distant. Drama in the real world came to seem seductive in a way that appeared beyond drama in digital space.

Something similar happened with paintings and sculptures and other kinds of objects. As my sense of digital disillusion developed, the presence of real objects came to be all the more important. As did my interest in trying to capture and display that presence on a screen (and, yes, I recognise how paradoxical that is). Which is, in part, why I was so interested to make more than thirty episodes of theEYE which have as a major part of their rationale a concern to film objects in a way that, as far as is possible, respects that presence.

That is also partly why I have been so interested in filming performance across the past decade or more. I want to bring the real of drama to screens in ways that secure that seductiveness – and that is what, along with much else, Macbeth and Hamlet and Macbeth and Julius Caesar have all tried to do. Now I know that this collapses all kinds of complex arguments and makes a thousand assumptions, fails to resolve a million contradictions and, to many, will seem deeply misguided. If so, I hope you will explain just why in the Comments below.

Yet while my digital disillusion shaped the context of the things that I wanted to make, it most certainly did not determine the outline of the ideas that engaged me intellectually. So I hope that for the past decade and more I haven’t cut myself off from reading about and learning about and experiencing a wide range of digital offerings. And for sure there are some that are profoundly seductive, some that play with the ideas of presence and absence that seem so important, and some that are grounded – thrillingly – in sharing and deep participation.

I desperately don’t want to be (or, for my pride, to be seen as) a digital luddite – but at the same time I’ve yet to be tempted as a producer to dive back into those digital worlds. Even if they are, of course, so much more sophisticated than they were back in the mid-nineties. Anyway, I’m going to a ‘Digital Shakespeare’ workshop tomorrow and I’m going to read a version of this post. Maybe the gathering will be the context for another (if there ever was a first) epiphanic moment. Maybe.


  1. Sylvia Morris says:

    Live performance wins every time, but efforts to capture it on ‘film’ are much to be applauded. Last weekend there were two events going on which didn’t really join up. Where was the sense of something going on between the breaks in performance?Good luck with workshop today!
    Incidentally I have the same problem with live tweeting from conferences so look forward to a considered reflection on this blog in due course.

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