Sound and vision

8th October 2014

Collective self-portraits from the BBC are always compelling. And that’s exactly what the new video for BBC Music is, even as it features an all-star cast singing the 1966 Beach Boys hit ‘God Only Knows’. There’s already some good analysis online of the three-minute wonder, including a piece by Alexis Petridis for the Guardian. For the same news service, Michael Hann has the background, and there’s more from the BBC here. What particularly interests me is the defiantly retro feel of it all – alongside the remarkable CGI – plus the use of Alexandra Palace and the inclusion of vintage broadcasting kit. Here’s the object of our attention.

The first thing we see, up-close and centre-frame, is an unmistakably old-fashioned radio microphone, from the 1930s perhaps or even earlier. Then we have shots of an orchestra in full bib and tucker preparing to play. Although you would only know this from the press release, the venue is the Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace. “Ally Pally” is where the BBC began regular high-definition television transmissions in November 1936, although the service didn’t actually use the theatre itself, except later as a scenery store. The two small studios – which wait to be stripped of asbestos and properly restored – are next door. The centrality of the theatrical is then underlined with a wide-shot of the curtained stage, followed by Pharrell Williams soft-shoeing down a set of steps.

So far, so retro, especially as the orchestra has been lit up by vintage standard lamps adorned with tasselled shades. We’re at home with Granny and Grandpa here, except that next up is Elton John covered in fluttering blue butterflies. Then Lorde sporting a pair of out-sized angel wings. Sfx (and the BBC) gives us the natural world as well as the supernatural. On next is Chris Martin, who for a reason that’s not entirely clear, is lying on the floor. And then it’s curtain up and we’re back in the theatre. The song’s writer Brian Wilson is at a grand piano, onto which jumps a (presumably, since the singer flinches not a bit) digitally interpolated tiger.

And so it goes: fuzzy, comforting nostalgia (theatre, radio, black tie) combined with miraculous modernity. Which could be just how the BBC sees itself – Radio 2 served up on this new-fangled thing called teh internet. Look, there’s Kylie in a soap-bubble floating over the orchestra. Stevie Wonder is a shower of diamonds. Eliza Carthy on a flying horse off a fairground ride. The old and the new, past and future, tradition and tomorrow’s technology. Nicola Benedetti is wearing a dress that might have come from BIBA, while Jools has a frock coat from his great-grandfather’s wardrobe.

Back we come insistently to the theatre. Brian May plays guitar in the circle before a wall of CGI speakers. And watch out, Lauren – we don’t want you falling off the balcony. But the paintwork is faded and peeling and cracked, and the plaster (not to mention the chandeliers) perhaps has an echo of a Curious Incident-type ceiling collapse. Does the licence fee not allow the Corporation to pay for a lick of paint? Or is that (along of course with the song itself) a part of the pitch to the Tories to up the funding in Charter Renewal?

One of the most intriguing shots is of One Direction with, frame-right, a slightly battered BBC turret-lens camera (above). What’s the intended message here? Perhaps it’s that the BBC has been bringing you the best of pop and rock since cameras like this were standard studio issue (which would be the late 1950s)? But quite who might care about that?

Soon enough, we’re up, up and away via a ladder (Jaz Dhami), a trapeze (Paloma Faith), a paper moon (Chrissie Hynde) and a bunch of hot-air balloons, large and small (Jamie Cullum, Baaba Maal, Danielle de Niese). And finally, we’re in heaven (or at least the clouds) with Dave Grohl and Sam Smith, before we float back to the stage, Brian Wilson and a feather on a piano keyboard.

The music-making throughout is highly traditional and for the most part intimate. The visuals are spectacular, but at the same time grounded in the past, and – the orchestra aside – personal in scale, addressed to us one-to-one. There’s little sense here of a musical experience that we’re watching in a group, sitting in a concert hall, rocking in a stadium or communing together as a virtual nation. Cocooned in a fantasy past, it’s almost as if we were back before the war listening with crystal set headphones to long-wave broadcasts from Droitwich. Which, in these dark days, must sometimes be the way the battered BBC wishes we were.

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