… the 1970s were not in widescreen. Let’s return to a favourite topic for this blog, even if it is one that I know comes across as a little arcane. Yes indeed, this is another post about frame ratios (see here and here). And we should start at the National Portrait Gallery, which this week opened The Queen: Art and Image. Will Self in the Guardian was rather wonderfully underwhelmed: ‘The truth is that the pictures are almost insufferably dull. If you’re a monarchist you’d be better off staying at home, painting a Union flag on your living room wall and watching it dry than venturing out to see this tat.’ In fact the show is a modest yet interesting assembly of images of Her Majesty from both the art world and the wider one beyond. At Tuesday night’s opening, it also featured some film footage from 1953 of a distinctly podgy Queen.
One of the exhibits is a clip supplied by British Pathé of the climactic moment of the Coronation inside Westminster Abbey. This three-minute fragment of film includes colour newsreel images cut with monochrome electronic shots from the BBC television coverage (you can view a longer version online here). This is shown alongside press photographs from the 1950s and Pietro Annigoni’s spectacular 1954 portait.
Unsurprisingly, the photos are shown immaculately printed and framed, and all of the Annigoni has been hung on the wall without being stretched or squeezed. Not so the film fragment (at least on Tuesday night), which had clearly been shot as a 4:3 image (and you can see this at the British Pathé site) but which for the exhibition had been stretched to fit a contemporary 16:9 monitor. As a consequence, everyone in the Abbey that day looked fatter and squatter than they would had the footage been properly displayed.
I know that the NPG has been concerned to correct this silly mistake, and to present the Coronation as it should be seen. But that a gallery with the rigorous display standards of a national museum could have allowed this to happen betrays a distressing lack of respect for the value of film as a historical document. And not just any film, what even an ardent republican (that’ll be me) has to acknowledge is among the most potent of the last century. This is a primary source of the first order.
As historical footage increasingly becomes an essential element of all kinds of exhibitions, its display in appropriate ways is going to become ever more significant as an issue. Not least because it is now all but impossible to source 4:3 monitors, as we found last year when we worked with The Hepworth Wakefield to present in their galleries historical footage of Barbara Hepworth.
(Happy first birthday, incidentally, to everyone at the Hepworth and congratulations on a spectacular first year.)
The thoughtless treatment of archival film is not, however, confined to the art world. I have been enjoying Dominic Sandbrook’s saunter through the political, social and cultural history of The 70s for BBC2 (all four episodes are on iPlayer for another three days), but I am deeply frustrated by its thoughtless treatment of its key historical source.
The series has many virtues, not the least of which is the decision not to include new interviews. Instead, Sandbrook’s informed and engaging commentary is woven around a dense mix of news footage, documentary extracts and scenes from sitcoms. There is a wealth of wonderful moving image archive here, but all of it has been – frankly – butchered to fit the widescreen format of the series.
Each and every clip has had the top and the bottom of the image removed. Something like a quarter of the information in the clip has as a consequence been lost, the original framings have been destroyed and the creative decisions, both conscious and unconscious, made at the time when the images were shot have been ignored. As a responsible historian, Sandbrook would not omit every fourth word when he uses a quote from Edward Heath. Why is the quotation of archive film any different?
I know, of course, that the original footage retains its integrity in the archive, so why make a fuss about this? Because, if The 70s has any effectivity whatsover, for the next few years it will be one of the key filters through which we see and reconstruct that decade. And those years were not pictured to those of us who were there in widescreen. That is not how we saw the world, whether we were watching the ‘battle of Saltley Gate’ or the banalities of Bless This House. Not to recognise that is simply and irresponsibly wrong.
I know too that The 70s is far from only offender in this regard, and that 56 Up is another prestigious series currently demonstrating a profound lack of respect for, in this case, its own history. Indeed, cropping 4:3 footage to fill a 16:9 frame is now the norm in television, which dismays and distresses me. But it does not have to be the case. Illuminations has just delivered to BBC Four a documentary about a prominent composer and lyricist of the 1950s and ’60s – and for this, we argued that the film should respect the frame ratio of original archival material. I am ever more convinced that this is the right and responsible course to follow.
Image: detail of a Frank Scherschel for LIFE photograph on Coronation Day 1953, © Time Inc.