The NPG’s big, fat Coronation, or…

18th May 2012

… 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of a national museum could have allowed this to happen betrays a distressing lack of respect for the value of film as a historical document.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.

Related posts:

tain through a Le: 25 July 2011
On ratios again (but not all grumpy), 26 July 2011

Image: detail of a Frank Scherschel for LIFE photograph on Coronation Day 1953, © Time Inc.


  1. I agree with all of your sentiments, there’s no excuse. I was grateful to see the other night that the producers of Tales of Television Centre did present all of the archive footage in the correct ration albeit with some of the building’s mosaic applied to either side to fill the space to the great credit of producer Richard Marson.

    The World at War blu-ray is an especially annoying example, pin sharp picture, loads of the image missing. The producers offer an lengthy explanation on the extras but it barely convinces even as we’re shown the pan-scanning method used by the producer. Plus the bizarre section in which they’re shown restoring parts of the frame which are then cut off at a later stage in the processing.

  2. Mark Bodner says:

    After battling with broadcasters and gallery users for the past 7 years – trying to get them to use the correct aspect ratio for the archive footage we supply, I have found that even the few who are trained/educated to use the image properly and in the best light….turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the desires of the producers who make the ultimate decision. They are not only unaware of the loss of between 25-29% of frame content loss but also the fact that the public are tolerant of the image not filling the screen, especially archive.

  3. Paul Tickell says:

    The series on the 1970s might well have butchered its archive but, John, I think you are rather kind re the meat of the series itself. I was dubious about Sandbrook’s line on a lot of things and certainly didn’t care for him in micro-historical mode – more like a trivialisation process.

    For me the major drawback was that much of what Sandbrook argued, was just not that specific to the ’70s. Much of it happened – or certainly started to happen – significantly earlier in the ’50s and ’60s eg young working-class males rejecting the short-back-and-sides is at least 10 if not 15 years before S says it was. In Carlisle for example youths were forsaking the barber and going under the hair-dresser’s scissors and blow-dryer/having their hair ‘styled’ by 1960… Ditto gentrification – a word coined by Ruth Glass about Notting Hill in 1961; so although gentrification was full-tilt in the ’70s, it had started well before S claims that it did (if the Glass usage is ’61, then it’s a fair bet that gentrification had its beginnings in the late ’50s – see the Chelsea Set and Battersea)… Again, his platitudes about Bowie and Bolan are rather late in the day because ‘gender-bending’ and androgyny are part of a process which begins in the ’60s well before ZIGGY. That’s the trouble with placing all your eggs in the basket of one decade – you miss out on a lot of the history which lies behind many social and cultural phenomena.

    As for S saying that the Smithfield porters, protesting in ’72 about Ugandan Asians, were the ‘authentic’ voice of the working-glass: this begs a lot of questions, not least the very idea of authenticity itself. Far be it from me to romanticise the working-class but you cannot reduce it – and the ancillary union movements (admittedly conservative at times) – to the actions of a hardcore of Cockanese in a town, London, where patterns and organisation of labour have often been at odds with the rest of the country. It’s one of the reasons that there’s been a North-South divide…

    S’s crudities about class are even more in evidence when he introduces the Miners – who apparently are ‘Thatcherite’ because in the ’70s they wanted more money. It’s very heartening this, that under the skin, not to mention several layers of coal-dust, the miners are just the same as Maggie the Enemy: aspirational, working-class style rather than petit-bourgeois. Strange then that in the 1980s there was the long bitter failed strike and not some mutual admiration society formed and love-in staged at Orgreave? Saying that the working-class were driven by wanting higher wages in order to enjoy a better life, takes you so far but not far enough when it comes to dealing with the roots (in the ’70s) of the biggest post-war industrial conflict of all (the Miners’ Strike in the ’80s).

    A further point, which relates to the counter-revolution which conservative historians, intellectuals and politicians (Tony Blair included of course), have been fighting against the ’60s in the decades since… Even when doing the ’70s, S still peddles a version of the now common ruling-class myth that the ’60s never really happened: they were something you only read about while half-a-dozen elitist metropolitan swingers lived it out on your behalf. So the ’60s were a figment, a ‘media’ event concocted for voyeuristic purposes to titillate ordinary Joes who couldn’t score (dope or women).

    Historians like S and reactionary rats everywhere (see Alain Badiou in THE MEANING OF SARKOZY on the French presidential ‘rat’ as a major player in the latest phase of the anti-1960s counter-revolution) will do all in their power to diminish that exciting historical moment when there was a glimpse of utopia and a real sense of progressive social change – however brief and however quickly coopted… And I’d rather be ‘fooled again’ than have to listen to yet another pundit in a conservative pickle re-tell the ’60s as a ghost story, a side-show of phantoms. The message is: Rest easy, it never really happened – it was all a dream. (By the way, Owen Hatherley’s short book MILITANT MODERNISM is a pretty good antidote to ’60s-bashing.)

    Part 2: again the argument about the ’70s was way off-beam historically. This was most apparent when Sandbrook said the ’70s was when we experienced the trauma of the end-game of Empire – but what about Suez in 1956? The Mau Mau and the Kenyan insurgency? McMillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech of 1960?

    As for what S had to say about the Irish Question, it could be interpreted along the lines of: Noddy Holder of Slade couldn’t go for a ‘quiet pint’ because a) he got famous and b) the IRA were bombing Birmngham. Public school boy remixes of techo aside, the idea of a ‘quiet pint’ fills me with horror – like in pt 1 when he talked about the working-class and authenticity in the same breath.

    The opening of pt 2 had shots of the English country church – meant to demonstrate all that is settled and re-assuring about being British. Does Sandbrook know anything about pre-20c British history and what amounts to a century-long version of the European Thirty Years War? Between the 1530s and the 1640s your classic English church was the trigger and the site for religious and political confflict of a very violent and bloody nature including a Civil War. As late as the 1860s there were worries that building Gothic revival churches would provoke anti-Catholic riots – even anti-C of E/High Church riots in the case of St Mary Magdalene next to the Regent canal in Paddington. Look closer and Sandbrook’s churches as great symbols of continuity and social harmony are clichés built on very flimsy historical foundations. We are talking mythology as much as history but Sandbrook makes no distinction: he will have the equivalent of his cake in an Edwardian summerhouse and eat it.

    Why did he spend so much time on LAST TANGO IN PARIS but not even mention A CLOCKWORK ORGANGE which, whatever the qualities of the Bertolucci, chimes so much more with some of the themes of the series such as hooliganism? If Sandbrook was wanting to make points about censorhsip and changing sexual mores then there were plenty of other ‘arty’ European films confronted by the British censor’s scissors (see Borowczyk et al) so why all the concentration on TANGO even if it is a film worthy of attention?

    Sandbrook ended 3 in a warm and lovely place blandly bathing in the ’77 Jubilee celebrations – he’d got punk out of the way earlier so his enjoyment could be without taint and at one with the yeoman ordinary folk of great Great Britain, ie yet another mawkish snapshot of that castle in the air constructed by imperialist ideologues somewhere between Dunkirk and the White Cliffs of Dover.

    That’s enough populist grandiosity for one series but, oh dear me, there was a part 4 – and more than likely the bruises to show for it, because how many presenters must be bumping into each other trundling up and down the stretch of the Thames between Waterloo and Southwark? I’ve lost count of the number of pieces to camera filmed in this very narrow neck of the woods this last year or two for serious documentaries. The location may be historically relevant (see James Shapiro on Shakespeare) but, really, productions have got to be a bit more imaginative than yet another shot of the South Bank and Bankside. Perhaps it’s the diminishing budgets which have produced this bare backside of the televisual imagination. In which case grand narratives on tv will have to come up with their very own ‘arte povera’ aesthetic and make a virtue of being, due to budgetary hardship, ragged-arsed/’sans-culotte’ …

Leave a Reply

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