… what a wonder-ful world!

10th December 2014

On Sunday at BFI Southbank the estimable programming strand Miss Believed Wiped presented a screening of the ground-breaking 1967 BBC Television satellite broadcast Our World. The strand usually showcases programmes that were once thought lost but have been recently found. Our World, however, was featured because a fine new archival recording had been recently reconstructed and because the programme as a whole, thanks to certain rights restrictions, is very rarely shown. The BBC had preserved Our World as a tele-recording, which was created by filming a screen at the time of transmission. But 50 years ago this process was inferior to 2” video recording, which was what Norwegian television had used to make its copy of the international broadcast. Except that that copy had been dubbed with a local voice-over, so to make what we saw on Sunday the BBC matched its audio to the Norwegian pictures. The result was spectacular, and in a quite specific sense, sublime.

On 25 June 1967 Our World, drawn together by BBC executive Aubrey Singer, set out to link 17 countries around the world in a single live broadcast assembled by crews, ground links and satellite signals. Electronic reports were woven together in London from Australia, Japan, Morocco, western Europe, Canada, the United States and Mexico. Cliff Michelmore anchored the show from BBC Television centre which was transmitted back out around the world. It was a staggering achievement for the comparatively new technology of satellite broadcasting, which had previously linked Europe and the States via Telstar only in 1962 and Britain and Australia for the first time in 1966.

In his fascinating (and very readable) paper ‘The technical history of Eurovision’, which is freely available online, former EBU Senior Engineer Brian Flowers sketches something of the background:

It was an undertaking of incredible complexity, involving control rooms around the world, three geostationary communication satellites (Intelsat I, Intelsat II and ATS-1), over 1.5 million km of cable and ten thousand technicians and programme staff. The programme concept was to link up the world, to demonstrate that we are all part of “our world” – all brothers and sisters. The ground rules for the show included that everything had to be live, and that no politicians or heads of state must be seen.

Four days before the broadcast, five of the participating countries dropped out. The Eastern block countries were protesting at the West’s response to the “Six day War” in the Middle East. But the show went on, with an offer to do it again with them – if ever the Eastern block countries could agree to take part. The audience was spread across 31 countries and totalled between 400 and 700 million people. The live feeds into the programme showed babies being born, sports and arts events, and samples of “cultures” around the globe. At the time it was a technical marvel, and it was in “black and white” television, soon to be replaced by colour television.

Tom Hurlington interviewed the writer of Our World Anthony Jay for a 1999 edition of The Smithsonian:

“We were trying to make it something which was a program in its own right, that was about something and yet had to carry with it–and this was the problem–all the different nations,” recalls Antony Jay, the writer recruited for the project. “And so we decided to make population growth–which was one of those preoccupations, like global warming is now–a kind of theme of it. We wanted something to try to capture the maximum audience at the beginning, so we thought: Let’s have babies. Typical bit of meretricious television programming, but it gave us a way of getting into it.” The program would begin by attending the births of various children in hospital delivery rooms around the world, then examine the world into which they had arrived. It would consider population growth and the means of supporting people on the planet, and also delve into the worlds of culture and science.

Looked at today the programme has an almost apocalyptic obsession with population growth, with a ticking metronome featured at several points (each representing three new births) and diagrams underlining how little space there will soon be for each of us on the planet. The graphics of the programme, created with screens, projections and models in a huge, wonderfully-lit studio at Television Centre, are one of the glories of the programme, achieving a brilliantly distinctive “look” and facilitating story-telling of great economy. It came as no surprise to see a closing credit to the great television designer Richard Levin.

The content of the programme is for much of the time subservient to the self-reflexive celebration of being able to bring the world together by technology, and certain sections are little more than prosaic reports about the departure of the first tram of the day from a depot in Melbourne, a swimming world record attempt in a pool in Alberta, and an unintentionally hilarious and also rather desperately sad section about life in the modernist utopia of Cumbernauld. But each of these components was done as a live electronic outside broadcast, and reflection on that constantly reinforces a sense of wonder.

At the same time there are a number of sequences astonishing because of their specific content. The Beatles and George Martin recording All You Need is Love at Abbey Love Illustrated above) is perhaps the best-known, but there is also Wolfgang Wagner rehearsing Lohengrin on the stage at Bayreuth with a full orchestra and a vast chorus. Here too is Franco Zeffirelli and cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis shooting a scene of Romeo and Juliet in a Tuscan church with Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey and Milo O’Shea. Leonard Bernstein is in there too, as are Alexander Calder and Joan Miro at the Fondation Maeght in the south of France.

I found it completely absorbing, both for its picture of what 1967 was like around the world and for what I can only call its innocence. Soon after this, with the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the 1970 World Cup, we would quickly accept live pictures from around the world as entirely natural. We would become blasé about international spectacles made possible by satellite, such as Live Aid in 1985. But here the new sense of wonder evoked by seeing a baby born just then in Japan or a deep space signal picked up at that moment by a radio telescope in Australia was genuinely moving.

What struck me most perhaps was the programme’s fascination with the processes of its own production, and in this as well as other aspects it struck as one of the purest examples of television as ‘technological sublime”. The idea originally comes from Leo Marx and was developed by David E. Nye in his 1996 book from MIT Press American Technological Sublime. Nye quotes the OED definition of the sublime and suggests that this can be applied to the Golden Gate Bridge or the launch of a space shuttle just as much as it can be associated with the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls:

Of things in Naure and Art, affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspite awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion by reason of its beauty, vastness or grandeur.

Which is most certainly what, as a product of technology, Our World aspires to, and for my money achieves in a way that precious few television broadcasts do. There is so much more to say about the transmission – and I dearly hope that it can be made more generally available, at least as an object of scholarly study – but here’s a quote from Nye about the sublime which, while it might seem hyperbolic, sees to apply without too much of a stretch to Our World:

One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. The sublime tap into fundamental hopes and fears… [I]t is an essentially religious feeling, aroused by the confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the earth-shaking launch of a space shuttle… In a physical world that is increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men with transcendent significance.

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