Planets and (TV) Universes

blue-planet-ii

An eel diving into a lake at the bottom of the ocean? A fish with a bulbous transparent forehead so that it can see upwards and backwards? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? No – just two of the many startling sights from the latest edition of Blue Planet II (BBC1, Sundays), delivered from the deepest blue ocean to our bonfire-night living rooms in close-up and glorious high-definition. Oh, and just for good measure, as well as showing us deep-sea creatures which looked like something out of Doctor Who or an advert for cooking with gas, this awe-inspiring hour of television hinted at the origins of life itself and the possibility of it existing elsewhere in our own solar system. This was the secondblue-planet-2-2017-fragman_10062808-14090_1800x945 in the series and the first was pretty spectacular, too – some of the shots of waves were as wonderful as those of the creatures under them and the surfing dolphins were brilliant.

Just as with Planet Earth II last year, and Life Story before that, we are getting the most spectacular new wildlife footage possible, shot using the latest equipment and techniques, the most significant of which is the use of small, resilient, remotely-controlled cameras. Digital technology allows the time and patience required to achieve the best shots, without the need to waste expensive film stock or the equally expensive time of the cameraman in the process.

The other thing which has changed is how natural history programmes and series are put together. The familiar, reassuring presence of Sir David Attenborough is the only remaining link with what has gone before. Just as the speed of light is the only constant ad_204471301in an expanding universe, so the presence of Sir David is the one thing you can rely on in the changing universe of TV natural history. I had the enormous privilege of working with him on a talk he gave as part of our TV documentary season at the BFI two years ago, in which, using the clips we researched and selected, he traced the development of the techniques of natural history programming from the earliest, studio-bound primitivism of the early 1950s to the filming of the landmark series Life on Earth (BBC, 1979), nearly all of which he had led or been personally involved in. His wonderful talk can still be seen on the BFI website here.

Life on Earth was the high watermark of natural history series in terms of both the quality of its images and the scope of its ambition: to explain the evolution of species in 13 parts. He followed this with a succession of brilliant variations on the theme, all designed to explore aspects of the natural world in more detail and all containing the trademark word “life” in the title: The Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Life of Birds (1998), The Private Life of Plants (1995) etc. Each one showcased even more spectacular advances in wildlife filming than its predecessor and, as widescreenLife on Earth (1979) and high-definition television systems arrived, so the familiar stories were re-told in higher quality, interspersed with whatever new animal behaviours had been found in the process.

Where, previously, footage had been sought to illustrate a chosen thesis, more recently it seems that each series is designed to showcase whatever spectacular footage has been obtained. Hence the “movie sequel” titling of series like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II. Now into his 90s, but miraculously still as vital and engaged as ever, Attenborough’s contribution is confined to an introductory piece to camera in the first episode of a series and a concluding one at the end of the last, plus, of course, reading the narration, which he no longer writes, though he does insist on having the final say on its contents. The last major thing Attenborough did which had a proper thesis was The Rise of the Animals in 2013 and that was actually an updating of Life on Earth, using state-of-the-art high definition graphics and revealing the results of the latest dinosaur excavations, which the then 87-year-old presenter climbed up a Chinese mountain to investigate. After a long lifetime of intrepid and memorable location work, he has certainly earned his place of comfort in the narrator’s chair.

But there are also fewer words now. The key element of the natural history programme today is music and the building blocks of each programme are self-contained sequences, usually containing dramatic confrontations between species. These are clearly designed as much to stand alone on video sharing and social media platforms as to constitute part of a programme and they often look like music videos. And the composers have been recruited from the worlds of TV drama and the movies: firstly Murray Gold, whose dramatic scores are such an integral part of Doctor Who; and more recently the renowned and prolific Hans Zimmer, the most relevant of whose numerous credits are probably Gladiator (for the animal “battle” scenes) and The Lion King (obviously!).

The music certainly makes the sequences highly dramatic and, because the style is associated with fiction and conveys emotions through association, could even be accused of having an anthropomorphic effect. It can also be used to provide sound effects where they do not otherwise exist, such as underwater. Some fish look very frightening, but they don’t roar, though music can suggest that they may be doing something similarly menacing. The letters page of the current Radio Times is full of predictable complaints about the use of music in Blue Planet II, but, for me, it has contributed massively to some fantastic sequences: one thinks of the barnacle goslings leaping from the cliff in Life Story, grippingly scored by Murray Gold and embedded here (though only in part – the whole sequence lasts about 10 minutes and is well worth checking out); and, of course, the iguana hatchlings escaping the marauding snakes in Planet Earth II. And, for humour, the flamenco dancing spider in Life Story is hard to beat.

One other recent development is also worth noting – the ten-minute “making of” sections at the end of each programme, which provide transparency where there may previously have been distrust as to how the programme makers may be manipulating their footage (remember the polar bear cub?). But, if you look back at the clips selected by Sir David Attenborough for his talk at the BFI, you will find that the most significant milestones in the development of natural history programming were similarly up-front about how the filming was done. The evolution of natural history programming on TV is, after all, a great story in its own right.

Trouble in Store (TV not for keeps)

BBCStore

You may have realised from the headers on this site that I am an avid collector of television and film on DVD and Blu-ray. I’m often asked, not least by my wife, why our shelves are so full of these things and, moreover, why I keep buying more of them, when so much is available online or through TV subscription services. The answer came by e-mail at the beginning of this month, though I was aware it was on the way. On 1st November, the BBC Store, designed both to unlock the treasures of their archive and (ultimately, I assume) replace the distribution of BBC productions on home video formats, was closed down.

I always regretted the move away from home video release – as a former archivist, I knew that the only sure way of knowing you had something was having it on a shelf (I would certainly never have trusted the cloud, as some archives do). But I had got used to buying music as files rather than physical objects (and, indeed, I enjoy the flexibility of use that gives me) so I was resigned to the fact that it would have to apply to film and TV titles in future and I have downloaded movies and TV from iTunes where it has been the only source of things I wanted, such as the films of Henry Jaglom or the US release version of Kubrick’s The Shining. OK, I know I could get a dual-format player and import discs of these titles, but that’s not the case with Louis CK’s instant AmericanHoraceAndPete classic Horace and Pete, which was originally only downloadable from his website (which is how I bought it) and has never been released on disc.

In these cases, the files I purchased have been capable of being moved around and I have copied them from my PC to my iPod for security against machine failure. But buying files from the BBC Store was different – they couldn’t be moved and you had to download a special app on which to keep and play them. With the closure of the Store, this has gone, too. So, the prospect of buying and downloading titles to “own” (as indicated in the publicity still at the head of this post) was basically a con (though I’m sure they will have covered themselves against this accusation in the terms and conditions – who knows? Nobody reads them). Buying from the BBC Store was not buying for keeps – just a long-term loan (and not so long, as it turned out).

ddare1To be fair, the BBC are refunding money spent on purchases, so this must be an expensive mistake for them and one which has set back the aim of unlocking the archive. Which is such a shame, because there was some great stuff there and the promise of much more to come. For me, the collection of previously unreleased Dennis Potter plays was the main attraction – I had downloaded some of them and was planning on getting more when the axe fell. I’m not sure we will ever see them released on DVD or Blu-ray, but I can hope. The same goes for several recent series which were only ever available on the Store. Top of my list would be the first season of Stefan Golaszewski’s wonderful Mum – hopefully the imminent arrival of season 2 may prompt its release.

Opening up public access to the BBC Archive, which I worked at for ten years and with for a further thirty, has long been a source of both promise and frustration. I remember Greg Dyke, when he was Director General, getting up at the Edinburgh TV Festival and promising that the archive would be thrown open to all, but all that materialised in the end was a handful of wildlife footage. The idea that we, the license payers, “own” past BBC content because we paid for it is understandable but misconceived. What we paid for was a professional and creative organisation which made the things we enjoyed watching by entering into contracts with talent, who still own their individual shares of the intellectual property in the material, making it expensive to release to the public (which is why we got the wildlife – animals have no intellectual property rights though they do, we are often told, have “talent”). I imagine the limitations on how things were distributed through the Store, which I am complaining about here, may have had something to do with rights questions, as the prices were cheaper than they would have been for DVDs, even taking the cost of manufacture out of the equation.

Anyway, the e-mail that erstwhile BBC Store customers received states that “the BBC is currently exploring ways by which archive programmes can be viewed” and “we do hope to make the programmes you could only get on BBC Store available elsewhere at some point in the future”. Plus ca change……

And, while I‘m on the subject of the home video industry, I might as well air another, possibly related aspect that is also pissing me off and that is the unavailability of certain titles, film and television, in Blu-ray formats when they are being newly released on DVD, especially here in the UK. I don’t think this is a question of manufacturing costs, as Blu-rays are clearly being made for other region B/2 countries in many cases and that isUtopia where I am being increasingly forced to source them. In recent months I have received deliveries from amazon.de (the second season of Channel 4’s Utopia), amazon.fr (Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, not released here at all – and I am currently awaiting a Blu-ray of Malick’s Song to Song from I know not where, but at double the price of the DVD version amazon.co.uk were offering) and, increasingly, from Australia (the second and third seasons of HBO’s visually splendid The Leftovers, plus Ken Burns’ The War – his Vietnam War seems only available on DVD outside the US, but, in that case, it’s OK because of the provenance of most of the footage – see my previous blog on this series). Could it be that we are being subtly nudged towards the use of streaming and subscription services by the absence of the best quality materials on disc? Certainly the BBC, as well as Channel 4, has failed to issue some of its best recent productions on Blu-ray in the UK. Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman was initially and for a long time only available on DVD and I bought it, only for the Blu-ray to subsequently appear, which was doubly frustrating!

Keeping a home audio-visual collection is subject to the same principles as professional ones: you can’t just put things on shelves, or into file servers, and leave them there – effort and expense must be incurred to ensure replay machinery is maintained or software is up-to-date and, in these cases, we are all at the mercy of technology companies, themselves always keen to force the consumer and the professional alike towards the next thing. But, given the choice between files and discs, it’s the latter for me for film and TV. Better stockpile some players, though.

Four Yorkshiremen hit 50 (comedy, not cricket)

 

Who’d have thought, 50 years ago, I’d be sitting here writing a blog about what is still the greatest TV comedy sketch ever? That’s my opinion, of course, and nothing divides opinion quite like comedy.

There are plenty of lists of the greatest ever sketches and the results differ wildly (especially depending on whether the lists or polls are of British or American origin), and recent hits sometimes usurp the greats (Little Britain’s Lou and Andy topped the Channel 4 poll), but there are certain classics which feature quite regularly. The Dead Parrot, the One-Legged Tarzan and Two Soups usually make an appearance, as well as a much-loved routine by the Two Ronnies – you know the one. But in my humble estimation, the Ronnies couldn’t hold a candle to the sketch that would top my list – in fact they couldn’t hold FOUR candles to it. That sketch was first broadcast exactly 50 years ago tonight, on the 31st October 1967, though it has become such a classic that it has been performed by different casts on different occasions down the years and is regularly wrongly associated with a different show to the one it premiered in.

at-last-the-1948-show-20050930031415462The Four Yorkshiremen sketch first appeared as the last item of the 6th edition of the second series of At Last the 1948 Show, written and performed by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. The show featured sketches by members of the quartet, linked by a hostess – “the lovely” Aimi MacDonald. The final sketch of each show usually featured all four writer/performers. Which of them actually wrote the Four Yorkshiremen sketch was long a matter of dispute, though it seems that Tim came up with the original concept and he was given a credit of thanks for it on the recent Monty Python re-union shows.

But what makes this sketch so special? Of course, it is hilariously funny and the performances are brilliant, but what else? What makes it such a great experience, no matter how many times you have seen it? And why is this, original performance so much better than the ones which followed? For a start it is beautifully structured – almost musical. I would compare it to a string quartet playing a series of variations, like the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. It starts with a few short comments which gradually lengthen into these wonderful exaggerated reminiscences which are repeated in style and elaborated in content as they are passed around the four performers, each echoing and then outdoing the previous contributor. The four are actually seated like a string quartet – Cleese at first violin, Brooke-Taylor as second, Chapman on viola and Feldman as ‘cello. And the script is just so poetic, full of alliteration and echoes: “But it were ‘ouse to us”; “Corridor? We used to dream of livin’ in a corridor”. The direction by Ian Fordyce is brilliant too, full of close-ups and two shots and cut to the rhythm established by the script. Above all, the performances by all four are perfectly timed and judged.

yorkshiremen1_203x150The thing that has made this sketch seem such a classic is the fact that it has been re-performed many times, with different casts, usually as part of live theatre shows, particularly charity galas. it’s first stage outings were as part of Monty Python Live shows, first at Drury Lane (recorded in audio only), then at the Hollywood Bowl, which was filmed. Strangely, Cleese was not involved in that performance – Eric Idle taking his part. Chapman played the same role as he did in the original, with Michael Palin filling in for Brooke-Taylor and Terry Jones for Feldman. And so began the association with Monty Python’s Flying Circus which persists to this day, and it is regularly referred to as a Python sketch. Other performances followed in such events as The Secret Policeman’s Ball and Comic Relief, as well as the most recent Python re-union shows at the O2 referred to earlier, though none have come close to rivalling the perfection of the original, probably because the need to declaim in a theatre ruins the essential rhythm of the piece. Guest performers have included Rowan Atkinson and a revival for Amnesty inFour fundraisers 2001 featuring Eddie Izzard, Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Alan Rickman was more of a parody than a performance. More recently, the Four Fundraisers sketch for Comic Relief starred Izzard, John Bishop, David Walliams and Davina McCall trying to outdo each other with their tales of the remarkable things they had done for charity (of course, the sketch is introduced with the Monty Python theme!). You can see them all on YouTube, together with countless amateur versions and even one in Hungarian! (hopefully not a misleading translation).

And the Four Yorkshiremen was not the only 1948 Show sketch re-cycled in other shows. One even turned up in Monty Python’s Fliegende Zirkus (the show the Pythons did for German TV), while Marty Feldman revived the wonderful Bookshop Sketch and a few others in his own show, Marty, for the BBC. Cleese and Atkinson also performed a version of the Beekeeper sketch on stage.

But there’s another major reason why the stage performances usurped the original and the association with Python was cemented – the recording of the 1948 Show in question, along with most of the other editions, was lost for many years. In addition, the show had only been seen in its complete form in the ITV London (Rediffusion) area. Fortunately, that was where I lived and, being a massive devotee of TV comedy in the sixties, I never missed it (I also bought the album of sketches from the first series and bored people by reciting them word-for-word at any opportunity). When I joined the BFI archive in 1988, one of the first things I did was search the Rediffusion collection, which the archive had acquired, for copies of the show and was disappointed to find only two had survived. Then, in 1990, Dick Fiddy, my friend and colleague at the BFI, told me he had heard rumours that there were some copies of the show in Sweden. So, at that year’s gatheringSVT_logo of the International Federation of Television Archives I approached Sten and Lasse from SVT and asked them if they had any knowledge of this. “Oh, yes”, they replied, “we have them. We bring them out every Christmas for a laugh”. They promised to send me copies and confirmed that they had five shows, but when they arrived they turned out to be compilations of sketches from both series, edited together for international distribution, rather than original programmes. The Four Yorkshiremen sketch, however, was there and we showed it at the National Film Theatre. Shortly after that, Dick, Veronica Taylor and myself foundedmbw the BFI’s Missing, Believed Wiped campaign to search for lost British TV shows and At Last the 1948 Show has been one of the great successes. Copies of the shows have come back from private collectors, from overseas (ABC Australia) and from the archive of David Frost (who was Executive Producer). There are now only three of the 13 shows which are incomplete, and the search goes on for those.

1948 showAnd the existence of the telerecordings allows a long-overdue re-evaluation of the show itself, which until now has been seen mainly as just a pre-cursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but deserves recognition as a true classic in its own right. Python was more formally innovative and had the greater impact, but the 1948 Show is more consistently funny across its 13 editions. John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Aimi MacDonald have all enthusiastically joined in the screenings of the recovered shows and Cleese notes in his autobiography, So, Anyway (Random House, 2014) that he was delighted and surprised at just how good the material was when he got to see it again. The 1948 Show also beat Python to the use of a well-known phrase now indelibly associated with the latter: the words “and now for something completely different” were first spoken by Aimi MacDonald in one of her links between the sketches.

So, please join me in raising a passable glass of Chateau de Chasselas in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Four Yorkshiremen – undoubtedly the greatest TV comedy sketch of all time. But try telling Two Ronnies or Little Britain fans that – will they believe you?

I’ll give it five

the-deuce

There is just too much on TV to keep up with it all, especially when it comes to long-form drama, so how and when do you decide to stop watching something you thought was going to be a regular viewing fixture for yourself? In my first blog on this site, I mentioned that I had given up on The Handmaid’s Tale after 5 episodes, despite the positive reactions I had read from critics I greatly respect. Since then, it has won multiple Emmys, so did I get it wrong? I ask that question now because I am facing the same dilemma with another highly regarded piece – David Simon’s The Deuce (HBO), which reaches its 5th episode on Sky Atlantic tonight. It’s make or break time for me.

Like Handmaid, The Deuce started really impressively and had me hooked. In both cases, a very specific world was conjured onto the screen in magnificent detail. The Deuce was actually the more impressive in this regard, as the world it was creating was a real place at a real historical time (New York in the early 1970s). And, unlike Handmaid, The Deuce quickly established strong and recognisable characters to populate this world. But then it stalled, as though it had already done enough. One of the great attractions of modern TV drama to talented writers and directors, it is often said, is the scope for creating characters with great depth and developing them over a long period of time. This is certainly true. Establishing complex characters quickly was always a rare gift in both film and TV (Jimmy McGovern can do it – so can Sally Wainwright), but the long form also gives the opportunity to withhold information about characters and surprise the audience with it at a later stage. But it does seem that, in many series, this has now become the main purpose, at the expense of plot dynamic and development – and it’s not enough to keep me watching, especially when there is so much other wonderful stuff, both past and present, clamouring for attention.

Hill Street BluesNow don’t get me wrong. I have happily followed many series primarily because of engagement with the characters. I never missed an episode of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue. These, though, could be relied upon to provide constantly engaging and occasionally startling narratives and, as dramas with contemporary settings, had scope for re-invention. And, although they had their high points, those series never failed to deliver, even when past their best – unlike, say, Homeland, another series I have watched throughout, despite several very rocky seasons until its more recent revival (I thought the last season, dealing with the Presidential transition, was the best since the brilliant first season – maybe even better than it).

One crucial aspect seems to me to be whether a series has an end in sight or whether it simply intends to continue until either its creators feel it can go no further or its audience wearies of it. If the latter, then it needs to be constantly refreshing itself – if the former, then it needs to maintain a high-level of engagement, as, for instance, Breaking Bad did. I would imagine The Handmaid’s Tale has an end in sight, as it is based on a novel which has already been made into a film for the cinema, so extending it beyond this series was one of the reasons I gave up, but maybe I will need to go back to it if it completes a satisfactory journey over a number of seasons and continues in high critical regard. The Deuce, on the other hand, looks set for a long haul without necessarily knowing where it is going. This approach strikes me as similar to the way Dickens created his novels (and I’m not – I have to confess – a massive Dickens fan). A series which has its origins in a novel (or a series of novels) does not necessarily have to keep the end of the novel in sight, though. Game of Thrones has adapted new novels in thegame of thrones series as George R.R.Martin has written them. Much the same is happening on a smaller scale with Wolf Hall (and we already KNOW how that will end!). Most interestingly, The Leftovers adapted Tom Perrotta’s complete novel in its first season, with the novelist as co-screenwriter, and continued and completed the story this way in seasons 2 and 3, but without any further novels appearing.

So, how can you tell what will be worth following and what to give up on? Well, you can’t for certain, and that’s the point and part of the fun – not knowing if it will be good or bad, as well as not knowing if the ending, if there is to be one, will be happy or sad or something in-between. The question you ask yourself is: “Is this a place I want to stay in?”. In the days before the introduction of the story arc, this was easier, though the engagement factor with individual episodes was an important consideration. I have made plenty of errors, particularly with The Sopranos, though the scope which now exists for revisiting and redeeming those mistakes makes them easier to make, and I’m really looking forward to redeeming that particular error. On the other hand, I think I got it right when I gave up on Boardwalk Empire, though that took me into the second season before I realised how essentially hollow it was.

So far, I have been talking mostly about American series, but is this a mainly American thing? It certainly used to be, but the model has been creeping into British TV for some considerable time now. The British drama model used to rely more on what are now called mini-series (i.e. single series dramas with a contained plot) rather than returning ones. But you always knew which were intended to be which. Nowadays, the influence of the American model means that what would previously have been a single series drama may well return, if either the writer hopes to extend it or the broadcaster wants more of something that has been a big hit. The use of the singular “writer” is key here, because the British TV tradition of the writer working alone on a series is still the usual pattern (though there are exceptions), but it is not best suited to the American model. As a result, I think there have been more failures than successes.

broadchurchExhibit A is Broadchurch, which I would remember as one of ITV’s great recent dramas if it had ended where it should have, after what became the first season. But a series which is both a major commercial and critical success is something TV cannot resist trying to replicate, and I was so disappointed by the way the second season stretched credibility in order to perpetuate itself, that I gave up on it. I made it all the way through the second season of The Fall (BBC2), which I thought was excellent until the final seconds of the final episode but the lack of a conclusive ending and the subsequent attempt to stretch it further so alienated me that I resolved to avoid the third season. Did anybody watch it? Was it any good? There have been some successes, though: Happy Valley came back just as strong for its second season and Peaky Blinders found the missing ingredient that Boardwalk Empire lacked.

So, it’s back to David Simon. The Wire achieved greatness by making each season distinctive – like each one was a mini-series of its own. Treme was good (and had terrific music performances) but ultimately became somewhat aimless. Show Me a Hero was a wonderful mini-series, which managed to make housing policy in Yonkers in the eighties gripping over 6 episodes. Which way will The Deuce go?

Perspectives on The Vietnam War

BurnsA new series by Ken Burns is always a major event and The Vietnam War (currently playing on Mondays on BBC4) is certainly the most significant thing he (together with his collaborator, Lynn Novick) has produced for quite some time. Any documentary series on that war was always going to attract criticism from various quarters, and, though the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, the series does have its detractors. The tag-line “there is no single truth in war” indicates Burns and Novick’s approach, but will no doubt be regarded as a get-out clause by those with their own agendas on the subject. For me, it is one of the best things he has done and my sole regret is that the BBC is only giving us half of it – the so-called “international version”, with each episode reduced to 55 minutes – just as they did all those years back with The Civil War. The good news is that the full version will be available on DVD at the end of the month, though at a hefty price (I sense a stitch-up here).

The angle I want to consider in this blog is the use, or more specifically, the presentation, of archive footage in Burns’ work and other documentaries. Unsurprising, really – I spent my professional career involved in archival preservation, the supply of material for re-use and the critical consideration of new documentaries using archival material. And I say specifically “presentation”, because I’m not talking here about the correct identification of footage and its appropriateness to illustrate the points being made, but rather the technical and aesthetic aspects of how it is used, above all the aspect ratio in which it is shown. It’s something of a hobby-horse of mine and, even at this distance, I can still hear the groans of my fellow Peabody Board members every time I brought it up!

Now, I don’t want this blog to become like an academic-style paper. I’ve already done that a couple of years ago in a piece called Archive Footage in New Programmes: Presentational Issues and Perspectives, for the e-journal on European Television History called View, and you can still read it at  http://viewjournal.eu/archive-based-productions/archive-footage-in-new-programmes/ if you care to, though I will re-cycle a few of the points I raised in that piece.

When the shape of the TV screen changed from 4:3 to 16:9 around the turn of the millennium and historical documentaries began to be made in widescreen formats, the inclusion of material from television archives, as well as actuality film and feature films shot in the academy ratio caused a problem because it did not fit the new screen shape. There were three possibilities: 1 – cropping the image to fit the screen; 2 – stretching the image to fit the screen; or 3 – showing the image in its original ratio, either with part of the screen left black or some sort of framing device. As an archivist, concerned with preserving and re-showing materials as they were originally intended to be seen, I have always preferred option 3 and have regarded option 2 as anathema.

Ken Burns has tended to employ option 1 and has done it so well that I am completely won over to his approach. Having established the so-called “Ken Burns effect” by scanning across beautiful monochrome photographs, he can hardly be taken to task for doing something similar with moving image materials. Too often, “cropping” is done with little regard for composition, resulting in ugly images where the tops of people’s heads are cut off, for example, but Burns has always ensured that the integrity of each image is retained. This takes time and is expensive. In a production where archive is not a major part of the budget, corners will be cut, but with Burns archive is the point and he treats it accordingly. And the results can be stunning – nowhere more so than in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS, 2014), which contained a wealth of beautifully presented stills and 35mm footage.

But it was not just Burns which won me over to the use of cropped footage – it was time. cold warThe first major widescreen historical documentary series, Jeremy Issacs’ Cold War (Turner/BBC, 1998) came as something of a shock. It wasn’t just that parts of the 4:3 images were being lost – it was that their very nature seemed to be changed. According to the shorthand of the medium, widescreen images were associated with the cinema, so factual material was being made to look fictional, it seemed to me. This had already been done in the cinema itself, in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988), but not in documentary. Indeed, it was the rapid growth of the “cinematic” documentary (designed for cinema release or festival showcasing in the first instance, but ultimately intended for TV or home video), which normalised the practice and made it ubiquitous.

However, I have also noticed a more recent trend towards the use of original ratios, as film makers realise that the audience is sophisticated enough not to be worried about changes to the screen shape and that they can use it to indicate shifts in time without having to include that in commentary or on captions. One of my favourite Sondheimdocumentaries in terms of its use of TV archive material is James Lapine’s Six by Sondheim (HBO, 2013), in which a large number of interviews with the Broadway composer are intercut, all retaining their original ratios and framed in the shape of contemporary television sets, which conveys the impression of the subject’s consistent brilliance at different points in his career, without the need to signpost dates or provenance. Similarly, Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx (HBO, 2015), uses TV archive material from the 1980s to the 2000s carefully framed within the high-definition 16:9 frame and often with “blurred” top and bottom edges to convey a constantly shifting time frame (including material from the brief hybrid 14:9 era, when that ratio was used as a compromise during the transition from 4:3 to 16:9).

Indeed, it has been the increasing use of specifically television archive material, as the TV era morphs from “the recent past” into “history” and the rolling 50th anniversary-fest reached the sixties, which has driven this development. This is the first time Ken Burns has made a major series where his primary source of archive material has been television archives and he has come up with some interesting approaches to its use. Much of it is grainy and shaky 16mm and some of it is video, but Burns has applied his usual care to its transfer. In the fifth episode he introduced a new concept by showing some material on a period TV set before cutting to a cropped version of the same extract. The main aim of this device was to illustrate how the war was being perceived back home, but it also allowed for a “correct” perspective on the framing of the original IMG_0395material. The use of period TV screens to showcase old footage is nothing new, but Burns makes dramatic use of it by filling the 16:9 screen to the very edges with the image of the 60s TV set, thus transforming your TV into one from the period, so that you experience the broadcast as it first happened.

So, I am encouraged by the way so many great documentaries now treat archival footage, but, unfortunately, one can still come across instances where footage is distorted to fit the screen size, particularly when haste, budget restrictions or simple indifference are factors. The worst recent example of this was a couple of weeks ago, when BBC4 transmitted Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) in the context of the fascinating new films commissioned to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The extracts in Kevin Macdonald’s introduction were correctly presented but the complete film itself was stretched to fill the screen (yes, I could have changed my screen’s settings, but that’s not the point). For me, presenting this documentary masterpiece in the wrong ratio is akin to misquoting Shakespeare or playing Beethoven in the wrong key. I certainly expect better of BBC4.

A couple of final observations on The Vietnam War: the closing credits contain a disclaimer I have not seen before, which reads “Some archival materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators” – of course, this is always true, but it is interesting to note that Burns and Novick felt it necessary to state it, and it would be even more interesting to know which materials they are referring to (maybe the DVD set will clarify this); and I enjoyed the ending to episode 5, which involved a fade to black, followed by the unmistakable jangling opening to The Stones’ Paint It Black, with the credit “Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick” appearing precisely on the first drum beat. Homage to Full Metal Jacket? Has to be. Outstanding!

Credits where they are due

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Returning to Netflix recently after not having viewed there for a while, I was delighted to discover that they have changed their policy on the presentation of end credits. Whereas, previously, the end credit sequence would be squeezed into a box so small as to render it illegible, while the rest of the screen was devoted to encouraging you to watch the next episode or something else, the default position is now to move you directly to the next episode unless you select the “watch credits” option, in which case they are presented full-screen. This is what I would expect and hope for from a subscription service and the previous policy had come as a great disappointment.

Does this really matter? Well, to me it does, yes, and not just because I have always had an interest, both professional and general, in reading the names of those involved in the production I have just seen. Just as a good opening titles sequence sets the mood for what is to follow (and I never fast-forward through it, no matter how many times I may have seen it), so a thoughtfully composed end credits sequence gives us time to reflect on what we have just seen, as well as maybe commenting on it with a well-chosen piece of music (a comparatively recent development, this, though one which can be traced back to Our Friends in the North and beyond).

At the BFI, we collected a lot of programmes for the archive by recording them as they were transmitted, including all the “ephemeral” material around them, so I was particularly concerned about the exact nature of what we had acquired. Looking back at some of these recordings for a conference we held to mark the 25th anniversary of Channel 4 in 2007, I was struck by the funereal pace of many of the end credit sequences in the 1980s. But it was Channel 4 which first essayed the interruption of end credits for promotional purposes in this country, when it used the closing of the arts strand Without Walls to promote the following week’s programme. With the deregulation of commercial television in the early 1990s, came the introduction and rapid adoption of the voice-over promotion during end credits, designed to tell you what is coming up and dissuade you from changing channels, and it was enthusiastically copied by the BBC, who didn’t mind too much if you changed channel, as long as it was to another BBC one.

Fast ShowAnd it was mostly on the BBC that some shows (it seemed to me) started to fight back against this cultural vandalism. The Fast Show interrupted its end credit sequence with its trademark brief sketches, Tony Garnett’s The Cops used police radio chatter instead of a closing theme tune (difficult to talk over) and the medium-savvy Charlie Brooker directly challenged the BBC to interrupt his closing sequence on one of his “Wipe” shows (which they did, in good humour of course). Over on Channel 4, Chris Morris left the end credits off Jam entirely, replacing them with a web address where he had posted them (jamcredits.com – though you won’t find them there any more, just a commercial for how to build your own website).

By and large, though, programme endings were ruined without discrimination. One that I remember particularly was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Extras. Each programme ended with a moment of humiliation for Gervais’ character, Andy Millman, followed by a reflective pause, then the slow introduction to Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman – a beautiful ending, always ruined by the continuity announcer’s voice-over. Except on one occasion in the second series: the episode featuring a guest appearance by Chris Martin of Coldplay, playing, as was the convention of the show, an exaggerated version of himself as an egotistical control-freak. Instead of Cat Stevens’ recording of “Tillerman” closing the show, we got the same song performed by Martin. So, the jokeExtra's S2 was that Chris Martin was such an egotist he even insisted on singing the closing song himself. But the joke went even further, because there was no voice over to spoil it. Was the joke that Martin even insisted on singing uninterrupted by continuity? And did Gervais need to negotiate this with the BBC for it to work? Whatever, it only works in the context of every other end credit sequence in the series being interrupted – in other words the joke only works “live”, which makes it really ephemeral!

The “fightback” was short-lived, though. The BBC’s guidelines for the supply of programmes by independent producers soon made it clear that material of editorial significance or any speech should not be included in end credit sequences, a lamentable restriction on creative freedom by a public service broadcaster, and the current guidelines also take account of the most pernicious of the promotional developments: the squeezing of end credit sequences into small boxes in the corner of the screen. Many productions now use credits in larger lettering and still frames (rather than rolling credits) in an attempt to make them seen.

Now, I know that, in terms of credit information, it is all available if I care to look. Embedded metadata on many streaming services, such as Amazon, means that you only need to pause the frame to find out who the actors are or what piece of music is playing and there is plenty of information available on-line. There have been a few recent signs of improvement on broadcast TV, too. The BBC’s channels now allow the credits to IMG_0376occupy more half the screen, while Channel 4 splits it in half and has clearly asked its suppliers to provide programmes with credits which only run on the left side of the frame, so they are designed for this form of presentation rather than lost in the squeeze. ITV and Sky still regularly squeeze the credits into a quarter of the screen, though, and, of course, they all continue to use voice over.

There are also some other ways around the problem for obsessives like me: watching BBC programmes on i-player rather than on transmission is one (in Channel 4’s case it’s best to record, as the compulsory ad breaks on All4 are interminable); and, of course, for the programmes you want to keep, getting them on DVD or Blu-ray, which will give you the “definitive” version. I still cherish the complete experience of watching a programme from the beginning to very end. It was the same when I was a regular cinema-goer. I would never leave until the final credit had rolled, even when they turned on the lights and cleaners asked me to leave because the film “was over”. Oh no, it wasn’t!

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to be too grumpy just now, because CURB IS BACK! – a cause for true rejoicing, even if the end credits are spoiled.

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If you have been affected by the issues raised in this blog, get over it!

Watch and read/read and watch

As well as catching up on past TV gems and unwatched DVDs, I intended in my retirement to catch up on my reading, too, but most of the books I have been carrying around with me of late have been about….TV! I’d like to mention three of them here, more in a spirit of reflection and recommendation than review (it’s a bit late for that, anyway).

All three have clearly been inspired by the most recent developments in television, especially American television, and the first two seek to create a canon of greatness as a context for the current glut of quality. As someone who was closely involved in the creation of the BFI’s TV100, which sought to identify the top British TV shows from our perspective in 1999, I can appreciate the complex methodologies involved. I can also understand why American critics have chosen this moment to appraise the past. I can’t help thinking of the closing line of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic book 1066 and all That; a 1930 parody of jingoistic school history textbooks which was required reading when I was a history student half a century ago and which ends in 1918 with the statement that America was now clearly “top nation” and History came to a full stop. Well, we did our canon at pretty much the time when Britain’s reign as TV top nation was ending and America’s beginning, so it’s not surprising they are starting to crow about it now.

IMG_0373This is certainly the case with David Bianculli’s The Platinum Age of Television (Doubleday, 2016), which seeks to place the recent upsurge in quality material in the context of the evolutionary development of programming throughout the medium’s history and, as such, becomes pretty much a history of TV programmes in selected genres. In 1992, Bianculli published a wonderful and (for me) highly welcome book called Teleliteracy (Simon and Schuster), which was an argument for taking TV seriously as art but was, essentially, defensive, whereas the new book is flat-out celebratory (often referencing the same programmes). Bianculli identifies his Platinum Age as beginning in 1999, the year of The Sopranos and The West Wing, but sees it as a culmination of a progressive process and identifies what he sees as the key milestones from the previous 50 years. Each milestone programme is the subject of a short essay and the book also features profiles of, and interviews, with key creative personnel (including Matt Groening, David Chase, Vince Gilligan, Amy Schumer, David Simon, Louis C.K. and more), whose responses about what influenced them validate the choice of milestones and create a canon of 90 titles over 18 genres. The number of genres and sub-genres is impressive, especially in comedy (including a list of 5 key “single working women sitcoms”) but factual television is largely ignored – the only factual title to make the canon, Ken Burns’ Civil War, is awkwardly included under “miniseries”! A few British titles also get in, but only in the context of US transmission (understandably).

The structure of the book makes it very easy to dip in and out of, though Bianculli’s apparent aim of making each essay and profile a potential stand-alone piece does make it seem sometimes rather repetitive if you read it cover-to-cover. As a history of (American) television, it is obviously very strong on programming, but I have always contended that there are three strands to TV history: the technical, the organisational and the editorial, each of which affects the other two. Bianculli certainly links the editorial with the organisational, explaining how the growth of subscription services unlocked the ability to deliver real quality content, but pretty much ignores the technical. For me, one of the key developments enabling the Platinum Age was the introduction of the 16:9 screen and the move to high-definition formats. A word he often uses to describe ambitious dramas is “cinematic”, though without really explaining why that is the case, as well as why so many talents in the field of visual storytelling are preferring to work in TV rather than movies. It’s partly the expanded timescales for developing stories, but it’s also the shape and quality of the image.

I very much enjoyed reading The Platinum Age of Television and I regularly visit David Bianculli’s website,tvworthwatching.com to see what he and his collaborators are recommending, as it is one of the most reliable guides to quality TV.

IMG_0367Published at almost the same time in late 2016, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV (the Book) (Grand Central) covers much of the same ground. It is subtitled Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time”, which has the merit of making it clear that the rest of the world is excluded – I get a bit pissed off when just a handful of British and other non-US titles are included in American-dominated lists, as though that is all that is merited (don’t get me started on the Writers Guild of America list of the hundred “best written TV shows”!). Much else is excluded as well and the authors do a good job of explaining their meticulous methodology, and the reasoning behind it, upfront. In fact, the list of 100 “greatest” is confined only to drama and narrative comedy (i.e. sitcom). Not only that – miniseries are excluded also, though “one-season wonders” (which may have hoped to be renewed, but were not) are given special dispensation in the point-scoring process to be included. As a result, series of the significance of Roots or the quality of Band of Brothers don’t make the canon, while titles of considerably lesser quality and impact abound in the lower reaches, which seems rather perverse. The authors do list 20 miniseries in a separate chapter, and an impressive list it is too, which only emphasises the anomaly.

But let’s be fair – lists are always going to raise hackles and Sepinwall and Seitz are very open about the process and its limitations. And lists are fun, too – this one provides plenty of scope for some fine writing about the shows in question and in-depth critical analysis of why they matter and what makes one “better” than another. The fact that there are two critics arguing with each other as well as their audience adds to the sense of a debate well-articulated. Interestingly, despite the different scope and layout of the two books, there is only one title in the top 20 of Sepinwall and Seitz’s top 100 which is not also in Bianculli’s canon of 90, which makes for a major consensus, though there is plenty of divergence thereafter.

IMG_0366These books weigh in at almost 600 and just over 400 pages respectively. My third book is a mere 200 pages (and they are pretty small pages at that!), but contains plenty of engaging argument and memorable wit, because it is by the great Clive James. Now housebound because of severe illness, James has returned to the sort of TV criticism we enjoyed in his weekly Observer columns in the seventies. I remember staggering home under the weight of both the Observer and Sunday Times and their endless supplements, just so that I could read the TV columns by both James and Dennis Potter. James’ Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press, 2016) sees him catching up with the last two decades of TV output via box sets and streaming services, so again, many of the expected titles are covered, though this time with James’ inimitable comparative references to classical literature, movies, philosophy and so on – only he would cite Nietzsche, Camus and Bubbles from The Wire in the same sentence. He also takes in Scandinavian noir, feminist comedy and much more on the way, but the highlight of the book has to be the chapter on Game of Thrones, in which he spends almost as much time listing the reasons why he should never have watched the series as those why he finds it so compulsive, concluding that its spine is “the daring of its analytical psychology”.

All three books provide plenty of commentary on things you will have seen and plenty of compelling reasons to watch things you haven’t, or maybe didn’t even realise you needed to – and, with so much available, these are the best guides. For me, the inescapable conclusion from all three is that I absolutely MUST watch The Sopranos, in full, from beginning to end.