Up the Past

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Well, I promised that 63 Up (ITV) would form part of my next blog, so here we go. I also named it as a certainty for my running shortlist before I had seen a minute of it because of what it has been, which is an essential part of what it is now. It had already earned its place on my list, even though this edition did turn out to be a little less impactful than previous ones. It had a certain valedictory air, which may be because Michael Apted’s own advancing age makes him question whether he will be around to do it again inUnknown-2 another seven years’ time. Each participant was asked to comment on the original premise of the series – that a person’s character and life path is set at the age of seven – which gave an air of things being wrapped up, at least in the event that there is to be no more. Hopefully this will turn out to be a “just in case” precaution, but I think Apted needs to work out a way of letting it go on without him, because it is too important to let go until the last possible moment. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without Apted’s skill as a film-maker and as an interviewer, but maybe there could be just a small-scale studio get-together every seven years when he’s no longer around.

 

It also struck me that there seemed to be a lot more questions about the participants’ views of political events this time around – in particular, Apted was keen to ask many of them about their attitudes to Brexit. Given that several of them have moved abroad or have family or business connections overseas, while others see themselves as firmly British, this was a fruitful line of enquiry. It also spoke to questions of identity, which have characterised the series throughout.

 

Overall, the series has perhaps become a little predictable now. Tony’s story usually comes first, to hook you in, while Neil’s is last, to keep you watching to the end. The first death in the group, that of Lynn, was very well handled at the end of the middle part, Unknownwhile the grave illness of Nick was also saddening, but otherwise it seemed to be business as usual, though with less to report. The series has mirrored my own life throughout (I was eleven when it started) and “less to report” is pretty much where I am now, too – that’s the main condition of retirement. Coming back every seven years has also worked particularly well with people of this vintage, especially as it only became clear that would happen gradually – with the impact of social media, it wouldn’t be the same for people of later generations, because their lives would be too obviously impacted by their fame. That has happened a little bit in the Up series, but not enough to affect its trajectory.

 

Up is pretty reliable when it comes to the credibility of its participants’ testimony. This may be because it involves “ordinary people” who are not considering their own place in history or attempting to remember more than seven years ago. There have, however, been a number of recent documentaries I would like to mention here, which have relied on the memories of more famous people or have demonstrated how they can be distorted, in one case even deliberately.

 

Going back a couple of months, one of my very favourite documentaries of this year has to be John Bridcut’s Janet Baker: in her own words (BBC4) a wonderful and poignant portrait of one of this country’s greatest ever singers. Baker retired (suddenly) 30 years ago and is now 85 but comes across as incredibly lucid and eloquent as she looks directly into Bridcut’s camera and recalls her glory days. She is, of course, aided by a tremendous catalogue of recordings, both sound and vision. Her core repertoire, as well as the details of her life (she has been caring for her disabled husband for many years) makes theUnknown-3 overall impression very emotional and wistful. Bridcut has a tremendous capacity for filming people simply listening to music which speaks volumes without a word being uttered (he did much the same in his documentary on Herbert von Karajan a few years back). This is a documentary which speaks to me as directly as the Up series – I have most of the Baker recordings featured on my shelves and my years of discovering classical music coincided with Baker at her peak. It is one most definitely for the shortlist.

 

The five-part Thatcher: A Very British Revolution (BBC2), on the other hand, was a recent history told at a distance but by people with their own place in it to cement. Mind you, as John Nott pointed out at the start, not many of Thatcher’s first cabinet are left. There were three main witnesses, interviewed at length: Norman Tebbit, Bernard Ingham and Michael Heseltine (John Major was strangely absent) and, although they all had interesting stories to tell, they also all had their own spin to apply to them. There were some obvious parallels for today, especially with a Tory leadership campaign going on and Europe still dividing the party. Ingham’s incredulous “who would want to lead a Unknown-4Tory government?” was a highlight. There was also some great archival material, including Norman Tebbit’s rescue from the Brighton bomb which was broadcast live on BBC Breakfast Time and has, for a long time, remained un-repeated at his request. I remember watching it at the time and thinking what a striking piece of television it was – the stricken Tebbit, covered in dust and wearing only barely in-place pyjama bottoms, being slowly lowered from the rubble by many hands – a scene resembling Renaissance depictions of Christ’s descent from the cross. The series contained a number of such resonant sequences but, as a whole, contained very little which we didn’t know or which had not been covered in previous series.

 

Even further along the scale, Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix) is deliberately fictionalised documentary making, maybe recognising that attempting to present any sort of “truth” about this subject matter was both impossibleUnknown-5 and probably less fun. Dylan himself is certainly in on the joke and it may well have been his idea. But what the hell, it captures a time and a mood and gives us some fantastic concert footage. It is often said in relation to drama documentaries that they aim to present a “higher truth” when they do not necessarily stick to verifiable facts, and I guess that also applies when what is ostensibly a documentary contains “mockumentary” elements. Whatever, I certainly enjoyed it, but I don’t think it is in the same league as the same director’s No Direction Home (PBS, 2005)

 

Much more recent history was presented in Olly Lambert’s One Day in Gaza (BBC2) transmitted exactly one year after the events it depicts (except in America, where the usually estimable PBS series Frontline shamefully pulled it just before transmission and has yet to re-schedule it). This is a case where there is plenty of evidential footage but also many different “truths” about what happened. Lambert’s doc was very well constructed, with just the right balance of actuality and context. Some of that actuality was remarkably vivid and the drone footage gave it an epic feel. The slow reveals in the interviews (the mother clutching her dead son’s vest, the activist who had lost a leg) personalised the individual experiences of a chaotic situation. Olly Lambert has made a number of films in and about Gaza and obviously has good contacts and made great choices. As for its value as a piece of history, only time will tell, but for the present it is one of the best windows on the Israel/Palestine situation and a must for my shortlist.

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And that shortlist is growing long. It’s been a wonderful year so far. Next time I will update the list for my usual halfway report.

Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”

A few weeks ago, I was tagged to take part in one of those Facebook games where you have to create a cultural list over 10 days. It may be favourite books, it may be films or other things. In this case it was the TV programmes which “made me” – which I interpreted as being those with the greatest influence on my life, rather than my all-time top ten. I chose to take a chronological approach, spreading the choices fairly evenly across the decades, and explained my choice in each case. I am reproducing my posts below as I wrote them, partly because they make a reasonably coherent narrative, but mainly because there is so little currently on TV that I want to blog about, so I might as well re-cycle something I’ve already written. My first blog on this site, 11 months ago, was about last year’s “glorious summer” of great TV shows. This summer, by contrast, is a drought, both literally and televisually, so let me take you back through time instead…..

Day 1

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It’s November 23rd 1963 and the 10-year-old me is really at a loose end. Somebody important was shot in America yesterday and all my favourite Friday night programmes, even Bootsie and Snudge, were cancelled! Things aren’t much better today, but there’s a new programme starting at teatime which looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a go. That new programme, Doctor Who, expanded my imagination like nothing on television had done before. There was mystery and menace in every dark corner of the monochrome screen. I was hooked for the rest of the sixties, through the Hartnell and Troughton years (I still think Troughton is the best Doctor, though Capaldi came close). I rather drifted away from it after that, but then it became a professional concern when, as the BBC’s TV Archivist, I became involved in the search for missing episodes in the 1980s (with some success, including some of the earliest dalek episodes). And, of course, I’ve been a fan since it was revived by Russell T.Davies earlier this century. It is one of three titles on my list first transmitted in 1963/4 which have been with me throughout my life and are still going strong. I will post about the second one tomorrow but leave the third (which is very dear to me) until the end of my list.

Day 2

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Today’s choice is my TV equivalent of comfort food – a programme which I have watched (and occasionally fallen asleep in front of) most Saturday nights since I first caught the football bug in the mid-sixties (and that’s “soccer” to my American friends!). It’s a bug I have never shaken off – in fact, the infection becomes more severe with every passing year. Through it all, MOTD has been a constant – the familiar theme tune, the presenters (Kenneth, David, Jimmy, Des and Gary), the commentators (Motty), the pundits (Hansen, Shearer) the “goal of the month” competition. The quality of the coverage has developed, but the format stays much the same. It’s officially the longest running football programme in the world. My favourite period? – probably the seventies, when it was the closing part of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule. My favourite edition? – has to be the one when the Bees led the show thanks to an FA Cup upset over Premier League opposition. I just can’t wait until we reach the Premier League (as we will) and feature every week!

Day 3

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Today, “It’sssss…….” – the big one! The one programme which I would say “made me” more than any other. If I was doing this by importance rather than chronologically, this would be top. Just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook. You may have noticed – maybe not. But it doesn’t stop there. My entire world outlook is influenced by this show – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side. It hit me at exactly the right time, between reaching the end of my school days and going on to university. I was never one for going on street demos, but I did take part in a mass “silly walk” through the streets of Oxford. I had been a big TV comedy fan throughout the sixties, especially things like Not Only, But Also, but this was on a whole new level. At times, I laughed so much it was painful, and so much of it still gives that reaction. The first season was a revelation from the start, but the gradual development of the stream of consciousness style throughout that run is what made it so compelling. If I have a favourite sketch it may be the argument, which is pure poetry, as well as being one of the many Cleese/Palin highlights. So, time’s up….No it isn’t!

Day 4

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So, it’s late 1973 and I am into the final year of my degree in Modern History – there are some wonderful lectures by the great historian AJP Taylor on the Second World War. But then a mammoth TV documentary series arrives which presents the same serious history in a way that is so much more compelling and direct than any book or lecture could be. I’d like to tell you that, in that moment, I resolved to spend a life’s career working in film and television archives, but it wouldn’t be true. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and after I had embarked on that course some five years later, I never lost any opportunity to cite TheWorld at War as an inspiration. It remains the beacon in terms of the use of archive material – research, selection, correct presentation and attribution – something which became a bit of a professional obsession to me, to the extent that I would bore my fellow Peabody jurors to tears over it in later years. It was the work of many fine historians, writers and producers, but the guiding hand was that of a TV hero of mine – Jeremy Isaacs, who ran the programme department of Thames TV, one of our major commercial broadcasters, as though it were a PSB and then invented the ethos of Channel 4. I was fortunate to be the organiser of a 75th birthday tribute to him at the National Film Theatre in 2007 and spent many fascinating hours with him selecting and editing the clips for that event. The pitch-perfect narration by Olivier, the haunting score by Carl Davis – everything is right about TheWorld at War.

Day 5

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There had to be a Dennis Potter on my list. Yes, The Singing Detective is his masterpiece, but Pennies from Heaven is arguably the greater leap of imagination as to what could be done with a TV drama series and it does mean more to me personally. It was transmitted just a couple of weeks after I joined the BBC in 1978. I had immediately begun to take a closer interest than previously in the BBC’s output (after all, this was the material I was now handling every day) and a new Potter was a big event. I was mesmerised and immensely proud that I now worked for an organisation which could produce such a thing. I was pretty obsessed with exploring the art of film at the time, to the exclusion of most else, but here was a studio-based TV drama which could engage me, entertain me and make me think just as much, if not more, than the greatest cinema. The use of popular songs of the thirties, mimed by the actors to express the characters’ thoughts and hopes or as an ironic commentary on the narrative was revolutionary and never bettered. Thought for today: “Though things may not look bright, they’ll all turn out alright, if I keep painting the clouds with sunshine”.

Day 6

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I’ll say it up front. For me, this is the greatest TV drama series of them all. Some people will tell you it is a film – made on 35mm by a film director, Edgar Reitz – and, indeed, I first saw it in a cinema. But it was co-produced by TV companies, WDR and SFB of (then) West Germany and is clearly designed for television presentation in 11 parts of irregular length – the shortest under an hour, the longest almost two and a half – and, in that respect, it anticipates by 30 years the sort of thing now being produced for streaming platforms. Reitz went on to make 2 sequel series, a prequel and some spin-offs, but none of them matched the ambition and historical sweep of the original. Telling the story of a village in the Hunsruck from 1918 to the early 1980s, it is basically German history in the turbulent 20th century in microcosm, seen through the eyes of a number of ordinary families. There are elements of soap opera about it, which is partly what makes it so effective. Who will survive the war? How much did ordinary Germans know (or care) about the crimes of the Nazis? How did technological advances like radio, telephones, motorways and TV affect their lives? The trivial is given the same attention as the momentous, and the weight of memory accumulates. Some characters are played by several actors, others by the same one through the whole series, but you get closely involved with them all.

Day 7

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Having reached the period of my life when the assessment of the significance of television programmes was my professional concern, it becomes harder to isolate individual titles which had a particular effect on my attitudes, not because there are too few, but because there are too many. I choose The Royle Family because it pioneered the metamorphosis of the sitcom into the half-hour comedy/drama. It dispensed with the studio audience and the laughter track, even though it hardly ever left the single set – the front room of a Manchester terraced house – and relied on the brilliance of its writing and characterisation to capture you, to make you laugh, and sometimes to make you cry. Many of the programmes I most treasure from the last two decades owe it a debt – from Getting On and the work of Stefan Golaszewski to Fleabagand Detectorists. At a time when TV drama was reaching a new plateau by becoming cinematic, these programmes (and their US equivalents from Louie to One Mississippi), by virtue of their duration, expanded the dramatic and comedic possibilities of a purely televisual form. And, of course, the Royles constantly referenced TV itself because watching TV was what they were doing most of the time, just like those of us watching them. Post-modernism, my arse!

Day 8

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Today’s choice is for my daughter Hanna as well as myself. One of the joys of having a daughter with learning disabilities is the extended childhood, with the result that I have been watching programmes for kids for much longer than most parents – not only that, but many of the same things again, again, again – so that I have come to appreciate how well-crafted and subtle the best of them are. I have reached the stage when I am keenly anticipating the next offering from that crazy genius Andrew Davenport, but my two favourites have to be Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig. I chose Peppa because, whereas Charlie and Lola has wonderful visuals and music, Peppa has the better humour, which is firmly aimed at the kids but with the occasional wink towards the adult audience. It doesn’t moralise – just presents family and school life though animated animals. There’s even the occasional political satire, such as the school’s International Day, when Madame Gazelle (brilliant name) gets the children to dress up as different nationalities to promote peace and harmony, but they end up arguing over access to the sandpit. The voiceover artists include the Welsh contingent from Absolutely, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, plus the familiar tones of Brian Blessed, Andy Hamilton and others. And if I were to be asked which TV character I most identify with it would have to be Daddy Pig – a genial everyman constantly out of his depth and something of a British equivalent to Homer Simpson. I didn’t expect such a programme to become a big part of my life at this stage, but ultimately everybody loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Day 9

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So, there I was, six or seven years from the end of my career in television archiving/curation and drifting along happily towards retirement, doing much the same as I had for the last 25 years, when something wonderful happened. I was invited to join the Peabody Board of Jurors. Not only did this involve engaging with American TV in much, much greater depth than I had before, but also enhancing my critical approach in order to participate in the rigorous and exhilarating board discussions. It also coincided with an explosion of creativity in US output, both drama and documentary, driven by cable and online platforms. So, I got to see masses of marvellous programmes, many of which I either followed thereafter or caught up with in full, and The Leftovers has to be my favourite of them all. In the same way as another favourite recent drama, the French series Les Revenants, The Leftovers uses a supernatural event to explore questions of grief, love, relationships, spirituality and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. It appeals to atheists like me and believers alike because there are no answers but lots of questions, asked in the most strikingly imaginative and dramatic way possible. Max Richter’s score is outstanding and the acting and direction uniformly brilliant. The ending, appropriately after three series, is overwhelming and open to multiple interpretation, but I choose to let the mystery be.

Day 10

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This is the only thing I could have as my final choice. It reaches back to where I started (Seven Up was transmitted in 1964), but it justifies its place at the end of my chronology because it also represents the future – 63 Up is due to air next spring and I really can’t wait. To say this is a programme that “made” me doesn’t quite get it: it is me, just as it is countless others of my generation. Like a short-period comet, it returns every seven years and each return is more momentous than the last. I can find points of identification with every one of the participants, and they are only three years younger than me, so seeing their lives develop in parallel with my own and against the backdrop of the same social, political and technological changes, and regularly looking back on how they got to where they are, is an incredibly moving experience. Leaving seven years between each catch-up is a stroke of genius, because they can get back to normal lives away from the media spotlight (though their fame has impacted in some ways on some of them). We know there has been the first death among the group since the last visit, so it may start to get a little painful, but Michael Apted is the perfect intermediary – I wish him extreme longevity, so that he can go on making the series. I am very proud to have been part of the Peabody Board which gave the series an institutional award (the same year, coincidentally, that my first choice, DoctorWho, was similarly honoured). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is British television’s greatest achievement.

So, there you have it – three dramas, two comedies, two docs, two children’s programmes and one sports show to sum up TV’s influence on my life.