Too Much Information

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I’ve just hacked my way through all ten hours plus of Making a Murderer season 2 on Netflix and, a few revelations in the closing episodes apart, it was pretty tough going. There is nothing at all wrong (and plenty that is right) about making a programme or series about an injustice which is not corrected, or of exploring its effects on the families involved – such things can make for compelling documentary making, but there is a craft involved and simply throwing everything you can onto the screen isn’t it. Perhaps the makers were stung by criticisms of having left a few key elements out of the original and were determined not to be caught out again, but, if so, they go way, way too far. The main subject of the series is the law’s delay (remembering that “the law’s delay” was one of Hamlet’s favourite reasons “not to be”) and we are certainly made to experience it first-hand.

 

But how did we get to this situation? I think there have been a number of developments in documentary making which have made the excessive nature of Making a Murderer 2 pretty much inevitable. The 1970s and 80s saw a fundamental shift, traceable in the two previous decades, away from the cinematic documentary and towards television, which became the production powerhouse for the form and the place where innovative work was made. The standard length for a TV documentary, exemplified in Britain by strands like Tuesday’s Documentary, Omnibus or Horizon, was 50 minutes, but the BBC’s influential series 40 Minutes (1981-94) was based on the notion that the titular imagestimeframe was the ideal length for the sort of observational pieces it featured. At the same time, subjects requiring lengthier treatment, such as the history of western civilisation or World War II, were organised into series, while investigative work was the province of current affairs programming or special strands like Pilger (ITV). Lengthier single documentaries tended to remain the province of the cinema, and of master film makers like Fred Wiseman or Marcel Ophuls, but they were rare, while Werner Herzog and his American protégé Errol Morris kept the shorter cinematic non-fiction form alive.

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The craft of documentary making included the conveying of complex realities in as economic a way as possible and of choosing illustrative shots to express inner emotions or states of mind (the idea of “a picture telling a thousand words”). The good documentary maker was the one who managed to interpret the real world on our behalf by filming key moments and editing them together to make an effective story, whether a point of view was being expressed or not. As it happened, economy of scale was also what the companies who employed the documentary makers were looking for – film stock was expensive (and most documentaries were made on film until the 1990s), so the best film makers from the broadcaster’s financial viewpoint were those whose shooting ratios were low.

 

Several factors then changed the documentary landscape. The turn of the century saw a revival in the feature length documentary for the cinema, coinciding with the introduction of widescreen televisions, and the convergence of these two strands led to the production of a large number of prestige feature-length documentaries, many of them international co-productions, which premiered theatrically at festivals and then screened on TV in strands like HBO Documentaries, Independent Lens on PBS, Storyville on the BBC and True Stories on Channel 4. Though 90 minutes was the standard length, some ran to two hours or sometimes (much) more and, while many justified extended durations through the quality of their material and their construction (Spike Lee’s documentaries on the Katrina disaster spring to mind), too many overstayed Unknown-1their welcome and stretched their material beyond its optimum timeframe. Far too few displayed the kind of economy which had previously been seen as a virtue – one of my favourite documentaries of recent years was Kyoko Miyake’s 2014 production Brakeless, which considered all aspects of a disastrous Japanese train crash, investigated its causes, explained it in historical and industrial contexts, explored its impact on survivors and relatives and confronted those responsible: every angle being given due and adequate attention and the whole thing being wrapped up in under an hour.

 

In the meantime, the main development in factual television from the late 1990s was the introduction of what became known as the “docusoap”, in which an observational style was used to present the ongoing lives of a group of individuals. One of the first was Unknown-2Driving School (BBC, 1997), but the style was not completely new – Paul Watson’s The Family (BBC, 1974), one of the most famous “fly on the wall” documentaries, anticipated it by a quarter of a century. But the big difference was that The Family was made on film. The introduction of lightweight video cameras in the 1980s, which had such a massive impact on news and current affairs, did not immediately impact documentary, which, as prestige authored production, continued mostly to use film, but when video became the norm for documentary, firstly in the era of docusoap and then for the so-called “fixed rig” programmes, the impact was massive.

 

And here we come to the most important change: videotape was much cheaper than film and the tapes could be re-cycled after the programme was edited, so the shooting ratio equation mattered less, while the greater length of the tapes themselves (compared to a reel of film) meant that longer stretches of incident or interaction could be recorded. When digital recording superseded videotape, the cost of recording material ceased to have any impact at all. In these circumstances, the amount of material recorded was theoretically limitless and the temptation to use more of it than was necessary in the final edit was unavoidable. The “fixed rig” style, beginning in Britain with 24 Hours in A&E (Channel 4), pushed things even further by eliminating the contribution of the director in the shooting process and leaving the creative process to the editing stage. Nobody was saying “cut” any more.

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Equally important were changes in the production process, most notably the commissioning of independent productions for television broadcast. Whereas investigative documentaries had previously been undertaken mainly by broadcasters, who had the capacity to absorb any financial losses caused by the possibility of the investigation failing to produce any worthwhile results, the move towards such work being commissioned for broadcast meant that it was more difficult to abandon a failing images-2project. If something had been paid for, something had to be delivered and broadcast. Too many times I have sat through documentaries which have set out to investigate an individual or a situation but have become about the failure of the film makers to do so. Only Nick Broomfield, who invented the style, or Michael Moore can really get away with this, because their documentaries are more about themselves than their subjects.

 

The dangers of commissioning investigative documentary series are, of course, even greater and, as the number of channels, platforms and other services has increased, so has the demand for inexpensive, time-filling reality programmes, which brings us back to Making a Murderer. Actually, season two is as much a docusoap as it is an investigation, even though it was all shot before being transmitted – it is certainly highly observational, of both the legal teams at work and the families of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, getting on with their lives as far as possible while waiting for developments in their cases. Having transmitted 10 hour-long episodes in the first series, Netflix presumably felt that the same was in order when it came to ordering the second season. Actually, I found even season one unbalanced and overlong: the first four episodes were sensational – a great investigation with stunning developments – but after that it relied far too heavily on courtroom footage and local news broadcasts to tell its story, which remained, nevertheless, sufficiently riveting to make the series a success. The availability of so much courtroom material causes particular problems – it is too important to leave out, but it has not been shot by the documentary makers and being selective in its use brings potential accusations of bias.

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There is little courtroom material in Making a Murderer season two (and much of what there is is audio only) but there are ten hours to fill and ultimately the story is about the failure to advance the cases any further. There is plenty of local news footage, though, and it used to fill time. You know when the film makers include a montage of local news reporters explaining that court proceedings had not begun, as expected, on a certain day, that they are desperate to fill their hour with anything that comes to hand. And the families’ quiet dismay at the lack of progress, which previously may have been conveyed with a few well-chosen shots, can only be expressed by repeating what amount to the same interviews again and again, while the forensic investigations are forensically detailed.

 

Nevertheless, Making a Murderer is still one of the most significant documentary series of our times and has already spawned a number of imitators and been parodied by American Vandal. There will surely be more to come, especially if the efforts to free Avery and Dassey ultimately succeed (though, please, not another 10 parts!). We saw with Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which I blogged about this time last year, that a documentary series can be even greater when longer time is given to it. That series was so good throughout that the original PBS version, at 18 hours, was literally twice as good as the abridged “international version” (shown on the BBC) at half that length. Obviously, the subject matter, the material shot for it and available from archives, and the skill of the film makers were all crucial factors in making this possible. However, the opposite is true for Making a Murderer – it would be far better in a severely abridged version. Maybe we will get one someday and maybe it will be a really great documentary.

Vandals, Maniacs and Murderers

 

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While the large number of new broadcast drama series noted in my last blog have continued to occupy my evenings, my daytime viewing of late (on my iMac, in my attic/office) has been enlivened by some of the latest offerings from Netflix, including some productions of true excellence. And, while I continue to watch the things on traditional TV on a weekly basis (out of habit rather than opportunity), I prefer to consume Netflix productions on an episode-per-day basis, usually accompanied by morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

I greatly enjoyed last year’s American Vandal, which won a Peabody Award and which I blogged about when I discovered it that way earlier this year, but I was uncertain whether a second season would work – after all, it was the perfect parody, but that is not something that can be easily repeated. However, two things make American Vandal 2 asimages-1 good, if not even better than season one (though you can never replicate that first feeing of excitement about something truly original). Firstly, it is, as before, very much more than just a parody – once again you get involved with the characters as if it was a straight drama, and this time round there are many more of them, all brilliantly written and portrayed. Secondly, there are more issues being explored, particularly around class and race, and more documentary styles being invoked than just the crime investigation genre, which remains the basis – I could find echoes of such pieces as Mea Maxima Culpa, O.J.: Made in America and Catfish, as well as numerous pieces investigating the background to school shootings. The series even reaches a somewhat sobering and entirely serious conclusion about the lives of adolescents in the era of social media.

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Above all, though, it made me laugh out loud even more than season one and effortlessly maintained the joke over 8 episodes – I do enjoy scatological humour and it doesn’t come purer than this. Indeed, the grossness of much of the humour provides the perfect counterpoint to the growing seriousness of the issues being confronted. Whether the trick can be repeated again is a moot point, but something tells me it is going to be fun finding out. In the meantime, American Vandal 2 is a very strong addition to my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

 

If American Vandal packs itself full of references to prominent documentaries, then Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Maniac does much the same for dramas – unfortunately, though, it is not a parody (as such) and to be constantly thinking about references and influences means this viewer was not really fully engaged by the drama being presented. OK, the bulk of the piece was exploring the psychological state of the characters undergoing experiments with drugs designed to reveal and counteract their deepest problems, and this was conveyed in dream sequences featuring other characters from their lives (shades of The Singing Detective there) but Fukunaga was clearly having too much self-images-3indulgent fun with this. And, while the genres used – gangsters, sci-fi, medieval fantasy and so on – were clearly signposted, I was also aware of too many other styles and tropes employed in recent series: a bit of Mr Robot here, a bit of Fargo there and a bit of The Leftovers everywhere (the series was created by Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville, which was one of the main things that drew me to it in the first place). The main problem was one of balance: while episode one provided an intriguing and involving opening and episode 10 gave us a moving and satisfying conclusion, everything in between was devoted to the drugs trials and fantasy sequences. It was entertaining enough to keep me watching to the end, but I finished up wondering why.

 

No such problem with 22 July (released on Netflix a few days ago): a single drama of just under two and a half hours duration, which gripped from beginning to end – one of those things that is so good, despite its grim subject matter, that you simply give yourself over to it for however long it takes. The subject is the terrorist massacres in Norway committed in 2011 by the right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, in which he used a bomb and guns to kill 77 people, most of them youngsters at a Labour Party summer camp. It is written and directed by Paul Greengrass, who, despite not being Norwegian, was possibly the only person who could do justice to the subject. Following Bloody images-5Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), he has now completed a trilogy of drama-documentaries about horrific events of such magnitude that they are known by the day or date on which they occurred. His cast of Norwegian actors, all speaking English, is quite remarkable – I don’t know how it has gone down in Norway, but it is testament to the power of the direction that this anomaly simply does not register.

 

Greengrass documents the dreadful events of the day in the first half hour of the film. After that, his twin focus is Breivik himself and Viljar Hanssen, a survivor of the attack whose painful rehabilitation after being shot five times and testimony at Breivik’s trial represents the story of all the victims and stands as a metaphor for Norway’s own recovery and defence of its standards and democracy, as do the portrayals of Breivik’s defence lawyer and Viljar’s mother, who is elected mayor of their small town. And, of course, at a time of growing nationalist populism in Europe and beyond, it is very much a tale for our times. Breivik may be behind a locked door, while Viljar stands in a snowy fjord in the final two shots of the film, but the former has a chilling certainty about the cause for which he committed mass murder, while the latter looks troubled and uncertain.

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Once again Greengrass has brought the sensibility he learned in his days of making current affairs television (for Granada’s World in Action), including his trademark use of hand-held cameras, to a drama documentary which convinces as though it were a piece of reportage. Another one for the 2018 shortlist!

 

And, while still on Netflix, next week sees the release of the long-awaited follow up to Making a Murderer. I am looking forward to re-engaging with how the story of Steven Avery has developed in the years since the original series came out, but I do worry that it may prove difficult to take it as seriously as it deserves, so soon after seeing American Vandal 2.

 

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A Musical Summer

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About this time last year, I was composing my first blog, which celebrated the “glorious summer” of TV programming which we had enjoyed. No such luck this year – hardly a thing worth tuning in for on a regular basis – so, apart from catching up on some of my film collection on DVD, I have been more than usually reliant on music to keep me going. Of course, it is Proms season, and we have been even more frequent visitors than usual to the Albert Hall this year. Many of the concerts have been belters and there have been a lot of Mahler symphonies to enjoy – a rare performance of the 8th(which is perfect for the RAH, with its space for five choirs and a spectacular organ) and I’m really looking forward to the Boston Symphony doing the 3rd next Sunday.

 

However, I have also been enjoying music, especially opera, on Blu-ray and would like to describe two recent additions to my collection which, for me, exemplify how such releases are now an essential way of experiencing (or re-living) the best productions and performances from around the world. Back in the day, we would have relied on BBC2 on a Saturday night for rare and precious glimpses of such things – nowadays, Sky Arts provides the main broadcast platform, albeit with a much lower profile, but it is DVD and Blu-ray which have long since become the prime source for the opera lover and the number of productions recorded has rocketed.

 

A few weeks ago, Deutsche Grammophon released a Blu-ray of the 2017 Bayreuth imagesproduction of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Not only was this a welcome opportunity to experience a very new and exciting production, but it is available at a rock-bottom bargain price (still under £15 last time I looked) and, when you consider that a ticket to see it in the Festspielhaus, if you were lucky enough to get one, would set you back upwards of two hundred (plus, of course, the cost of getting and staying there) the importance of such recordings being released is clear. Incidentally, though I hate to hear productions or performances being booed, the astronomical cost of attendance does make it a little bit understandable if someone feels they have been short changed.

 

This production of Die Meistersinger, by the Australian Jewish director Barrie Kosky (and it is significant that those two descriptors are both firsts for a production director at Bayreuth, the latter considerably more significant than the former), does, indeed, get some negative audience reaction, but I found it completely brilliant. It is one of those productions with a strong concept, which, in this case, is setting the work in the historical context of its creation and subsequent history, and that means putting Wagner himself on-stage. Act 1 takes place in Wagner’s house in Bayreuth, Wahnfried, where the composer is having a read/play through of the work, as he regularly did. Family and Unknownguests are given roles while other characters emerge (many in full reformation-era costumes, based on Durer) from his piano. Wagner himself plays Sachs (of course), though Walther and David clearly also represent himself at different stages of his artistic development, which fits perfectly with the theories of art he is exploring, as well as his own vanity. Cosima plays Eva, while her father, Franz Liszt, plays … her father. The Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi, is cajoled into the role of the comic villain Beckmesser, much as he had to endure Wagner’s antisemitism in order to be an important part of his artistic endeavour. The effect of this is to allow the director to explore issues raised by and concerning the work while not, as often happens with high-concept productions, working against what the music and the words are telling us – everything fits perfectly. The singers are historic characters playing operatic characters and are thus able to play those (operatic) characters much as they may in a conventional production.

 

At the end of first act the drawing room in Wahnfried is replaced by the 1946 Nuremberg trials courtroom (complete with allied flags and American MP guard), Wagner takes up a position in the dock and the stage is set for the second and third acts – the work and its composer are on trial in the city of its setting (a city which also hosted the Nazi rallies of the 1930s, and I wonder if Kosky thought, maybe just for a moment, of using that setting for the final scene?). Wagner’s antisemitism is, of course the key focus, though the way in which his works were used by the Nazis is also in play – don’t forget that every Nuremberg rally was preceded by a performance of Die Meistersinger. The city was also the stamping ground of the notorious Gauleiter Julius Streicher, whose newspaper, Der Sturmer, contained the sort of grotesque Jewish caricature which literally fills the stage at the end of the second act and haunts Beckmesser in the third. Nuremberg rallies, Nuremberg laws, Nuremberg trials – it all fits.

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The courtroom becomes an apt setting for the “song trial” and Wagner/Sachs is back in the dock at the end to deliver his call to preserve holy German art, even in times of foreign occupation, before conducting an orchestra and chorus (on stage!) in the final bars. It seems he is acquitted and that his music is what has saved him, though a more ironic interpretation is also possible – the best productions, it seems to me, are those which look completely right, yet can be interpreted in a number of ways. Music triumphs also in the quality of the performance and the genius of this production is that it allows the work’s traditional values to be seen despite the unconventional staging. A great example is the scene in Act 3 where Sachs coaches Walther to compose his dream song and at the same time expounds his (and Wagner’s) theories on the balance between tradition and innovation in art. It takes place in the courtroom but is shot in tight close up for the recording and is so well sung and acted by Michael Volle and Klaus Florian Vogt (and subtly directed by Kosky) that it could be part of any production, traditional or innovative. The direction of the recording is also impressive – it is a production full of interesting detail, all of which is conveyed. Here’s a link to the trailer to give you some idea:

Unlike Die Meistersinger, the staging and music of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach have been inseparable as a theatrical experience, because the contribution of Wilson, the director and designer, as well as that of choreographer Lucinda Childs, is integral to the work. It is a landmark of theatrical, musical and Unknown-2operatic creation in the 20thcentury, and the 2012 touring revival, which I saw at the Barbican, was essentially the same thing as first seen in 1976. That production (recorded in Paris and released by Opus Arte) has been available on Blu-ray since late 2016 but somehow the sophisticated algorithms employed by Amazon and others failed to notify me, despite the internet knowing full well that I am a big Philip Glass fan. I had assumed it would remain an unforgettable theatrical experience only and was delighted to find otherwise.

 

But Blu-ray is the perfect format for re-creating that experience and, under the sensitive direction of Don Kent, it does just that, from the gradual introduction as the audience enters and continues to chat amongst themselves, to the beautiful final Knee Play, four and a half hours later, which draws this vibrant and hypnotic work to its serene conclusion. In the theatre, the performance is continuous and audience members allowed to come and go during it. On Blu-ray, you can pause it when you need to, which somehow isn’t the point. Indeed, despite the temptation, the grip of the work is so strong that I only did so in the moments of greatest need.

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For those unfamiliar with it, there is no narrative – just a series of lengthy tableaux, some of them tangentially inspired by Einstein’s life or theories, in which music, action and words seem highly repetitive, change very gradually (though change is actually constant) and have little obviously decipherable meaning. You would imagine that would make it difficult to watch, but it is quite the opposite and it seems to pass much more quickly than it actually does – which I guess is as good a way of illustrating concepts of relativity as any. To give an example, a section of over fifteen minutes involves a couple on the footplate at the end of a receding train at night. They sing a duet involving just “fa-so-la” sounds and repeated numbers. The train does not move but the moon changes from crescent to full and back in the course of the scene. It’s beautiful and mesmerising.

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One small production detail is shared by the two works I have described here: a courtroom clock going backwards. I’ve no idea if this is homage, theft or coincidence, but it is a striking image and a neat link between these two great pieces of musical drama which have enthralled me during this televisually arid Summer.

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.

VAR Out!

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Withdrawal symptoms caused by the end of the World Cup are fading now – they were particularly acute this time because it was such a fantastic tournament, possibly the best ever – but this blog will consider the television coverage, and indeed the television involvement, rather than the football itself.

 

Most world cups bring some kind of advances in coverage, both in terms of the domestic presentation and the coverage of the matches by the host broadcaster. The first time I watched it was the annus mirabilis 1966, when the big advance was the introduction of the instant replay (it is now almost impossible to imagine football on TV without it). 1970 brought both colour and (on ITV) the first panel of pundits, though then they were back home in the studio rather than in an exotic location like Copacabana Beach or Red Square. Many of the subsequent changes to the organisation of the games have beenUnknown made with television coverage in mind – the red and yellow cards for instance, which clarified refereeing decisions, or the simultaneous playing of final group games, introduced to avoid teams playing out boring draws which would see both go through, but which now provide some nail-biting coverage, particularly at this most recent tournament (the final group games involving Argentina, Germany and Japan were all riveting for different reasons).

 

The big innovation of this tournament, of course, was the much-trumpeted video assistant referee (VAR) system. Truly, this was the moment when television coverage of the event could have become part of the event itself, if that was ever going to happen. There are plenty of reasons why that should NOT happen of course – TV has always needed to be separate from the action of any sporting event to cover it objectively – but the moment of review is where they should come together. Basically, we the viewers need to know that the referee is seeing the same replays as the television coverage is giving us – or to know precisely which pictures the referee is using to make his decision. That was very far from clear in many cases and, of course, we also have the commentators giving their own judgements, so that when the decision goes the other way (as it often did) confusion and outrage can result. At least we should be able to hear the conversation between the VAR referees and the on-field referee, or to hear the VAR officials’ conversation, as sometimes happens when an umpiring decision is reviewed in cricket.

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I think it’s clear that VAR resulted in far too many penalties, many of them crucial (especially the one in the final, which was very dodgy) and the reason is that the referee’s discretion has been removed. So many times, you hear commentators dismiss penalty appeals with the words “I’ve seen them given”, indicating that technically they may be penalties, but one wasn’t deserved in this case. Well, now they ARE being given and it is spoiling games. The other main use of VAR – for offsides being looked at retrospectively – is working better, though the commentators seemed to forget about it and were constantly criticising the linos for being too slow to raise their flags. The other thing they constantly mentioned was that the main point of it is to correct obvious mistakes, like Frank Lampard’s “goal” against Germany – but the goal-line technology already does that and works well because it is a matter of fact rather than interpretation. Penalties should always be down to interpretation, but VAR puts too much pressure on referees to reconsider reasonable initial thoughts in the light of “facts”. The whole question of the use of video replay for decision making in football is very much a work in progress and is a long way from getting it right.

 

But, for me, the worst aspect of the system is the loss of the excitement of the moment – the joy of a goal being scored which can be restrained by the possibility it may have to go to review. This has already happened in cricket. One of my all-time favourite cricket moments on TV was the end of the 2005 Ashes test at Edgbaston – a nail-biter, which England won by just 2 runs, the narrowest margin in Ashes history. When the final wicket fell – confirmed by the umpire’s finger – my explosion of joy was unconfined. The Unknown-3coverage on Channel 4 rose to the moment – unforgettable shots of Michael Vaughan and the England players celebrating, intercut with Andrew Flintoff’s sporting gesture to console Brett Lee, who had batted so well. None of that would be possible now – the umpire’s decision would be reviewed (and that particular decision was a debatable one – the pressure on the review team would have been enormous). Something has definitely been lost and the drama of the review does not compensate for it.

 

One strange aspect of this World Cup for me was that the end of the group stage and the first knockout round coincided with our family holiday in Montenegro, so I watched that section of it on RTCG with a commentary I could not fully understand (though you would have thought I might have learned the language after 21 years married to a native speaker – shame on me for that). This brought home to me that the commentary is not really there primarily to give factual information, or even to interpret the game for you, though that is important. Its main function is to replicate the sort of chat that would take place around you if you were actually at the game.  Mind you, I found I missed the studio analysis even more and found myself wondering what the panel might be saying back home after the penalties win over Colombia. Having shouted “Eng-er-lund!” from our balcony at the Columbia-supporting locals in the beachside bar below, I was left feeling a bit lost.

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As for the British TV coverage, as usual I found the BBC’s the best and they put together a number of particularly excellent nostalgic compilations of archival material this year. Of course, the “curse of ITV”, having been seemingly banished in the first knockout round, returned with a vengeance for the semi-final. But England’s defeat did not bring the usual sense of anti-climax and the final was a worthy ending, though the chaos of the presentation of the trophy, including the TV direction, was not.

 

Anyway, just a week to go now before domestic footie returns for the new season (two if you support a Premier League club). Match of the Day will be back, Gary will be promising us an unmissable show every week and everything will be as it should be -with no VAR, at least until they have worked out how it should be used.

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Half-time Analysis

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Apologies to my small band of regular readers that there has been some considerable time since my last blog, but the World Cup and a family holiday have intervened since I last wrote. Now that the football is coming to an end, I will blog about it as a television experience next time, but first I thought I would take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, as we have just passed the halfway mark in the year.

 

So far, I have identified six titles as contenders for my end-of-year top ten: Inside Number 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned and Homeland. That was as it stood when I blogged in May and I can find four other titles to make a half-year top ten, but only two of the extra four, one documentary and one drama, are going to make it onto the running shortlist.

 

I don’t have any documentaries on my list so far and two are worth noting. Vanessa Unknown-2Engle’s The Funeral Murders (BBC2) aired back in March and was a harrowing description of two awful days in the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, told frankly, compassionately and impartially and with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Above all, it highlighted why the Irish border issue is not just one of the difficulties of the Brexit process but by far the most important issue. And last Friday, there was a splendid doc on the life and career of Olympic ice skater John Curry, The Ice King (BBC4), full of archival material and rare recordings of his work, though the fact that all the interviews seemed to be archival as well made it look a bit limited. The Funeral Murders is the one to make the shortlist.

 

I noted in an earlier blog that I was enjoying The Looming Tower on Amazon, and indeed it kept me fully engaged to the end – well-made and well-acted; an interesting Unknown-1story well told – but ultimately maybe just a bit too conventional to be regarded as something special. On the other hand, Russell T.Davies’ A Very English Scandal (BBC1), a three-part dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the seventies, was very special indeed. Davies’ triumph was to make a light, comedic piece out of an episode which, while full of laughable incompetence and colourful characters, also contained some pretty dark elements, and he did it without trivialising those aspects in any way. One line summed up that approach for me – a Liberal Party bigwig regretting that the Thorpe scandal had hit the party just when it was beginning to gain some momentum through the likes of Cyril Smith and Clement Freud. Wicked stuff! And Hugh Grant, while playing the comedy as we knew he could, was a revelation in portraying the deeper complexities of Thorpe. The fact that the case hit the headlines again at the time of transmission, through the news Unknownthat the incompetent assassin Andrew Newton is still alive, when the police thought he was dead, only added to the sense of event television, as did the screening of Tom Bower’s edition of Panorama, scheduled for the night in 1979 when the expected guilty verdict should have been delivered, but shelved when it wasn’t. The inclusion of Peter Cook’s contemporary satire of the judge’s biased summing up during the end credits was a master stroke, too. A Very English Scandal is very much one for the shortlist.

 

In more general terms, my growing feeling that long-form television drama has now passed the high point of its most recent “golden age” has been supplied with more evidence. I have blogged last year about giving up on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce after 5 episodes of each because they didn’t seem to be going anywhere and even Radio Times, which has championed Handmaid, has now commented that the second season of that much-honoured series was too unremittingly bleak. Most recently, I did watch all of Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic), which was mercifully brief at five well-produced and brilliantly acted episodes, but without any discernible point to it. I’m sure it was the best ever depiction of heroin addiction, but, once it was established that images-1Melrose’s self-destructive character was the fault of his abusive father and negligent mother, there was nothing else to it. It rather reminded me of a previous lavish five-parter, also featuring a fine performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and also based on a series of highly-regarded novels, Parade’s End (BBC, 2012), which ultimately did not add up to the sum of its parts.

 

And now I am faced with the Australian re-make of Picnic at Hanging Rock (BBC2, Wednesdays), which struggled to grab or hold my attention through its first episode. I found Peter Weir’s film version a bit tenuous, albeit highly atmospheric, so I can’t see myself making it through much more of the new series. We are promised a lot in the way of character backstories, but you have to be engaged by the front story for that to be in any way worthwhile.

 

In the meantime, the half-hour comedy-drama continues to provide the most innovative work, as, for me, it largely has done for the past decade. Bigger is not necessarily better.

 

Oh, the Humanity!

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Two media news items caught my eye in recent days. In the first, the BBC revealed that it is using artificial intelligence, programmed with the profile of the BBC4 audience, to trawl its archive catalogue and create a schedule for an evening’s programming on that channel: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/bbc-randd-uses-ai-to-uncover-hidden-gems-for-bbc4/5129603.article  Meanwhile, in Belgium, AI is being used in a script editing capacity to analyse and criticise potential work being considered for production: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/tech/ai-is-rewriting-the-tv-script/5129743.article

 

The reason these stories resonated at this particular moment is that I am currently following two drama series in the well-established and recently expanding sci-fi sub-genre speculating on the implications of creating artificial human beings: HBO’s Westworld season 2 on Sky Atlantic and Humans season 3 on Channel 4. Thinking about how feasible some of what we are being presented with in these series may be, I mused on the possibility of creating an AI television critic, who may be better placed to judge the likelihood of the plot and character developments – it looks like that may not have been such a frivolous thought after all.

 

There are plenty of robots with humanoid form or characteristics in the history of Unknown-1science fiction, but it was in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50 years ago, that the implications of attempting to replicate human consciousness in machine form received its most brilliantly considered treatment. Put simply, the conundrum Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke explored was that the greater the success in replicating human behaviour, the greater the likelihood that human failings – unreliability, vengefulness, the tendency towards violence – will emerge, and this has become a standard trope of the AI genre. The genre also offered thoughtful film makers the possibility of exploring what the essence of humanity is – it is often remarked that the computer HAL is the “most human” character in 2001 and the astronauts were presented as being efficient and emotionless to emphasise this. Having re-created human consciousness, the only way forward was the next stage in human evolution, presented at the end of the film.

 

Science fiction has always been way ahead of science fact and highly speculative, but the best sci-fi has often had a grounding in technological possibility. So, as robotic and AI technologies progressed, the humanoid robots came to be played by actors, rather than presented as something highly mechanical. The original film of Westworld gave us a clearly mechanical Yul Brynner, but then a new trope appeared – as the quality of sci-fi robotics improved it became difficult to know for sure who was human and who artificial, allowing dramatic “reveals” which are now becoming a cliché. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) shocked us when Ian Holm turned out to be an android, and the rest of the franchise continued the trope. The same director then took it much further in Blade Runner (1982), which was basically about AI consciousness and its comparison to humanity, though very much from the “replicant” point of view. Rutger Hauer’s BattyUnknown-2 gets the best speech of the film (one of the best in all cinema) and we are left unsure whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard may be a replicant himself. For the actors involved, it meant a choice between playing their characters as they would a normal human being or using subtle indicators of their mechanical nature. A whole new acting skill developed, seen at its best in Stephen Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

On TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation (CBS, 1987-94) allowed the development of human characteristics in an android character, Lt. Cdr. Data, over the course of its run, which in turn allowed the writers to explore themes of humanity and emotional responses through him and the actor, Brent Spiner, to develop an acting style which moved from the mechanical towards the human.

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Both Westworld and Humans aspire to examine the essence of humanity through the creation of artificial individuals, though they go about it in very different ways. Both employ the established tropes of the genre, including the “reveal” of the artificial natures of characters we had assumed were human (notably Bernard in Westworld and D.I. Karen Voss in Humans). Both also contain a godlike creator figure (by coincidence, the surviving one of a duo of innovators), in each case played by a veteran actor (William Hurt in Humans, pretty much reprising his role from Spielberg’s AI; Anthony Hopkins in Westworld).

 

Westworld also explores questions of free will in a scenario where the “hosts” characters and back stories have been created by a writer. Indeed, the most interesting parts, especially in the current season, are those where the development of the narrative is questioned by those within it who have responsibility for it. However, such philosophical moments are few and soon give way to yet another of the shoot-outs or violent set-pieces of which the series is so fond (well, it has a lot of time to fill). Moreover, especially in the first season, these soon become tiresome because the hosts are simply re-built and death and destruction cease to have any dramatic impact. This is less the case in season 2, but the shootouts are still tiresome because of their regularity, even images-1though they are more dramatically significant, and I preferred the fractured narrative of season 1. One nice touch in season 2 was when a group of the characters arrived in the neighbouring Shogun World and the writer remarked on how some of the “western” storylines had been replicated there, reminding us of the classic westerns which had been adapted from Kurosawa’s samurai epics.

 

Overall, Westworld cannot work as a western, even in part, because it simply isn’t one – it is sci-fi. But that doesn’t seem to stop the programme makers trying to have their cake and eat it too. It looks fantastic and is superbly put together but is ultimately far from satisfying. Humans, on the other hand, knows what it is and where it is going and is thus, for me, the better series. In its first season, by concentrating on the human reaction to interacting with domestic “synths” and on those synths secretly programmed with consciousness, it probed the theme of what it is to be human, in its second, with the move towards consciousness for all synths, the intervention of technology companies and disquiet amongst the human population, it became more issue-based and that has continued into the third season, in which docile, more mechanical orange-eyed synths have replaced the now fully-conscious green-eyed ones, who are perceived as a threat and kept in isolated camps and whose “human rights” are now the focus.

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Whereas the actors playing the hosts in Westworld seem to be giving naturalistic performances, on the assumption that the replication of human emotions has been perfected, in Humans the synths are recognisable as such (unless they are being deceptive) because of their green eyes and blue blood (no bloody shootouts here!) as well as their perfect make-up (do synths put their own make-up on, or are they built with it already there? – that’s one for our AI critic, I think). The performances of the actors playing the synths, exemplified by Gemma Chan as Mia, are very well judged to be both mechanical and nuanced.

 

But would I have any confidence in one of the synths as a BBC4 scheduler? The device in question is intended to understand the essence of the channel, but, as far as I am concerned, unpredictability is a key element in a successful schedule, so I hope that has been programmed in, as well as a good sense of humour.