Television can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.
But it has changed out of all recognition since those distant days when only two channels existed – BBC or ITV. Now we have a plethora of stations all vying for our attention, and of alarming similarity, spewing out a diet of celebrity, reality, cookery or mega talent contests. Everything has to be delivered in an overly hyped way. This latter fact was brought home to me when I attended a creative Summer School earlier this year. The organisers ran an episode of the 1970s series, ‘The Accent of Man’ featuring the virtually static Jacob Bronoski talking to camera, against ever changing exotic locations. There were no dramatized re-enactments or computer generated graphics, just Bronowski speaking with passion and enthusiasm, on a subject that he was thoroughly at home with. At the end of the viewing a spontaneous debate broke out among the group about the merits of this kind of no nonsense solo presentation. Some felt it was like watching paint dry, while others appreciated the one to one dialog.
Other broadcasters from this era, with the same kind of approach, were the historian, A.J.Taylor, Sir Kenneth Clark - who fronted the epic series ‘Civilisation’ and Alistair Cook, with ‘The History of America’. Comparing these now cobwebby forms of presentation left me with the view that we are no longer able to just listen to the eloquence of someone imparting their knowledge. It has to be backed up by lavish CGI reconstructions leaving little to our own imaginations. A great pity. And yes I know we've had Schama and Graham-Dixon strutting their stuff, but aren't they acting up the 'personality' aspect a little too much?
Don’t get me wrong much was lacking in those early productions, cinematography, editing and the presenter's often bizarre fashion sense. Shortly before his death the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman made a feature film called ‘Blue’ unique because it was basically a sound scape, all you were presented with was a constant blue light, projected on to a cinema screen. What it did was awaken your imagination to possibilities way beyond the vision of just a single director. So the experience was different for every member of the audience.
Meanwhile back in those black and white days of Television the BBC had gaps between programmes which they filled with ‘intervals’. I assume this was to give time to move things around the studio, as so much was live at the time. These interludes would last for 5 minutes or so with featuring gently reassuring music-accompanying images of a nostalgic Britain. One in particular, a cornfield with a looming windmill in full flight had an almost Lynchian eeriness about it, that, as a boy, I always found disquieting. Have a look for yourself here. And you can see all of the others here.
If we stop for one moment to think about what makes for exceptional graphics it normally comes down to a great idea wrapped in simplicity. It is a pity that some many creative people working in television can't rediscover that simple truth.