The Farthest (2017)

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Today it seems like we have always known what Jupiter and Saturn look like close-up. Open up any book on astronomy, or watch any TV documentary about space, and their iconic appearance is readily available in up-close high definition detail, as familiar to us as any holiday beauty spot on Earth. Read the rest of this entry »

OJ: Made in America (2016) [DVD]

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A year ago, I found myself unexpectedly drawn into watching the first season of American Crime Story, which dramatised the story of the 1994-5 OJ Simpson trial. While I didn’t specifically follow the original case at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of the key points given the saturation coverage of it in the media at the time. Much of what was shown in Ryan Murphy’s The People vs OJ Simpson turned out to be remarkably familiar to me, and I was surprised by quite how many details I had retained.

The advantage of a dramatisation is that it can take you behind closed doors where cameras were never allowed at the time; and it is also able to shape the narrative into a more understandable format to make the events easier for the layperson to understand compared to the miasma of contemporary news reports and frenzied speculation. That said, a dramatisation does leave you wondering just how much or what we see and hear has been invented, however well-meaningly. You’re left wondering about some of the performances and some of the weird wardrobe and make-up decisions, such as why David Schwimmer is made up as a Word of Sport Dickie Davies lookalike, and why they cast such a bad actor in the role of OJ’s live-in friend Kato Kaelin. That’s because we’re far more critical of the authenticity of a drama in ways that we would never question live television news footage, which confirms that Bob Kardashian really did have a ‘skunk stripe’, and that Kato actually was that weird and the actor totally nailed the portrayal after all.

Even so, much as I liked The People vs OJ Simpson, after ten episodes of OJ drama I had absolutely no appetite to seek out another seven and a half hours of viewing on the subject, factual or otherwise. But then ESPN’s epic OJ: Made In America won the Best Documentary Academy Award in February, and I heard such good things about it that I felt an itch that needed to be scratched – maybe not least because having seen the dramatised version, I now wanted to see how reality measured up. Read the rest of this entry »

In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007)

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There’s not really a great deal to say about this Film Four co-production from 2007, which tells the story of the mission to the moon in the 1960s. As a documentary it’s almost aggressively conventional in its presentation, using newly-shot studio interviews with ten of the surviving Apollo astronauts alongside often jaw-dropping archive footage from NASA (as well as from various earth-bound news sources.) Any gaps in the narrative are filled with static captions and the whole thing is set to a gentle orchestrated backing score of the most unobtrusive and unmemorable kind.

shadow-coverFilm maker David Sington doesn’t take any risks with the way the piece is structured, either, sticking firmly to chronological order. There’s no hint of controversy or anything that might mess with the tale of real-life all-American heroes: the Soviet element to the space race is never mentioned; and while there’s an appropriate sober moment of reflection marking the tragedy of Apollo 1, the corresponding drama of Apollo 13 is dealt with very briskly and presented as pretty much NASA’s finest hour in overcoming insurmountable odds. Read the rest of this entry »

Civilisation (1969) [Blu-ray]

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It’s all very well having a Glorious Summer of Sport on our TV screens, but it can be rather trying for those of us who are not so gripped by the prospect of wall-to-wall World Cup, Wimbledon and Commonwealth Games action. On the other hand, it does give us the chance to spend some quality time with our otherwise sadly neglected DVD collections, as was the case for me this week when I sought out a boxset that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages.

The BBC’s 1969 documentary series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark is one of those programmes that is still hailed today as a genuine TV landmark. It might not look it to our modern eyes, but its approach of putting the presenter right into the landscapes and buildings that he is talking about was a revolutionary one at the time; and the fact that it was one of the first British documentaries shot in colour was also a radical idea by the then-BBC2 controller who commissioned the series, one David Attenborough. Whatever happened to him?

Over 13 instalments, leading art historian of the day Lord Kenneth Clark takes us on a journey through the civilisations of western Europe starting with the Dark Ages and moving through to the modern era. But despite the title, this is not so much the facts-and-dates history of civilisation as a concept or even a working system with Clark admitting that he doesn’t know how to define ‘civilisation’ in the abstract. Instead, it is the specific story of art down the ages and how it has been influenced by (and in return influenced) the societies in which it was created. Clark’s contention – and the ‘personal view’ of the extended title – is that the only way you can truly understand a civilisation is through its end products, and in particular its art and architecture. Read the rest of this entry »

Earthflight (BBC1)

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Earthflight is hardly a new programme, having originally been shown on BBC1 over a year ago, but given that it’s currently in the middle of a rerun on the channel on Sundays I thought I was worth a quick mention nonetheless.

On one level this isn’t going to surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity to the BBC’s prodigious and indeed prestigious wildlife output, being the same reliable high-quality blend of fascinating nature facts and eye-popping photography. Along with Pixar animations, BBC wildlife programmes are surely what high-definition media was made for and Earthflight certainly doesn’t let the side down.

Elsewhere, a couple of things give this series a bit of an unusual twist from the usual BBC fare. One is that it has a particularly effective structure to it, being based on the migratory flights of birds with each of the six episodes featuring a different species of avian aviators on a different continent photographed using new techniques including cameras actually attached to the birds themselves to give a unique insight into what it’s like to fly and soar high in the sky. While the birds are central to the show, the series also takes time to stop off and look at the wildlife and geography at the different places that the birds stop off and stay during their epic journey, meaning there are plenty of other animals (either prey, or preying) sharing the screen to ensure it doesn’t get too narrow-focused. Read the rest of this entry »

Tales of Television Centre (BBC4)

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Normally when Twitter erupts with adoring tweets about a BBC4 programme, it’s at 9pm on a Saturday night and the subject is the latest instalment of a Scandinavian crime noir serial. But for once last week, there was an exception to the rule, as everyone seemed to be wallowing in the nostalgia fest that was Tales of Television Centre.

The BBC’s prolonged departure from its iconic White City headquarters in London proved a good excuse to raid the archives for a celebratory look back at the building which for many of a certain age – including myself – had been the very face of British broadcasting down the years. Its distinctive round shape enclosing the circular quad and its UFO/satellite dish-esque fountain is unlike any other TV company facility, and for that reason became forever linked with the BBC’s output through the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The archive footage stirred those memories very well with a ton of programmes I remember watching when I was young, from the kids shows such as Swap Shop, Record Breakers and Blue Peter through to the panel quiz shows, comedies and drama programmes that I graduated to as I grew up. These provoked cosy and warm memories, and there was plenty of material new to the viewers as well. From outtakes and studio trims from the time through to newly shot interviews with people who worked in the building down the years both in front of and behind the camera who enjoyed sharing their anecdotes of post-filming drinks in the BBC Club, to David Attenborough recalling how – as controller of BBC2 – he once had to politely ask one of the production teams to show a little more discretion in what they were smoking as the distinctive odour was working its way throughout the building. There was Barry Norman remembering how he had to sober up before taping the film review show after over-indulging at a leaving do, only to end up with the most sober and hence dull programme he ever did. And there were three Doctor Who companions raucously agreeing with Jools Holland’s description of the Television Centre as a cross between showbusiness and a KGB interrogation centre. Read the rest of this entry »

Britain Beware! (ITV)

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It’s taken me rather a long while to get around to watching Britain Beware!, a documentary about the government-produced public information films that have pervaded our screens and consciousness for decades. It was shown at the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, but for various reasons I was hesitant to see it, fearing the worst.

The full disclosure here is that the public information films in question are the output of the Central Office of Information (COI), a government department where I myself worked for nearly 12 years – so emotional detachment is not really possible in the circumstances.

Not that I worked on any of the films aired here – the vast majority were well before the time I spent at COI. But they were all familiar to me, either as a consumer of the films as a child of the 70s when the Green Cross Code Man and Charlie Says films were inescapable (yes – adverts on the BBC!) or more recently because everyone who worked at COI even years later took great pride in the quality products that the department had been responsible for over the past six decades, which had changed and indeed saved many lives.

Given this attachment to the subject you’ll understand that I felt slightly wary when I saw the bizarre orange motif running through the visual design of this show, and that Adrian Edmondson was presenting it, fearing that the former Young One had been brought in to extract the proverbial out of COI’s archives. And in truth, there’s a lot of stuff in there that can come across very badly to a modern audience, from black and white films in the 40s teaching people to use a handkerchief to stop coughs and sneezes from spreading diseases, to 50s films produces to show to immigrants arriving in the UK teaching them how to queue politely for a bus, and then later films teaching not just children how to cross the road (with Darth Vader-to-be Dave Prowse in command) but also instructing bemused adults how to use new-fangled pedestrian crossings with the help of the entire cast of Dad’s Army. A whole sub-genre of public information films play like mini-episodes of Casualty as we try to spot the next potential cause of fatality to come.

Did we really need a nanny state running around telling us the bleedin’ obvious all the time? Well, actually – yes. They were simpler times and ones of great change that people simply weren’t used to, and the information these public information films imparted over the years really did help whole generations learn how to adapt and survive. If parents today still teach their children to stop before crossing a road, look both ways and keep looking and listening as they walk across then that’s because they will have learned the lessons as kids themselves, from the films.

Of course, times change and in recent years COI’s output got more serious and less mockable, such as income tax deadlines, benefit cheats, motorcycle safety, car tax penalties, quit smoking campaigns and recruitment for the armed services. People have often said “whatever happened to the public information films I remember as a kid?” and the truth is that the films grew up with their audience and became all serious and professional in order to tackle the new serious, big issues in life. They lost their whimsy, and as a result were little represented in Britain Beware! which stuck to the safe 60s and 70s for the most part when we could rely on Jimmy Saville telling us to clunk-click for every trip, Rolf Harris encouraging us to learn to swim, and Donald Pleasance’s voice scaring the holy crap out of us from every playing near water ever, ever again.

Of the few but nonetheless startlingly effective modern examples of COI’s work in the programme, none was more profoundly shocking than seeing excerpts from a film produced not for the public but for the Army, a campaign for soldiers returning from overseas conflicts who – in the euphoria of having survived a war zone – ended up dying all too often in stupid, senseless traffic accidents while they were still trying to adapt back to daily life in civvies. I’d seen it a few years ago as part of an in-house showing of COI’s output for a given year, but as far as I’m aware it had not been been shown publicly before this documentary – and you could see why. Blunt and coarse, speaking to the audience in the manner and language they used to talk to each other, it was a world away from the twee style mocked so easily by Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondely-Warner and Mr Grayson characters. But it also best showed just how well COI could read an audience and find the most effective way of communicating to it, wherever it may be and whatever the message that needed to be imparted.

There was always a lot more to COI than just the public information films, and it’s a shame that the rest of COI’s work is consistently overlooked. All the research and strategy that went behind these films was another large part of COI’s activity, and then there were the other media channels through which government communications were disseminated. It’s a shame that the fabulous work of the radio department wasn’t included here, let alone the publishing unit (or the later digital media/web team, which is where I worked.) The fact is, there is no one in the country who hasn’t watched, listened to, held or read some example of COI’s work during their lives. And they’ll have done so because they needed that information, or because their lives were in some way enriched or even outright saved by it. As marketing jobs went, working at COI to help improve people’s lives sure beat flogging another can of beans to add a few pence to a corporation’s profit margin.

COI is done now, which made watching Britain Beware! rather like watching the obituary of someone you knew well who had just died, someone that you had liked and respected a great deal. Adrian Edmondson actually did a good job of balancing the mickey-taking with making the serious point about the good that these campaigns had done as well. Talking about the iconic 80s “tip of the iceberg” AIDS awareness films, the programme dropped in the fact that the UK has one of the lowest AIDS infection rates in the western world, and suggested that it’s largely thanks to this crucial COI-led public awareness intervention.

It was hard not to feel melancholic as I watched – and also, inevitably, somewhat angry. Just a few weeks before this programme aired, the government had managed to start a panic over fuel shortages that never actually happened. The ill-fated advice to fill up jerry cans was a scenario that would have been funny – right out of Dad’s Army indeed – had it not also been so dangerous and borderline incompetent. Such thoughts struck me again this week as I noticed new NHS adverts, which basically scream at the viewer: “Had a cough for three weeks? THEN YOU’RE GOING TO DIE OF LUNG CANCER!!” Is this the level of communication from the government that they now deem us to be worthy of?

If only the government had some sort of centre of excellent for public communications to which it could turn, a unit with decades of experience in ensuring that essential messages are conveyed properly and to the right people in the right way. It could save so much unnecessary panic and anxiety. As it happened, the jerry can fiasco was the very week that COI closed its doors for the final time – just one more thing, like the BBC Television Centre, that apparently doesn’t fit into the modern world and has no place in our future, but which we may yet come to miss and regret losing nonetheless.

But of course, COI wouldn’t want you to worry about any of this. It would do a poster campaign to reassure you that all will be well. Keep calm, it might say. And carry on.

A range of examples of COI’s output down the years is available on DVDs released by the British Film Institute, which now holds and maintains the COI film archives.

Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

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I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.

Unfortunately, that season was 1994.

By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”

This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.

Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.

But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.

Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.

But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.

Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.

I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.

When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.

Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.

But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.

It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.

But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.