Sunday, 9 January 2011

Adam Curtis - "The Strange Death of Political England"

On the firing of automatic rifles: "It sounds like a guitar when they're playing it..."

Superb impressionistic history here from Adam Curtis, starting with 1970; he plans to do similar for each subsequent year since.

Curtis presents clips and music of the time largely unmediated - to give a intriguing impression of 1970 as it may have felt in the present-tense. We are not presented with the usual pop-history, but with odd and telling stories now forgotten. As ever with Curtis, there is dry humour and gravitas. Despite the lack of his usual voice-over, one can trace the main theme of individualism starting to undermine collectivism - of course reaching fruition in Thatcherism. More people are now able and willing to make the link between neo-liberal politics and popular culture: identity politics and the mantra of 'choice'.

Immensely affecting, incisive use of music - perhaps particularly the devastating opening use of The Delfonics' 'Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)' and the later use of Gavin Bryars' haunting piece of modern classical music, The Sinking of the Titanic. This 1975 recording was originally designed to evoke the Edwardian age receding, but Curtis places it in the context of his modern history narrative. Sounds like another world beginning to be submerged - living on borrowed time. This was indeed the year that followed the failure of Barbara Castle's "In Place of Strife" legislation and Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of The Sun.

Let us hope this epic undertaking will eventually make it onto TV as a series, as should Curtis' monumental material on Afghanistan's history, all contained within the same blog...

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Introductory Post 2

Another Personal View

Since early boyhood, I've grown ever more conscious of the irrecoverable worlds that existed before I was born, the traces of which I sensed ebbing away on the television I watched as I grew up; a world comprised of measured and unpatronising documentaries; of children's animations voiced by theatrical actors older than either of my grandfathers, of comedies and dramas eager to challenge the medium's conventions and unafraid of broadcasting eerie, lingering silences; a world in which channels built their reputations on the quality of their broadcasting, rather than the ubiquitousnes of their logos. Although there's some validity in the claim that every generation will "catch the end" of a particular set of cultural mores, I'd contend that those born in the early eighties might well be the last generation to experience such a radical dichotomy between the first and second halves of their childhoods.

And so, aged eight, I was already growing nostalgic for qualities that seemed to be disappearing from broadcasting, poring over videotapes that demonstrated a different way of doing things, only half aware of that year's Broadcasting Act and the fact that British television would soon commence its nosedive towards the brand-driven mess of the last decade and a half.

Watching television had, as a child, simulataneously anchored me to the past and excited me about the future. Born in 1982, I grew up in parallel with Channel Four, smitten by its pluralistic remit and dazzled by the sheer oddness of much of its output. Programmes such as Citizen 2000, Absolutely, After Dark, Nightingales, Star Test, films from the 40s and 50s, adaptations of operas, the transmission of kabaddi and American football, continuity announcers who seemed to know and care about the programmes they introduced - even though still in single figures, I knew that I was in the presence of greatness. This is even before we consider the dramas of Plater and Potter that I've come to in adulthood. Channel Four and I parted company in our mid-teens, a once great network now content to wallow in perpetual adolescence.

I mention all this now because I do not want my contributions here to be mere exercises in pessimism or vaguely worded paeans to some nebulous idea of "the good old days". I'm deeply aware of the need to disentangle a sense of nostalgia for the certainties of one's early childhood with a clear-sighted appreciation of qualities specific to that period in cultural history. One of my aims in contributing here is to challenge my own instinctive preference for the television of yesteryear and subject it to logical scrutiny. This blog is, for me, as much about evaluating our present cultural milieu as it is about the televisual history of previous decades and comes with the disclaimer that there was, of course, a lot of forgettable television made before 1990, some of which I will doubtless end up anatomising herein. For what it's worth, I'm also working on a sitcom in the spirit (I hope) of the TV comedy I used to love.

My heartfelt thanks must go to Some of the Corpses are Amusing whose knowledge and erudition is enviable, and to Robin Carmody for challenging my political and aesthetic preconceptions at a time when I needed it most.

I should also mention that, far from being any kind of apology for the reign of Ivan the Terrible, my posting name is something of an in-joke with a couple of friends and I apologise in advance for the sort of image it might give of me - the polar opposite of my actual political stance, I assure you.