You don’t get many documentaries these days that use the word “utterance” and teach you something before the opening credits, but Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities is one of them.
Simon Sebag Montefiore does a great job of distilling Byzantium’s, um, byzantine history into something you can grasp over an evening drink and a small bowl of nuts. There are secrets to be uncovered, and little-known corners of the city to explore. If you’re one of those people who likes finding out about hidden bits of London’s history (hands up!), you’ll enjoy this.
There’s a fair bit of piece-to-camera-before-purposefully-striding-off-in-another-direction, which can get irritating, but Montefiore knows his stuff and explains it clearly. And doesn’t treat us viewers like we’re stupid.
(Should you ever find yourself in the mood for more detail, you could do worse than start with Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich, then move on to its two sequels. They’re wonderful books that cover the whims and foibles of each and every Byzantine emperor, in chronological order. Many of them were slightly crazy. It’s like something out of Asterix.)
Whilst it hits all the cliches you’d expect – Paxman down a sewer, telling Bazalgette’s story – there’s a heady mix of architecture, art, literature and social realism presented to explain who the Victorians really were. As it’s in HD, too, there’s lots of sweeping shots and helicopters, a la Britain From Above.
The programmes made for the BBC’s new Style season seem to confirm that for some reason it’s impossible to have interesting TV about fashion. Style on Trial with a sweaty Stuart Maconie and guests like Laurence Llewelyn Bowen looking bewildered in a gloomy studio somehow lacks glamour. And does Lauren Laverne have to present everything? But this colour series from 1957 shows it can be done.
The wobbly titles – “by kind permission of the Marquess of Abergavenny” – might make it seem impossibly quaint at first, and some elements are truly bizarre, like the bloomers hung up like a ghost on a black background and Benny Hill being dressed up in a toga. But it’s “Devised, Written and Spoken by” the fantastically elegant Doris Langley Moore, who actually packs the whole thing full of facts and intelligent opinions, so you have to concentrate to keep up with her points about male facial hair, female back decolletage and other aspects of body shape and dress through the ages. Brilliantly, the BBC have put the whole series in their archive. They’ve also got some great accompanying documents, including a grumbling audience report showing that people in the Fifties didn’t know how lucky they were.
Now please can someone make a decent new programme about fashion: give us a rest from Twiggy and get someone like Diane Pernet in, to tell us something we don’t know.
What a lovely, fascinating, useful programme. Proper scholarship (from Mica Nava, a clever historian who was once, in the distant past, my boss for a short while), great stories and really interesting and relevant insights into the translation of Britain from 19th Century manufacturing powerhouse into 20th Century shopaholic paradise.
The two big names featured were both Americans but, between then, transformed Britain: FW Woolworth and Gordon Selfridge. The sad part is that Selfridge lost everything and died a bitter onlooker and Woolworth’s, already long gone in the US, looks like it’s about to do the same here, which makes me wonder what’s going to happen to the amazing Woolworth Archive featured in the programme (and to its passionate honorary archivist, Paul Seaton, who is an IT manager at the firm).
We’d be unhappy if pop culture didn’t regularly throw up Shakespearian figures like Phil Spector, flawed and brilliant (and in Spector’s case downright dangerous). Imagine if they were all like Cliff. This really lovely Arena takes the form of an extended interview conducted by director Vikram Jayanti (the BBC’s press release says that Jayanti’s “hallmark is empathic explorations of genius” and I don’t doubt it) with some additional forensic analysis of the songs themselves. Tracks from the producer’s long career are played in full as the action proceeds and mini-critical essays by journalist Mick Brown pop up on screen as we watch.
If there was a channel that showed only speeded-up movies filmed from the cab of a train I would watch it. Here are two films from thirty years apart (1953 and 1983), screened side-by-side, and both shot from the cab of a London-Brighton train. Mesmerising.
How Simon Schama must curse the producers of The Tudors, so beautiful, so colourful, so…..Hollyoaks. Which means that it’s a must for anyone who favours style over substance. (Me). And despite knowing what happens in the end, I still hoped that Anne Boleyn, played by the superbly curvy mouthed and impossibly regal Natalie Dormer, would get a last minute reprieve, kick Henry into touch and rule supreme. In fact, coward that I am, I couldn’t watch her beheading, instead hid behind a cushion and muttered to myself about how much I hate the choice of a Playboy bunny to play wife number 3, Jane Seymour. Anyway series two sees Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) still managing to keep those pounds off and striding about court in a very handsome strop. Off with his head.
It’s easy to tell how old the people running British TV are these days: they’re all my age. I know this because they keep commissioning programmes about the music and culture of their formative years, which are my formative years. Here’s a great big (seriously: it’s an hour-and-a-half long) piece of Manchester mythography: a documentary feature about Manchester’s maddening but unassailably brilliant Factory Records, a record label that dreamed of being a cultural force, a remaker of its home city, something we’d never forget. I was trying to think of other super-influential record labels and innevitably settled on Motown but then I remembered that Motown actually left Detroit. Factory would never have left Manchester (the show first went out last year).
I heard about the BFI’s YouTube channel on the radio this evening and rushed over to have a look. There are dozens of short films and clips from a hundred years or so of British film, including some funky stuff from Germaine Greer and lots of themed material like these London films. I’ve chosen a strange and evocative propaganda film made towards the end of World War 2, in which school children somewhere in the English countryside celebrate May Day. The BFI archivists have provided lots of interesting notes for each video so be prepared to lose an hour or two…