Monday, 31 August 2020

NEVER BRING ME ANY TEARS [258]



In 1949, the architect of BBC Television Centre, Graham Dawbarn, answered the question of how to arrange the world’s first purpose-built centre for television production after drawing a question mark on a used envelope: build the studios in a circle, leading to a central hub of tape machines. An outside track would feed the sets built in the scenery block, and rehearsal rooms and canteens were placed at the other end, with offices and editing suites scattered throughout. It was literally a factory: wood, paint, fabric and tape went in one side, and a finished programme was sent out.

When I have visited Shepherd’s Bush, I am aware how much of the area was once employed by the BBC: the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was known as the BBC Television Theatre from 1953 to 1991, hosting everything from “Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game” to Terry Wogan’s thrice-weekly chat show; the former Gaumont-British studios in Lime Grove, used by Alfred Hitchcock to make the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes,” were bought in 1949 and operated as TV studios from 1950-91; in nearby Hammersmith, the Riverside Studios were operated by the BBC from 1954-74, making “Hancock’s Half Hour” and “Doctor Who,” well before their starring role in Chris Evans’ Channel 4 show “TFI Friday”; and Ealing Studios were owned and run from 1955-95 as a base for productions shot on film, including the bits during sitcoms when action took place outside. Even the original TV studios at Alexandra Palace in Haringey, where BBC Television began in 1936, remained in use as a base for news bulletins.

The BBC needed so many studios, even as they built their own, because the industry they were building for was unrecognisable by the time Television Centre fully opened in June 1960. With no opportunity to extend Broadcasting House in the centre of London, in 1949 the BBC bought thirteen acres of land at one of the few available sites left in London that were suitable: the site of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. Building began in 1951, with the Scenery Block finished in 1953, and the canteen and rehearsal building in 1955, but construction of the central ring of studios and offices did not begin until 1956, owing to the Government not yet being able to afford, even a decade after the war ended, to lend the investment necessary to continue building. The Scenery Block, however, was already supplying sets and costumes to the other studios nearby. By 1960, only one studio was ready to make programmes, with the others being completed slowly – studio 1, the biggest of all, was not finished until 1964.

Television Centre today

Officially, the brick-and-glass centre is built in the Minimalist style, reduced to clean lines and only necessary elements. The front of studio 1, the circular front windows and courtyard, alongside mosaics, the Helios statue, and front lift shaft and clock, have listed status from English Heritage, preserving both the architectural style and cultural history, despite The Goodies having blown it up on screen, and Kenny Everett defacing the sign with spray paint. A man named Arthur Hayes is responsible for the twenty-six lights on the front of studio 1, known as the “atomic dots,” and was responsible for choosing the uber-Sixties-defining Stymie font originally used to spell out “BBC TELEVISION CENTRE,” later used on every other sign in the building.

In 1950, BBC Television was broadcast for an average of only four hours a day to London and the West Midlands, the latter area only starting from 1949. By 1960, it was up to seven hours daily, with national coverage and, in most areas, competition, with the ITV network starting to open from 1955. The Conservative government elected to office in 1951, returning Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, had written commercial television into its manifesto to deliberately provide competition to the BBC, no matter how perturbed people might be at the prospect of American-style advertising. Whatever plans the BBC made at the start of the decade no longer applied, especially when ITV took as much as seventy percent of their audience when it began, but it was exactly the technical advances and forward planning exemplified by Television Centre was what led to the 1962 Pilkington Report on Broadcasting recommending a “BBC Two” in 1962, needing yet more studio space.

More programmes, more technically adventurous and superior programmes, and more type of programme were all required, the BBC holding on to all their studios long after Television Centre was finished. The Television Theatre only became the Shepherd’s Bush Empire once again when Terry Wogan’s chat show moved to Television Centre, but Lime Grove eventually closed when current affairs and news became one department, sharing their studios. When I visited in 2009, the BBC News Channel came from what was essentially converted office space, improved technology negating the need for programmes to be made in a specialist soundproofed room. It was already known that BBC Breakfast, sport and children’s programmes, and Radio 5 Live would be moved to Salford in coming years, but the BBC already had regional studios dotted around the country, most famously at Pebble Mill in Birmingham, and at Oxford Road in Manchester, themselves already replaced by newer studios. The BBC’s requirement to take programmes from independent companies meant those could also be made wherever they liked, which also put paid to the BBC’s need to maintain departments specialising in wardrobe, hair and design.

1960

I did not know Television Centre would be closed four years after my visit, although it now appears that, apart from the studios, much of it was not being used. The three studios that reopened in 2017 are still operated by the BBC, but are ironically sub-let to ITV, after they decided they no longer needed to own their own studios – the former London Weekend Television studios on the South Bank are to be completely demolished.

The BBC’s television news, moved from Alexandra Palace to Television Centre in 1969 when the BBC gave their original studios to the Open University, now comes from Broadcasting House, having been extended in the way not possible following World War II. However, due to terrorist attacks in central London, you can no longer take tours of Broadcasting House, which is a shame – much like the use of Television Centre in programmes, the continuous glimpses of Broadcasting House confirms that TV is an industry where function meets style starting from its production base... although if your base houses the largest newsroom in the world, you would put that on screen as often as you can.

I think what I have tried to do here is temper the nostalgia of my visit to Television Centre, as a lot of what made me excited about it is not there. The bold architecture and period details remain, but it was what went on inside that got me. I wasn’t the only one – when it closed, one person said, “I know it’s only a building. I know it’s an inanimate object and it doesn’t have a heart. But it has a spirit. There are spirits here, of immensely talented people who made some of the best television programmes ever seen and I think it’s a shame. It’s a shame to close it down.” Sir Terry Wogan was right then, and for all the discussions over bricks and mortar, British culture shaped, and was shaped by, Television Centre.



Sunday, 30 August 2020

BRING ME LAUGHTER ALL THE WHILE [257]

BBC Television Centre (2009)

If you get the chance to visit a building usually closed to the public, take it.

In 2009, I visited BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush, London, a literal television production factory: studios were set up to record episodes of “Harry Hill’s TV Burp,” “The Alan Titchmarsh Show,” “Friday Night with Jonathan Ross” (with guests including Christopher Walken and Green Day), and “Strictly Come Dancing,” for which the main doors to studio 1 were open to deliver the set. We were permitted to look down on one studio, known as TC8, filming a pilot for a quiz show featuring Rufus Hound and Sara Cox. These shows were in addition to the numerous news, sport and children’s programmes coming live from elsewhere in the complex.

During the ninety-minute tour, starting at the main entrance targeted by a Real IRA bomb in March 2001, we sat in the BBC News editorial meeting room, passed through the famous wood-panelled Stage Door entrance, the circular courtyard and gold statue of Helios, and we were locked in a dressing room to keep us from wandering about the building, which is standard procedure no matter how famous you are. I won a BBC Tours mug in a quiz identifying theme tunes, and I saw exactly two well-known people: before the tour started, I saw Simon Jack, now Economics Editor for BBC News, and I saw “Broadcasting House” presenter Paddy O’Connell after buying the DVD – both were dressed to leave on a motorcycle.

Trying to peer through the Studio 1 doors (2009)

Even though I could only see into one studio – they all had viewing galleries, but they also had people working hard to keep their shows under wraps, I am glad the one I saw was TC8, as it was the studio most associated with BBC comedy programmes. It may have been the last studio to open, in 1968, but it hosted episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “The Morecambe & Wise Show,” “The Two Ronnies,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,” “Sykes,” “Victoria Wood As Seen on TV,” “Porridge,” “Are You Being Served,” “Open All Hours,” “One Foot in the Grave,” “French & Saunders,” “Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge,” “Up Pompeii,” “Hi-De-Hi!” and “Blankety Blank.” Of course, I knew this when I went in, that was why I was so excited. This was why I had no hesitation in buying a DVD of “Fawlty Towers” from their shop – episodes of that were made in TC8 as well.

This is all a very long time ago now: the BBC sold Television Centre to developers in 2013, and while three studios remain open, with the BBC’s commercial arm housed in the old News Centre, the rest has now been converted to expensive, but sympathetically designed, apartments – studio TC8 was demolished altogether.

You do not need a building like Television Centre to make programmes anymore: so long as you have a good camera, and you can keep outside noise away, you can make a show anywhere. But because it was the backdrop to so many shows in the last sixty years, Television Centre may be one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. I already knew so much about it that, when the tour guide mentioned the offices under the Helios statue, I already knew why they were built there: they originally housed all the then-highly expensive and precious video tape machines.

One connection remains to the old era of the BBC at Shepherd’s Bush: Alan and Mark Wogan, sons of Sir Terry - he of the chat shows, the Radio 2 breakfast show and “Blankety Blank” - have opened up a branch of their pizza restaurant chain Homeslice at Television Centre. I could go on naming programmes the BBC made there, but watching the Six O’Clock News, when it came from studio TC7, and knowing that “Multi-Coloured Swap Shop,” “Going Live,” “Live & Kicking,” “Play School” and even “Shooting Stars” used to be made there, gave me a smile.


Main Entrance / News Centre (2009)

Sunday, 23 August 2020

I HATE THESE BLURRED LINES [256]



At the start of “Cherry 2000”, we are reminded the film is “An Orion Pictures Release,” which is charitable of them: it finished production in December 1985 for an August 1986 release, which was pushed back to March 1987, then September 1987, before finally being released in November 1988. This is the lot of many films, especially when there are now many more places to shove a difficult film than ever before.

“Cherry 2000,” however, should not have had this fate. It is a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction, romantic-ish comedy thriller: very little is not covered by that description. However, because it is all of those things, and not just one of them, it became too difficult to market – “Blade Runner” was languishing in pre-Director’s Cut obscurity at the time, so comparisons with that film were impossible. Therefore, “Cherry 2000” was squeezed out on VHS in the United States and Japan, although it was seen in cinemas in Europe.

Fortunately, the film compares favourably with “Blade Runner,” taking place in a dystopian, grungy, neon-tinged night-time, alongside the post-apocalyptic landscape, a Wild West version of “Mad Max.” There are pockets of relatively normal-looking civilisation, but society’s relationship with itself has changed: in an increasingly sexualised and bureaucratic climate, sex involves drawing up a contract first, so men taking androids for wives is increasingly commonplace. (The film takes place in the year 2017 but, then again, “Escape From New York” was set in 1997.)


“Cherry” is an android whose body has malfunctioned, leading to her “husband,” Sam, on a journey to a factory, located in one of the lawless areas of the US, to find a replacement. Cherry’s personality and memory spends the intervening time on what looks like a dictaphone, inviting comparisons with the relationship of Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s virtual assistant in Spike Jonze’s film “Her.” Sam crosses the land with Edith, a human female sherpa-like tracker. Edith is played by a bright-red-haired Melanie Griffith, in one of her earliest starring roles.

Edith is just about the only female character in the film that isn’t an android, and her presence makes her the star, as she is the only one not to have been made to be controlled by men – as a result, she is also the only character not to have been driven by desire.  When the final escape is made at the end of the film, Edith is the one that makes the altruistic decision to save the couple, and it is her humanity that means she is the one that is ultimately saved – I am trying not to giveaway the ending, but you do hope it is the healthier relationship that wins.

“Cherry 2000” was undeniably made from a male point of view but, thankfully, it is a male fantasy that plays against itself – the use of androids for substitute relationships is shown as convenient, if not entirely wrong, and the rejection of this is still saving the male lead from himself. If remade today, Edith would be more clearly identified as the protagonist, bearing in mind that when the film ended production, we were still a full decade away from Geena Davis playing the lead in action films like “Cutthroat Island” and “The Last Kiss Goodnight.”

Melanie Griffith is undeniably the real star of “Cherry 2000,” and justifiably received an Oscar nomination, and won a Golden Globe, the following year – for “Working Girl,” the romantic comedy she made while waiting for it to be released. Meanwhile, Orion Pictures, which collapsed into bankruptcy in the 1990s before being bought by MGM, is being relaunched in 2020 to make films by, and about, people whose voices are underserved in cinema. This is change being implemented by MGM once Orion releases a science fiction comedy they did know how to promote: “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”



Sunday, 16 August 2020

IN OTHER WORDS, HOLD MY HAND [255]



If a film is made of my life, it will begin like this:

It is 1987, I am four years old, and have just started school. A teacher notices how I am writing, and takes my pencil, putting it through a triangular block that will help me to write better. I was left-handed, and I am expected to take the pencil back in my right hand.

Cut to today, and I write freely and fluidly, with my left hand, like I always have done, because why would you change something that doesn’t need changing?

I hadn’t realised that every 13th August since 1992 has been observed as International Left Handers Day, because left-handedness has largely ceased to be a prejudicial difference in people, when other differences should also have done by now. Whenever left-handedness comes up, even my reaction is just an “oh yeah.” I am aware of the Latin word for “left” being “sinistralis,” causing its own set of problems through history, and how a the perceived cultural issue of using the “wrong” hand has given way to greater understanding of genetic differences in people, leaving general grumbles when you wish a left-handed can opener was as available as a right-handed one.

Before now, the last time I even gave a thought to the hand a person wrote with was at least three years ago. I had printed a photograph of David Bowie’s handwritten lyrics to “Fashion” – he had tried to replace his use of the “Taxman”-like “beep beep” in the chorus, only to write it back in when his first thought proved to be the best one – when I realised his writing sloped slightly to the left. I searched for confirmation of Bowie’s left-handedness online, only to realise all the saxophones, guitars and keyboards he played in his career were right-handed... just as all mine have been.


I am writing this after having placed an order for a keyboard, a Novation Mininova. I already know my left hand will be relegated to playing bass if I play a piece that anyone else has written, but at the same time, whenever I have played a guitar, my left hand is better placed for fingering and chords, with my right hand left holding the plectrum. At the same time, I like how all game consoles have their directional controls on the left side, a hangover when arcade machines did this to make games harder for (most) people to play. However, I only have right-handed scissors because they are all I have ever been given to use, my computer mouse has only ever been on the right side, and if I want tinned tomatoes... and for that matter, I remember another teacher at school, in the canteen at lunch, getting me to hold my knife in the left hand, seeing as I was left-handed. I always hold it in the right hand.

I don’t necessarily think I am ambidextrous because I can use right-handed implements – it is more that I have learned to adapt when implements that would be more suited for me are harder to find, more expensive, or non-existent. Sure, I have a left-handed ruler, where the increments are marked the other way, but that was after thirty years of practice using a “regular,” “standard” ruler. Even the “special” ruler cost more than a right-handed one. (Checking the website of guitar maker Fender, their left-handed guitars laudably cost the same as their right-handed versions, but they are specialist instruments with low production runs, more easily manufactured to an individual’s specifications.)

This may be a topic I will need to explore another time, as I had started this thinking my left-handedness is a quirk, and I have ended it thinking, “they’ve decided to stop going on about it, but the only left-handed things you can have easily are scissors and guitars,” whoever “they” happen to be. I have never been given reason to feel disadvantaged by being left-handed, but what difference would it have made if it had always been catered for? I will have to come back to this.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

IT WAS A GRAVEYARD SMASH [254]


"Nosferatu," a German horror film directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1921, may now only receive a "PG" rating from the British Board of Film Classification, but I still problems watching it. Count Orlok's unnatural features and movement, the shadows, and the sense of foreboding may now only be advised as "mild threat" by the BBFC, but their cumulative effects beat the jump scares of a flash of red, a spray of blood, or a hunk of flesh.

Meanwhile, auteur theory, centralising a film’s director as the prime creative force in its making, is just as pervasive in film culture as horror movie tropes, making artists out of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and even its proponents, like Jean-Luc Godard. The critic Pauline Kael saw through it, preferring to look at each film individually, through the collective effort of everyone that made it: “The auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence, that period when masculinity looked so great and important.”

I only mention auteur theory because I can only assume this is why F.W. Murnau’s skull is still missing from his grave. It remains unknown who broke into it in July 2015, but wax found at the site suggest candles were used in some sort of ritual. I assume the grave has now been sealed by the cemetery, as this was being considered due to previous break-ins – Murnau’s brothers, buried in the same plot, were untouched. The prevalence of auteur theory in how people discuss film still does not mean that Murnau, still revered for “Der Leitze Mann” and “Sunrise,” is entirely responsible for “Nosferatu” as we know it - it’s a bit like saying Wes Craven made “A Nightmare on Elm Street” because he was a psychopath.

"Nosferatu" was deliberately designed to be an occult, supernatural film by its producer and distributor, not the director. Prana Film planned many similar films, had an occult mail order catalogue as a side business. Its co-founder, Albin Grau, a German version of Aleister Crowley, was also the production designer, filling props and backgrounds with occult symbols. Prana Film went into bankruptcy after the release of "Nosferatu," infamously an unauthorised adaptation of “Dracula,” in order to avoid the copyright infringement lawsuits from Bram Stoker's estate.

Before “Nosferatu,” Murnau had already directed one film about a fractured personality, that was also an unauthorised adaptation of a British novel - "Der Janus-Kopf" (1920), starring Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi, was based on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. This film is now lost, but we know the it formed part of the wave of German Expressionist films trying to examine the forces that German society found in itself following the First World War, leading to films like Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Paul Wegener & Carl Boese’s “The Golem: How He Came Into The World” and Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” and “Metropolis.”

However, no-one used the power of German Expressionist cinema to disrupt the graves of those directors, or that of Albin Grau.  

Sunday, 2 August 2020

A WHOLE LOT OF FUN, PRIZES TO BE WON [253]



Coke Zone was the name of a loyalty points scheme operated by Coca-Cola from 2008 to 2013 across its range of soft drinks. By collecting codes printed on bottles, boxes and can ring pulls, the points you accumulate could buy money-off vouchers to use in stores, magazine subscriptions, cinema tickets and, if you were lucky, expensive electrical items like games consoles and cameras.

I have great memories of Coke Zone. Diet Coke is still my favourite drink, and because I rarely ever drink anything alcoholic, Diet Coke is often all I ever drink, apart from water. Introducing a loyalty scheme to a product for which I was already a loyal customer was very welcome indeed.

To be honest, I practically fleeced Coca-Cola when they ran Coke Zone. I diligently collected the codes to enter on their website to collect the points, and friends and work colleagues that knew I was collecting the codes gave me their bottles and cans to throw away, after I wrote the codes down. You were only allowed to collect fifty points per week, and while a 330ml can gave you one point, a 500ml bottle gave you two, and a multipack scored five points, I often reached their weekly limit due to the codes I was given.

In return, I received many things: 100 points could be exchanged for £5 vouchers to use at HMV to buy CDs and DVDs – before 2011, when HMV also owned the bookshop chain Waterstones, I could redeem them for books as well. I received quite a few tickets to watch films at my local cinema, also at 100 points each. I had a year’s free subscription to the film magazine “Empire.” I also had a money-off voucher for a clothes shop, which I remembered using on a pair of shorts.

The high point was when I actually caught a big-ticket item on the Coke Zone website, which often disappeared as quickly as they appeared: on a day off from work, having collected enough points to participate, I spent 600 points to buy a Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-T90 camera, which cost about £250 in 2009 – it was either one of them, or an Xbox 360 console. I still own and use this camera.


When Coca-Cola started to wind down Coke Zone in 2013, the offers had become less enticing – increased participation from people in the points scheme had caused inflation, with vouchers costing 100 points having increased to 150, then 200 points, while larger items, previously costing over a thousand points, were replaced with prize draws, spending fewer points to enter. Coca-Cola provided a final round of larger products to burn up the piles of points that some, like me, had amassed – I bought a nineteen-inch Sony Bravia television which, like the camera four years earlier, would have costed around £250, but costed 1,500 points. Once Coke Zone finally closed, I had received prizes and vouchers worth a total of over £650.

I have never been that lucky since, although I rarely enter any competitions. However, I have benefitted from other points reward schemes: HMV started their own, Pure HMV, whose money-off vouchers came in good use when I realised I needed David Bowie’s complete discography after he died. Like Tesco Clubcard and the Boots Advantage card, my loyalty to buying products from them that I could have bought elsewhere is being rewarded, rather than buying one brand instead of another – I guess the 1980s “cola wars” between Coke and Pepsi never really ended. Meanwhile, my bank introduced a current account in 2014 that offered its own yearly choice of rewards, one of which was six free cinema tickets per year. I have paid to watch a film in a cinema only a few times in the last ten years, and one of those times was for “Cats.”

My Coke Zone online login apparently still works, but Coca-Cola’s website now only offers product news and the occasional competition, which is perhaps all it should ever have done. Coca-Cola is a brand that does not need to advertise as much as other products, such is its place in popular culture – I wish I could find a copy of the poster I once saw that shows a Coke bottle with the slogan, “And what would you like to eat?” They only need to advertise to remind people they are there, which is why you see Coca-Cola ads most often at Christmas, Easter and during the summer.

Fortunately for Coca-Cola, I would have continued drinking Diet Coke regardless of whether Coke Zone existed, but I took advantage of it while it was there. My continual loyalty to them has since been measured in pounds Sterling, rather than points.