Linking Open Data cloud diagram, by Richard Cyganiak and Anja Jentzsch, showing datasets that have been published in Linked Data format. http://lod-cloud.net, made available under a CC-BY-SA licence
I started out my career in moving images back in 1986, as a cataloguer. I worked at the National Film Archive (as it then was), describing the films and television programmes that we acquired by country, title, date, creators and performers. The films were indexed according to subject – we used the Universal Decimal Classification system, or UDC – and on occasion were shotlisted in detail. We were a professional and dedicated team in the cataloguing department, proud of our work, and able to serve general, specialist and commercial enquirers according to need. We weren’t able to keep up entirely with the level of acquisition or, more particularly, the inherited backlog, but backlogs were a part of what made an archive in any case.
Those days are gone. Considering each film in turn and in detail, generating thousands of subject index cards, indulging in the minutiae of shotlisting, producing a catalogue that people had to come and see at our London office or else they would have little idea about what we held at all: all that would not be sustainable now. It was another age.
We weren’t blind to the rise of computer technologies. On the contrary, we had our first computer entry system in place by the mid-80s, using it first to generate a non-fiction print catalogue before adapting it into a database which was maintained in parallel with the paper-based system. We could see the obvious advantages of electronic systems for bringing together common fields to the ideal discovery mechanism. We saw ourselves as always managing such systems. But time moves on.
The Netherlands Institute for Sound & Vision (on a sunnier day than the two we experienced for the FIAT/IFTA Media Management seminar)
It is 2013, and now I find myself at the FIAT/IFTA seminar Metadata as the Cornerstone of Digital Archiving, held at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum, 16-17 May. Essentially its theme was how we are building the automated, self-generating broadcast archive, and where our role as human lies in this as the machines themselves become ever smarter, learning from ourselves and from the very content that they manage. Metadata – such an ugly word – is generally defined to mean ‘data about data’. It is structured information.
When you produce a Word document and save it, the properties state what type of document it is, when it was produced, when it was subsequently edited, who wrote it, how many words it uses, and so on. That is metadata. When you take a photograph with your phone or digital camera, you capture not only the image but an array of information about that image – when it was taken, with what make of camera, where it was taken, with what settings. That is metadata.
Digital objects requires this intelligence so that they can be stored and read again. Such intelligence also enables us to collate, sort and build up resources based on digital objects with common information. That is what a database does, and our world – from Google upwards – is driven by databases. So metadata matters.
Half of the FIAT seminar was devoted to core metadata such as this. It is hugely important for broadcast archives, now that production workflows and preservation needs are predominantly digital, to get their data in order. The issues are complex, and look to be breeding a new kind of moving image archivist best able to deal with them, but the essential details are well-understood, with guidelines such as PREMIS developed by the Library of Congress literally setting the standards.
But it was the other half that most interested me – the metadata that describes the content rather than the carrier, and the degree to which such metadata is now being generated automatically. Digital objects come embedded with huge amounts of information about themselves, particularly in the audiovisual field, and we are only just starting to to learn how to extract such information and make it reusable.
For example, a lot was said about subtitles. Many television programmes are broadcast with a subtitle stream included as part of the digital signal, designed for the hard of hearing. Such subtitles are graphics rather than text (i.e. they are bitmap images), but through a process of optical character recognition (OCR) they can be converted into word-searchable text. That gives you a handy account of everything that was said in a programme, but you can also match those words to dictionaries and thesauri, such as DBpedia, the Web community’s source of structured information derived from Wikipedia. These keywords can then be employed to enable searches to be made across different datasets, linking your TV programmes to other programmes, or other information sources. This is what they called Linked Data, the mechanism that lies at the heart of Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the next stage of development for the World Wide Web, the Semantic Web.
Linked Data works on a principle of particular Web standards: http, uniform resource indicators or URIs, and the RDF metadata model that joins up information in sets of triples as subject-predicate-object e.g. “Charles Dickens [subject] is the author of [predicate] Great Expectations [object]“. The details need not concern us here. What is interesting is to see how the principles can be applied not just to an obvious data stream such as subtitles, but to other sets of information contained within audiovisual media.
Xavier Jacques-Jourion of RTBF demonstrating the GEMS semantic-based multimedia browser prototype, with video top-left and automatically-generated metadata linked to open data sources below
I’ve already written here about the great potential of speech-to-text technologies for opening up speech archives. The various means by which a digital speech track can be converted into readable text have come very much to the fore of late, and there was a real sense at the seminar of this being the next leap forward for broadcast archives. What can be done with subtitles can potentially be done with any speech file – including radio, of course. There were three impressive demonstrations of speech-to-text in action. Yves Raimond of BBC R&D showed how the World Service digital archive is gained enriched descriptions through a mixture of rough speech-to-text generating keywords (rather than transcripts – such technologies seldom produce perfect transcripts) which were then enhanced through ‘crowdsourcing’ i.e. getting volunteers to improve them. Sarah-Haye Aziz of Radiotelevisione Svizzera (Italian-speaking Swiss TV) showed how they had adopted speech-to-text to improve in-house indexing of their programmes. And Xavier Jacques-Jourion of Belgian broadcaster RTBF demonstrated the hugely impressive GEMS, a prototype for a semantic-based multimedia browser. What that means is that the system links data extracted from both traditional sources and speech-to-text, then combines it with Linked Open Data via a smart graphical user interface, or web page to you and me. So a programme which talks about parks (which might be covered by a regular catalogue record) in which trees are discussed (which might not be in a regular catalogue record) is linked automatically to other web resources about trees, contextualising the tree that appears in the programme you are searching. Likewise for events, locations, persons and so on. It’s called entity extraction, and it is going to loom large in our lives, and soon.
But that’s just the start of it. Cees Snoek of the Intelligent Systems Lab at the University of Amsterdam talked us through the practicalities and possibilities of image searching. This is the holy grail for many in the Web world – and many in the surveillance and security industries as well. It’s easy for a computer to find an image if you tell it what that image signifies through adding a description (that’s how Google Images works), but it’s a lot harder for that computer to recognise what a image means without any textual help. It just sees patterns. So the task is to train computer to discriminate between such patterns, training it to understand the co-ordinates of a particular shape and what that signifies, then being able to recognise similar objects elsewhere. We were shown how a computer had been trained to recognise boats by working from a set of images that showed boats, and others that didn’t. It found a lot of boats, but also thought an oil platform was a boat, and likewise a car driving on a wet road.
Systems like this can be found online, but it’s where Snoek took us next that start to make the mind boggle. Why might not a machine analyse a video to make a sentence, or description, from what it sees? By training computers with ‘concept vocabularies’ (ideas rather than simple words) the machine would be able to link together intelligently the images that it sees contained within that video. The video would essentially describe itself.
Who will need cataloguers now?
And there was more. Sam Davies of BBC R&D introduced us to their word on mood-based classification of broadcast archives. By getting actual human beings (they still have their uses) to watch a set of programmes and judge which parts of them were happy, sad, serious, angry etc, and matching such classification to the digital patterning of those programmes, you start to have a system which can be applied to a vast corpus of broadcast content and thereby tell you which programmes are comedies, news, thrillers, or more particularly which programmes excite which kinds of emotions in people. Davies told us that the next step was to combine this means of determining the emotion-led content of programmes with other meaningful data – the affective and the semantic. The machine will know not just what was meant, but what we will feel about what was meant.
BBC R&D’s prototype mood classification system for discovery of iPlayer programme content, via http://www.bbc.co.uk/rd/projects/mood-metadata
So what role is there for humans in the world of machine-generated intelligence? There was much muttering among the archivists in the audience who wanted to see skill and judgment valued above the random nature of automatic extraction and linking. There were some interesting figures bandied about. Sarah-Haye Aziz reckoned that in the future 90% of routine cataloguing would be done by machines, 10% high quality work by humans. Lora Aroyo of Free University Amsterdam, talking about the ingenious Dutch crowdsourcing tool Waisda?, which gets members of the public to tag archive TV programmes as a game, found that when it came to getting the public to choose subject terms, 8% occured in the professional vocabularies of archivists and cataloguers, 23% were to be found in the Dutch lexicon, and 89% were found on Google. People and archivists don’t speak the same language.
They don’t have to speak the same language, of course. Cataloguing is about discriminating between different types of information, and applying skill to how you describe what is before you. It is more trustworthy information. But traditional catalogues belong to a different era, one where the cultural institution knew best. That’s no longer case, or at least not necessarily so. Cultural organisations want to have a much closer, sharing relationship with their public. Projects such as the public tagging of art for the Rijksmmuseum and the UK’s Your Paintings (both covered here previously) point the way. Of course both have proper cataloguing descriptions underpinning those works of art, and have simply opened up to the public new ways of classifying their collections by subject or mood. No one is asking the public to tell them who the painter might be, or who the programme maker was. That’s the 10% that we must leave to the human specialist, for the time being. But the remaining 90% will be decided by the machine. And it is getting more and more intelligent at doing so.
- Details of the speakers and themes of the FIAT/IFTA metadata seminar are here
- Some of the slideshow presentation from the seminar can be found at http://www.slideshare.net/beheerderbeeldengeluid
- Find out more about Linked Data and the Linked Open Data (LOD) map at http://linkeddata.org and see what the UK government is doing about releasing its data in this form at http://data.gov.uk/linked-data
- The BBC R&D (Research & Development) site is a good place for finding out where broadcast technologies are taking us in terms of production, description and delivery
- Welcome to the Machine, a 2008 post of mine on The Bioscope blog, speculates on the future of audiovisual archiving in a digital world, inspired by another conference held at the Netherlands Institute for Sound & Vision.
I remember walking along a garden path towards a gate, my earliest memory.
I remember Peter and Jane.
I remember Alberto y Los Trios Paraguayos.
I remember that the last film to be shown at the Academy cinema in Oxford Street was Dangerous Moves, a Swiss film about chess.
I remember Bazooka Joe bubble gum.
I remember David Hemery winning the 400m hurdles at the 1968 Olympic Games.
I remember it being reported that footballers were getting more intelligent after Brian Hall BSc joined Liverpool.
I remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but seldom the other guy.
I remember Bishan Bedi and his turban.
I remember being woken up and allowed downstairs to see The Seekers sing ‘Morning Town Ride’, my favourite song, on evening television.
I remember ink wells.
I remember Wei Wei Wong.
I remember wearing long trousers for the first time.
I remember a promo film for Alice Cooper’s song ‘Elected’ in which a woman interviewed in the street said she thought he would make as good a US president as anyone.
I remember rods, poles, perches and chains (a chain being 22 yards, or the length of a cricket pitch).
I remember being offered a toy policeman’s helmet and saying that I didn’t want it, when in fact I wanted it more than anything.
I remember reading Pilgrim’s Progress.
I remember being especially fond of the puppet mouse Nana Mouskouri would talk to on her TV show.
I remember going to a university dance and realising that every girl in the room had a haircut like Lady Diana.
I remember Guy the Gorilla.
I remember S-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-mon Dee (and his E-Type Jag).
I remember feeling terribly sad at the lyrics to Hot Chocolate’s ‘Brother Louie’, in which the parents of a mixed race couple were equally prejudiced against the other.
I remember shoes with animal footprints on the soles.
I remember Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby.
I remember Bleep and Booster.
I remember finding myself at the edge of a shower of rain – a step to the left and I was wet, a step to the right and I was dry.
I remember Marmite fritters.
I remember laughing so much I thought I couldn’t breathe any more.
I remember Mouldy Old Dough.
Lawrence of Arabia – before restoration, from Creative Cow
Today I attended What is Restoration?, a one-day conference on the subject of film and video restoration, organised by FOCAL International and hosted by the BFI Southbank. FOCAL International organises an annual set of awards for use of footage in film and television productions. The awards include two for film restorations: one for best single title restoration, one for best multiple-title restoration project. For the past seven years, I have been one of the judges for the restoration award. And it was the thoughts of the judges over several years about just what it was that they were judging that led to the conference.
Originally we had just the one award, for best restoration, and each year we were sent a bundle of DVDs (not in itself the ideal medium for judging a restoration, but often it is all that can be made available) from which to make our scoring, judging each title according to overall quality of the restoration, its fidelity or integrity to the original content and form (e.g. aspect ratio, correct silent film speed), the use of digital technology in the process of restoration (where relevant), the suitability of the title for restoration, and how it has been presented to the public. So we try to be as scientific about the process as possible.
But increasingly we have found it difficult, not to say impossible, to compare like with like. We were judging feature films alongside large-scale multiple-title projects (even entire news archives have been submitted). We were seeing television titles on videotape, for which the processes of restoration (if that was even the right term) were quite different to film. We were trying to compare work undertaken by small archives subsisting on minimal funding with work undertaken by major film studios. It was not a level playing field.
We successfully persuaded FOCAL to add another award, for multiple-item projects, and since 2006 these are the titles which have won the awards:
2006 Mitchell and Kenyon Collection (1900-1913), restored by BFI
2007 The Master’s Edition Norman McLaren, restored by National Film Board of Canada
2008 Documentaries Centenaries, restored by BFI
2009 Set of Kinora reels of golf (c.1911), restored by R&A Archive and Blue Post Production
2010 The Red Shoes (1948), restored by ITV/BFI/The Film Foundation/UCLA Film and Television Archive
2011 Single title: The Great White Silence (1924), restored by BFI
2011 Project: The Chaplin Keystone Project, restored by Lobster Films
2012 Single title: A Trip to the Moon (1902), restored by Lobster Films
2012 Project: The Desmet Collection, restored by EYE Film Institute
(for the 2013 winners, you’ll have to wait until you get to the bottom of this post)
But we would like to see more awards, indeed a full set of awards that represent the full diversity of film and video restoration work by archives, facility houses and studios, large and small. Needing to walk before we run, however, FOCAL suggested a one-day conference ahead of its evening main awards ceremony, in which we would debate issues around preservation and restoration, and present extra awards to some of the most noteworthy productions sent for judging this time around. Hence today’s event, What is Restoration?
Lawrence of Arabia – after restoration
The question is a pertinent one. Film archives have found themselves at a crossroads, as celluloid comes to the end of its commercial life, and digital restoration takes over. Digital is what audiences want, and it is changing how audiences see. Several speakers at the end lamented the bright, flat, synthetic look of some many digital versions of feature films from the past, but what looks (supposedly) good on large screen HD TVs across the sitting rooms of the land is what is determining the aesthetic. For most archives a full restoration means producing 35mm film elements as well as digital outputs, but this is expensive, and in any case is a restoration what meant to recover what was seen once in the film’s heyday, or what audiences expect now?
And then there is the question of video restoration. Why does it not have the same cultural cachet as film restoration? We judges rarely get to see video or TV titles submitted, yet some excellent work goes on in broadcasters and studios that needs championing. Without such championing, others may treat video with less than the attention it deserves. I have been dismayed by some slapdash, cheap releases on DVD of what should be regarded as TV classics, but because the market was presumably deemed small, and because few seem to think in terms of restored TV (unless it was shot on film), so you get lowest common denominator results. We need more opportunities to see video restorations, to get people talking about them, to encourage more such work, and to praise those doing the best work. We need to be giving out awards.
Then there is the work of smaller archives, whose collections often comprise amateur films, industrial production, home movies and the like. How can you compare their work to restoration work on a feature film? Is what they do ‘restoration’? Some would say no, but surely restoration is not just a technical process but also a process of restoring a film (or video) to public consciousness, delivering it to new audiences in appropriate contexts. That’s the sort of work regional film archives do, restoring local films back to their communities. As judges we’ve always been interested in this broader concept of restoration, as the process of bringing the film (or video) fully back to today. Restoration is about making the object meaningful.
There was a great line-up of speakers to address the issues. The keynote address was given by the doyen of film restorer, Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who spoke about the celluloid/digital divide, and the great importance of respecting the original vision – usually of the cinematographer rather the director, the latter being more prone to changing their mind about things and wanting new technologies to ‘rectify’ the limitations of the old. He showed us a clip from the mind-boggling 8K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, where you can now pick out more detail than was seen at the time i.e. it has gone beyond the capabilities of the best film print to show fine detail that is nevertheless there in the negative. Is this restoration, or something beyond it? Crisp said the aim was to achieve what was in the eye of the filmmaker.
Cecilia Cenciarelli, Restoration and Archival Manager at the Cineteca di Bologna and the World Cinema Foundation (an organisation founded by Martin Scorsese to restore world cinema titles) reminded us that restoration was not just a technical process – “it’s about recovering the past”. It is great to see the WCF’s true dedication towards world cinema, devoting attention to titles from Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, as much as the USA.
Michael Barrett presents Nationwide, from http://www.cinemamuseum.org.uk
Charles Fairall and Steve Bryant from the BFI spoke about video restoration, where the challenge is more the obsolesence of video equipment (with consequent need to keep obsolete equipment in good shape and scour eBay for spare parts) that deterioration of the medium itself. It was heartening to see clips from a 1970s edition of the homely BBC magazine series Nationwide – as worthy a candidate for ‘restoration’ as Lawrence of Arabia, just totally different in its cultural value. These were recovered from tapes made with the now very rare Shibaden videotape recorder, with bespoke parts having to be constructed by the archive to make the machine function once more.
Frank Gray of regional film archive Screen Archive South East ruffled a few feathers when he asked whether what we were doing was more re-creation than restoration. He didn’t mean by this that we’re manipulating the past (i.e. using digital to change films for the supposedly better – though there are some who believe they can do this). He meant that we are not in any real sense returning these objects to a former state. We’re not going back to an original – we’re building something from it. Art restoration involves repairing an original, but film restoration builds generation upon generation, taking us further away while we imagine we are getting closer. Is restoration just a romantic conceit?
Zuzana Zabkova of Cinepost Production presented a case study on 1936 German musical comedy Glückskinder, which raised questions for some about what was a suitable subject for restoration, because Glückskinder is no masterpiece. But do we only restore ‘masterpieces’? Isn’t that just snobbish, or narrowly auteurist? Surely restoration has to be about more than bowing before the elected few?
A panel discussion followed, with Clyde Jeavons (curator of the London Film Festival’s archive strand and one of the FOCAL judges), Grover Crisp, Davide Pozzi (L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna), Elif Kaynakci (EYE Film Institute), James White (Film Restoration and Remastering Consultant), Bryony Dixon (BFI), Adrian Wood (Archival Film Consultant and another of the FOCAL judges) and David Walsh (Imperial War Museums). It was an interesting, wide-ranging debate, that focussed on training, on the value of film (they love film, they work with digital) and on how very much they were not involved in re-creation, thank you. They weren’t fully representative of the restoration world, with film still very much to the fore, and I asked my question whether we should be thinking of video restoration in the same terms, so that it might one day gain the same cultural clout. Film has glamour, video does not, admitted David Walsh. Bringing glamour to video is what I think we should try and do. The rewards will be great.
In the middle of all this we gave out our extra awards, and then in the evening the two main restoration awards were made, as part of the full FOCAL awards ceremony. That’s over now, so I can announce the winners now. Warm congratulations to all:
OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN THE FIELD OF FILM RESTORATION AND PRESERVATION: Grover Crisp
SPECIAL AWARDS FOR ACHIEVEMENTS IN THE FIELD OF RESTORATION AND PRESERVATION:
FOR THE SUPPORT OF FILM RESTORATION ACROSS THE WORLD: The World Cinema Foundation
PRESERVATION FILM LABORATORY OF THE YEAR: L’Immagine Ritrovata
FOR OUTSTANDING SOUND RESTORATION WORK: Queen: Hungarian Rhapsody
SINGLE TITLE AWARD: Sony Pictures Entertainment for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
MAJOR PROJECT AWARD: BBC Worldwide for LIFE ON EARTH and TRIALS OF LIFE
So television won an award – but it was TV shot on film! I hope next year we’ll be judging another fine crop of works, and this time there will be works from across the full spectrum of our moving image heritage – and that they can be awarded appropriately.
- Details of past winners of the FOCAL International awards can be found here
- A good place to learn about film restoration today is the site of Immagine Ritrovato in Bologna, perhaps the world’s leading specialist restoration lab (site in English and Italian)
- Film and video preservationist Josh Ranger recently wrote an interesting and provocative post on the ‘elitist’ nature of much film restoration, focussing on so-called great works when the greater part of film and video productions to be found in archives lie neglected
- The BFI holds an annual Missing – Believed Wiped event which shows recovered TV shows
Cherie Lunghi and Kenneth Cranham, in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1980), from http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com
This month the BFI Southbank has been running a season of Jacobean dramas on television. It’s another output of the Screen Plays: Theatre Plays on British Television project, whose conference I wrote about last year. The project aims to document, revalue and champion the largely lost tradition of theatre plays being presented on TV.
The season has featured Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (Granada 1965), John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (BBC 1972), Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling (BBC 1993) and – a little inaccurate in term of date because it is Elizabethan, but certainly right thematically – Hamlet at Elsinore (BBC 1964). As someone whose theatrical education came as much from the screen as from the stage, and as a great enthusiast for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the season has been huge treat for me. It has brought programmes out of the archives which were unlikely ever to have been taken off the shelves again by a scheduler or DVD producer, and shown that they have more than academic interest but that they belong in front of audience.
And then we had ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, an adaptation of John Ford’s 1630s play. Originally broadcast by the BBC on 7 May 1980, it had a mixed reception, largely due to its controversial incest theme, and was never broadcast again. It was never issued to the educational market, it was broadcast before copyright exception were introduced into UK law allowing educational institutions to record programmes, and it has not – so far as I am aware – featured in any retrospective either of plays on film or of the work of its once renowned director, Roland Joffé. To all intents and purposes, it disappeared after broadcast (a viewing copy is held by the BFI, so it has been available for any scholar keen to seek it out). I wasn’t able to watch it at the time (my parents, perhaps not unreasonably, though title and theme unsuitable for family viewing), so it was only after thirty-three years that I was able to catch up and see it.
It was more than worth the wait. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is an outstanding piece of work. I have seldom seen a more fully realised and effective coming together of theatre, film and television, and of a past age and ours. Hauntingly filmed on location in the Jacobean Chastleton House, but set in the Victorian era, the production simplified and clarified Ford’s feverish original play, modernising the language in places, losing peripheral characters and scenes, and emphasising the the ruthless triumph of the propertied class. The villainous Vasques (played with chilling relish by Tim Pigott-Smith) does not get his come-uppance as in the play, but instead gets away with two murders and a blinding.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Cherie Lunghi as Annabella, whose incestuous relationship with her brother Giovanni (played by Kenneth Cranham) is the play’s subject; Alison Fiske deeply poignant as the wretched Hippolyta; and Rodney Bewes as the simple-minded Bergetto, showing that it is perfectly possible to portray the Jacobean idea of a fool and yet get laughs from a present-day audience – a masterly demonstration of comic timing and use of language. But it is the technique that most distinguishes the production. Joffé interiorises the dramas by artful use of camera placements, frequently filming the face of the person being spoke to rather than the person speaking so that one feels the effect of the words all the more, indeed picking up on their double meaning – that for the speaker and that for the listener. He makes the building itself a character, avoiding all temptation to linger over its beauties for their own sake, but instead making its corners, corridors and secret places a logical expression of hidden conversations, overheard confidences and malevolent designs. I was reminded of The Draughtsman’s Contract use of a building for a similar period to frame the drama, but in that film the building’s formal elegance is highlighted, whereas here the building’s floorboards creaked, and there was less emphasis on line, more on uneven reality.
The 16mm photography (by Nat Crosby) was another special feature, and one where the production was probably better served on the big screen than in its original broadcast. There was a rawness to the photography that perfectly suited the passions – suppressed and otherwise – on display, while the tight framing of faces echoed the claustrophobic nature of the house. I didn’t feel that the Victorian setting was particularly convincing (or important), and possibly there was a slight loss of pacing in the final third, but such qualms are minor ones. This is an outstanding work of art, rescued from obscurity, and demanding to be seen again. So how is this to happen?
This is where the problem lies, because the chances of anyone other a few determined souls ever seeing ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore are slim. This is not for a lack of options. As we’re all well aware, the means by which we can access films and TV programmes are huge and various. We have multiple TV channels; we have catch-up TV; we have YouTube; we have DVD and Blu-Ray, with an increasing number of obscure titles released produced cheaply for niche markets; we have Lovefilm, Netflix; if we’re in education we have access to off-air recordings delivered through local arrangements or the Bobnational shared service. We seem to have access to everything.
Yet hundreds of thousands if not millions of films and television programmes remain inaccessible. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is unlikely every to get a TV broadcast again, so a general audience won’t see it and an educational audience won’t be able to record it. A DVD release would be a tough proposition for an obscure play and for a TV production without a strong cult or critical reputation. Grand visions are aired from time to time of extensive access to TV archives through concepts such as the Digital Public Space, but these remains idealistic theories at present, constrained by rights issues, and of not much help to someone who would like to see ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore now, and not in some glorious future (who knows, maybe thirty-three years away). You can see it at the BFI, through their archive viewings service, if you pay, and one or two scholars probably will do so. For the rest, the film is out of sight, and so out of mind.
We need to establish a principle of every film and every television programme being available. We have this for books, so it is perfectly possible to have it for other media. The question is defining what being available means. For books, we have a library network underpinned by the inter-library loan system. In principle, any book held in the UK is available to anyone in the UK. There are multiple copies of individual titles, and these are held in libraries. If you can’t find a copy in your local library, you can order it from another, and it will be delivered to you. Some books are rare and precious, and in those cases you need to visit specialist libraries rather than have the volume come to you, but these are mostly the concern of the specialist, and reprints are often available through the book publishing industry in any case. There is a highly active second-hand book trade online, with used copies of a title listed alongside the new on sites like Amazon. If you want to read something, generally you can, easily and cheaply so.
If you want to see something, things are arranged differently. There is no network of moving image collections in the same way that we have libraries, and no system of interlibrary loan for moving image content; there are far fewer film archives than libraries around, and most films and programmes are held in the archives of commercial entities, whose concern is to issue saleable product, not to offer a public service. We have television itself, but what it is able to show from its archives is relatively narrow, and strongly determined by audience figures (real or anticipated) and the drive always to broadcast what is new. Audience taste for obscurities from the archives is not high in any case (partly through that audience not knowing about such obscurities in the first place), and so we end up with the moving image culture that we have – and a masterpiece like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore remains on the shelves, effectively unseen.
What can we do? Many in my field of work have been worrying over this for years now, without coming up with credible solutions so far. I don’t have such a solution myself, but I do think we should start out with a few principles.
- 1. There should be a right of access to any moving image artefact held in the UK, comparable in its effects to the inter-library loan system that exists for books.
- 2. There should be a register of all moving image artefacts produced in, held and as far as possible viewable in the UK, making it a comprehensive record of what should be available to anyone in the UK under the right of access set out above.
- 3. There should be a publicly-funded television channel, with online extension, dedicated to re-showing archive programmes, not for their nostalgia value but for their public and cultural value.
- 4. Access to television programmes recorded off-air by educational institutions under copyright exception enshrined in the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act should be extended by widening the interpretation of what an educational institution is.
- 5. Access to films and television programmes described on a comprehensive UK register should be extended through the public library sector, by delivering DVD-Rs or protected, time-limited online access to all moving image artefacts held digitally by a confederation of public and private sector institutions that collectively represent the national digital moving image collection.
Some of this is not so fanciful. A general register of UK film is listed as an aim of the British Film Institute in its recent Film Forever policy plan (an earlier initiative, the Search Your Film Archives database, sadly is suffering from neglect). On the television channel idea, the BBC Trust in February 2011 agreed a change to the service licence of BBC4 (along with Radios 3 and 4) to allow it in principle to become a long-term repository for archive TV, as opposed to the one-week-only access offered by iPlayer (the Trust’s report heading refers only to radio, but BBC Four is covered in the text itself). Third party rights still need to be cleared for such in perpetuity access (a major problem behind simply opening up the archives to one and all), but the principle has been established. Channel 4′s 4oD to a degree already operates as such an online channel, of course. The extension of what an educational institution is has been mooted in possible changes to UK copyright law that the government has said that it wishes to see, among a range of recommendations aimed at improving protected access to sound and moving images for study, though such changes are currently being hotly debated. And the last point is technically feasible, and a logical corollary to the second principle.
The most important principle is the first. There should be a right. What exactly it is a right to can only then be determined by a definitive record (principle 2), with modes of access then determined by principles 3-5. But it is establishing the right that will open up the rest. Immediate access to all film and television on your TV set, PC or tablet isn’t going to happen, and it isn’t reasonable that it should happen, anymore than you can expect to find every book every printed in your local library. For some things you have to work a little harder, and travel a little further. But you will be travelling with purpose.
Meanwhile, the moving image access we enjoy is determined predominantly by modes of entertainment, and that has diminished its public value and constrained its reasonable access. Which is a pity, to say the least.
- John Wyver writes in detail about ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and its production history on the Screen Plays blog
- The BFI’s Film Forever plan, covering the period 2012-2017, includes the recommendation for a general register (p. 29)
- The UK government’s response to recent consultations on copyright exceptions and clarifying copyright law, following the Hargreaves Review of intellectual property, entitled Modernising Copyright, was issued at the end of 2012
I remember thinking there was nothing more beautiful than fog on a football field.
I remember cuckoo spit.
I remember being frightened of Wass Water in the Lake District because the water was so dark and deep.
I remember wearing garters to hold up my socks.
I remember Nina Baden Semper.
I remember skimming stones.
I remember ‘Jesamine’ by The Casuals.
I remember the first book I ever read to myself, a book of mountaineers. I liked the story of Edmund Whymper and the Matterhorn especially.
I remember my first French lessons and wondering if all those in France thought in English but had to translate everything into this other language.
I remember Pussy Cat Willum.
I remember steam trains.
I remember Jamboree bags.
I remember the Galloping Gourmet.
I remember nearly drowning after diving under the cover of a swimming pool.
I remember the Common Market.
I remember reading Coral Island, and years later Lord of the Flies, which inverts the whole premise of R.M. Ballantyne’s novel of another age.
I remember the children’s singalongs at Saturday morning cinema.
I remember Sunday School.
I remember being held up to listen to the ticking of a watch.
I remember the Beatles breaking up.
I remember my grandmother, but only just the one time, meeting her in the street in Tunbridge Wells when quite young. Five years’ acquaintance, and only the one memory.
I remember the deep shock the first time I was stung by a bee.
I remember Jack Frost on the windows.
I remember the Love Bug.
I remember reading a football magazine profile of Jimmy Greaves which said he played for Chelsea and Spurs and wondering which he would choose to play for whenever the two sides might meet.
I remember a family holiday in Spain and being told that a famous and quite mad artist (Dali) lived near by and being both puzzled and impressed by this.
I remember Clodagh Rogers.
I remember putting a penny in the slot of a machine in a seaside arcade to see a bear drinking from a glass of beer.
I remember I’m a mole, I’m a mole, and I live in a hole.
I remember bob-a-job.
“Ten years ago, there was a very real danger of a black hole opening up and swallowing our digital heritage, with millions of web pages, e-publications and other non-print items falling through the cracks of a system that was devised primarily to capture ink and paper.
The regulations now coming into force make digital legal deposit a reality, and ensure that the Legal Deposit Libraries themselves are able to evolve — collecting, preserving and providing long-term access to the profusion of cultural and intellectual content appearing online or in other digital formats.”
Roly Keating, British Library CEO
On April 6th the regulations were finally put in place to give the six UK legal deposit libraries the right to receive a copy of every UK electronic publication, on the same basis as they receive print publications. Knowledge and cultural output do not exist exclusively on paper but on a multiplicity of forms, and at last it has been recognised that those six libraries – the British Library, the national libraries of Scotland and Wales, the Bodleian Libraries, Cambridge University Library and Trinity College Library Dublin – should be able to collect blogs, e-books, e-journals and websites.
The advantage of digital files is that they can be shared, and rather than each of the six libraries each going out and archiving the UK web domain on its own is that the collecting can be centralised and then made available at each of the institutions. It won’t be a case of the archived websites being available on the Web. Instead the regulations stipulate that access can only be provided onsite at one or other of those institutions, and if one person is viewing any electronic file archived under the legislation then no one else can do so until that person has finished viewing it. So the electronic archived outputs are being treated pretty much as though they were physical objects.
Nor is it a case that if you turn up at one of the libraries next week that all of the UK’s web past will be there at your fingertips. They haven’t started collecting it en masse as yet, though there is a small selective archive, the UK Web Archive, which has been operating for some years now after obtaining permissions for the owners of selected sites (a laborious process, as may be imagined). They will need to start crawling the UK web domain, targeting an initial 4.8 million websites, with the first results to be available by the end of this year. The UK web domain is expected to be harvested once or twice a year (ie. virtual ‘crawlers’ are sent out to gather in data from sites, focussing on .uk addresses), with more frequent crawling for some specialist areas. Likewise by the end of the year there will be tens of thousands of e-journal articles, e-books and so forth, collected from publishers.
So it is going to take a time to grow, and some elements are going to drop through the net (the average life span of a website is 75 days), but the implications are huge, not least for what we perceive the role of our national libraries to be. There are many who treasure the notion of the British Library and its ilk as temples to the book, where scholars gathered in hushed surroundings, leafing carefully through finely-bound manuscripts, protected from the rude instrusion of the outside world and its electronica. No more! A library is a means of gathering and making available knowledge, a centre for trusted intelligence. It must be shaped not by any one medium but by the forms in which documented knowledge takes. This is what is now happening.
The hushed surroundings of the British Library
However, it’s not quite a perfect world. The legislation on which all this is based is the 2003 Legal Deposit Act (so it has taken ten years to get the regulations in place which determine how what was legislated for in 2003 can work in practice). That was in turn based on the findings of the Working Party on Legal Deposit, headed by Sir Anthony Kenny, back in 1997. His committee set out
to advise on how an effective national archive of non-print material might be achieved, taking into account the need to minimise the burden on publishers, the need to safeguard deposited material from unauthorised use, the archival value of the material, and the scope for making deposited material available among legal deposit libraries through secure IT networks.
Now non-print material includes moving images, and sound. The Kenny committee looked into the matter of incorporating audio-visual media into future legal deposit legislation. For film and moving images generally it said:
It is of fundamental importance that a legal deposit scheme for audio-visual materials recognises their innate physical characteristics and vulnerability and the need to acquire them in new condition. This is to ensure that they are preserved at minimum cost to the taxpayer, and can be studied and enjoyed in the future in the pristine form their creators intended.
Its recommendations were as follows:
4. The aim of a fully effective legal deposit scheme for audio-visual materials should be to protect an original master version of the film or video for permanent preservation and to hold a premiere-version reference copy for study and screening.
5. In the case of films shown or published in the UK, it is proposed that the following materials be deposited:
a) British films (however defined): (i) A mint print of the authorised premiere version, to be delivered to the repository within 30 days of the first showing. (ii) After three years (or other agreed period), the original negatives or acceptable alternative pre-print materials.
b) Other films shown or distributed in the UK: A best copy of the film in the form first shown in the UK.
6. In the case of videos, the deposit materials should consist of a mint-condition duplicate original and new reference copy (if British); a new-condition reference copy (if imported).
In practice this did not happen, and audio-visual media of themselves were not included in the Legal Deposit 2003 Act, which specifically excludes the obligation to deposit sound recordings or film (“A work consisting solely or predominantly of film or recorded sound (or both), where other forms of content are purely incidental”). The reasons for this were as much practical as anything, with the emphasis having been put on physical items and the need to preserve the best possible film elements. Which is costly, and comes with all manner of operational challenges.
While that probably made sense back in 1997, how utterly short-sighted it looks now. Digital video has totally revolutionised our ideas of what a moving image object is, how it it produced, by whom it is produced, what is cultural value is, how it is consumed or shared, and how it fits in with the rest of the digital world. So it is that while we can now start to take in the whole of the UK web domain, that doesn’t mean the moving image and sound parts of it. We can’t capture under legal deposit a video that documents something vital – say a piece of citizen journalism with unique footage of a news event – because of worries from sixteen years ago about caring for 35mm feature films. Audiovisual means knowledge too – so why have we left it out?
Well, we haven’t entirely left it out. The legislation does allow for a degree of leeway, and the 2013 regulations stipulate that it will be OK to include the audiovisual elements of websites where they are incidental to its knowledge value. As the British Library’s guide puts it:
Removing the audio-visual elements from a work that consists solely or predominantly of recorded film or sound (or both) would leave little or no intelligible content. Thus, for example, the 2013 Regulations do not apply to a cinema film DVD, a music CD, broadcast or streamed TV and radio programmes, or UK-published content in online sites such as LoveFilm, YouTube or Spotify.
However the 2013 Regulations do apply to a work that includes audio-visual material as a feature within the main body of work rather than as its main purpose. Removing the audio-visual elements from such a work might well diminish the work’s content or the user’s experience of it, but would not eliminate all of its value. Thus, for example, the Regulations do apply to most websites containing sound or video clips (such as the BBC’s website) because they also include text- or image-based content; the Regulations would also apply to any e-book, e-journal or e-magazine containing embedded sound or moving image files to the extent that the embedded files are published under the control of the publisher.
So if it wouldn’t affect the website too greatly if you took away the audiovisual, it’s OK to harvest them. It’s a bit of a lame argument, but it does mean that they will avoid the absurdity of either leaving out such media or avoiding any websites which has moving image or sound elements.
How far such collecting of the audiovisual by incidental means will extend I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else knows as yet. But it’s an apology for true legal deposit for moving image and sound, and it’s hard not to think of the decision as having had its roots in cultural hierarchy, by which books comes first, other printed media second, and somewhere down at the bottom when it comes to value to the nation’s well-being and store of knowledge, lies the audiovisual. It’s just light entertainment, isn’t it?
Arguably there is a degree of legal deposit for UK television, because the 1990 Broadcasting Act legislated for a national television archive which would record a proportion of national television output, funded by the broadcasters (the national television archive is administered by the British Film Institute). Nor has the absence of legal deposit legislation meant that our film and sound archives are empty. Thanks to donations and voluntary deposit arrangements a substantial part of the UK’s film and sound output has been archived. The British Library’s National Sound Archive takes in around 50% of all UK published audio output through voluntary arrangements with the music publishing industry, for example.
But it’s not enough to rely on goodwill, no matter how good that will may be. We are losing thousands upon thousands of moving image records because the systems do not exist to care for them all, and because our thinking in this area has been too much focussed on the frankly minor field of feature film production.
It is quietly recognised that the absence of audio and video from the 2003 Act is regrettable, and will need to be addressed eventually. Legislation will come around eventually which incorporates all media. But legal deposit acts don’t turn up every year, and who can say how long it will be until we can properly include audiovisual media in the nation’s memory – and what will have been lost while we have to wait.
- British Library press release on the new Legal Deposit regulations
- Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
- The Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-Print Works) Regulations 2013
- Report of the Working Party on Legal Deposit (the Kenny committee)
- Though the official archiving of the UK web domain can only begin this year, the Internet Archive has been archiving the web since 1996, and a UK subset of this data was recently acquired by UK organisation JISC (though it cannot be made generally available to researchers)
The British Film Institute has issued a new version of its database, which is a huge improvement on what has been available online before now. The new service, BFI Collections Search, for the first time combines its bibliographic, filmographic and technical databases, something the BFI has been trying to engineer for years (decades even). This means you can find out which of the 800,000 films and TV programmes on its database it actually holds, a feature not previously available to users outside its library and can find bibliographic references, again for the first time outside its library.
Add this to the subject searching which it introduced a year or so back, and it has become an immensely powerful and useful resource, particularly valuable for searching silent films on account of the large number of shotlists for early films created by its Archive in years past, and the extensive references to film trade journals, especially The Bioscope. Each record, in general, provides title, year of release, production company, credits, cast, synopsis (not all films will have one, please note), subject terms, references, and technical information where copies are held, with most names, companies and articles hyperlinked.
Tha main link takes you to the introduction. For searching, go to the Search link (http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web/search/simple). Search options are Simple, Advanced and (excitingly) Expert, which allows you to build up complex search enquiries using multiple fields e.g. to and from dates so you can search for date ranges. It has some oddities, so person searching is only available on the Advanced Search option (enter surname first) [Correction: You can search by name using Simple Search, but enter surname first]. Records come with a cine camera logo if they have a film, and the camera crossed through if they don’t (though I’ve noticed some instances where they say they don’t have a film, but I know that they do, so treat the information with caution). It always has been a database made up of primary sources (films they hold) and secondary sources (films they just have references to), and it has long been frustrating for researchers trying to tell one from the other. Now you can search using the Advanced option to see what specific materials they hold under each title, and where a viewing copy is available. The amount of technical information supplied is remarkable – by using the Advanced Search option you can, for instance, finding out how many 70mm films they hold (224) or all the film elements they hold for A Matter of Life and Death (45 master and 5 access copies on 35mm).
It helps a lot to know what you can expect to find, and as a service it’s aimed at the specialist. Those with a general interest in film wanting a short synopsis and nice pictures will be better served by the BFI’s general information search options, which is available from its front page or via http://search.bfi.org.uk. Those who may hanker for the old BFI database (without the technical information or article references) can still find it at http://old.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo.
Collection Search also provides access to the BFI’s huge book catalogue, serials catalogue, listing of articles, press cuttings list (names and subjects only, not the cuttings themselves, stills (images not online), posters and scripts. In each instance, the Advanced Search option is the best to use, particularly if you want to do name searching. All the physical library objects are held in its library on London’s South Bank, while the films – where a viewing copy exists – can be booked for viewing on site via the options given here.
A final feature that is really welcome is a search history option, so you can look back on all that you have searched on during one session, and follow the links back to the results.
You can only appreciate what Collections Search offers if you know the struggles that the BFI have had to bring together their different databases, with the filmographic and technical databases having been built long ago on different and stubbornly incompatible systems. Having the article references is also terrific to see. For years they were hidden from all users except those who visited the BFI’s library. Now there are not only the citations, but in some cases descriptions of the article’s contents. It’s wonderful to have so much rich and useful information all together in one place, and available worldwide. For someone who spent quite a few years of his working life adding information to this database (check out my epic shotlists for XIVth Olympiad – The Glory of Sport or The Open Road) there’s also a small element of nostalgic pride.
Highlights from NRK’s ten-hour Nordlandsbanen train journey programme
In December the Norwegian broadcaster NRK put on a ten-hour transmission of a train journey. Filmed from the front of a train cab travelling along the Nordlandsbanen line between Trondheim and Bodø (a distance of 438 miles), the programme gained one million viewers, of a fifth of the population. What was shown was actually a composite of four journeys, filmed over each of the four seasons. The full journey can be viewed on NRK’s special Nordlandbanen page, which offers the original transmission, each of the four journeys from spring, summer, autumn and winter, and a version which shows the four seasons in parallel on four quarters of the screen.
NRK has enjoyed a succession of hits with such journey programme, or ‘slow TV’. The first was a rail journey along the Bergensbanen between Bergen and Oslo broadcast in 2009, with its real-time transmission of a 2011 Hurtigruten coastal boat journey made between Bergen to Kirkenes over six days – probably the world’s longest documentary – being a particular success, with 2.6 million people watching on TV and online along the way.
Such events are arguably film in its purest form. You turn on the camera, and let the world go by. No editing, no cheating with the flow of time, no imposition of narrative, the machine entirely subservient to reality. It’s a little disappointing, therefore, to see that the Nordlandbanen tranmission, as well as being a composite of four train journeys, occasionally features inset interviews with people travelling on the train, and has views not just from the front but from the side of the train. This turns what was pure journeying into tourism, into something with a purpose. The ideal is for the camera to be travelling at the front of the vehicle, with interruption, so that you are not aware of the vehicle at all but only of the sensational of travelling through space and time, seemingly endlessly. That is purity.
The Warwick Trading Company’s View from an Engine Front – Barnstaple (1898)
Such film journeys are almost as old as film itself. In October 1897 the Biograph company in America caused a sensation with a new kid of film when it released The Haverstraw Tunnel, which showed a New York train journey filmed from the front of the cab, with its most exhilarating feature for audiences being the point where the train went through the tunnel, the screen going black only to return to the light once again. Travelling shots from the side of trains and other forms of transport had existed before The Haverstraw Tunnel, but never before had a film turned the audience member into a disembodied figure in this way, hurtling ever forward through the screen. The film was soon billed as The Phantom Ride – Haverstraw Tunnel, and ‘phantom rides’ rapidly became a popular and regular feature of early film programmes, with most film companies jumping on the bandwagon and producing their own versions. An excitable but illuminating review of such a film journey, alongside other views, is provided by this 1898 Punch review:
It is a night-mare! There’s a rattling, and a shattering, and there are sparks, and there are showers of quivering snow-flakes always falling, and amidst these appear children fighting in bed, a house on fire, with inmates saved by the arrival of fire engines, which, at some interval, are followed by warships pitching about at sea, sailors running up riggings and disappearing into space, train at full speed coming directly at you, and never getting there, but jumping out of the picture into outer darkness where the audience is, and the, the train having vanished, all the country round takes it into its head to follow as hard as ever it can, rocks, mountains, trees, towns, gateways, castles, rivers, landscapes, bridges, platforms, telegraph-poles, all whirling and squirling and racing against one another, as if to see which will get to the audience first, and then, suddenly … all disappear into space!! Phew! We breathe again!!
Whether every early audience member’s experience of watching phantom rides was quite so phantasmagorical is open to question, though the appellation ‘phantom’ does suggest that they had an otherwordly, unsettling effect for some. What is now calming for a Norwegian audience was more energising for the audience of the 1890s for whom such a visual experience was wholly new.
Audience viewing a ‘phantom ride’ film from inside a Hale’s Tour ‘carriage’ c.1906
The strange relationship between spectator and screen, particularly at that point where you are sitting still but your mind is being propelled forward, became a major part of early cinema’s profound appeal, and its commercial success. Some of the first ‘cinemas’ were the famous Hale’s Tours – so named after their founder, George Hale – which placed audiences inside a mock-up rail carriage, at the front of which would be projected a film taken from the front of a travelling train (or other vehicle), while the whole carriage would rock to and fro to further the session of motion. Hales’ Tours (which originated in the USA and came to the UK in 1906) offered a variety of such film views for the ten to fifteen minutes such a show would last, emphasizing the touristic experience. But deeper than the wish to see far-off places was the wish to escape into travel, and to be forever travelling. The affinity phantom rides and Hale’s Tours have with the virtual reality concepts and amusement offering of today have been much commented on, but simulated roller-coaster rides and other such ’4-D’ audiences attractions subvert the journey to a particular purpose. The pure film has no such purpose – it must simply take us on an uninterrupted journey, without cuts or deviations, seemingly travelling forever.
It is commonly argued that the phantom ride had disappeared as a film attraction by the late 1900s, to be subsumed as an attraction into larger film narratives, such as the opening titles sequence of Get Carter, or the prolonged car journey in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. But the phantom ride did not die, it simply transferred to forms outside the cinema. Amateur filmmakers took up the opportunity, particularly train enthusiasts, who have created what a variously known as cab rides on train cab videos. There are various companies selling DVDs and Blu-Rays of train journeys from around the world, each generally filmed from the front of a train and showing the journey from start to finish. Such ventures have certainly been going since the 1980s and probably have an older history than that.
In the age of ubiquitous video equipment and the rise of youTube, such videos have moved online. There are hundreds of thousands of them, documenting every train journey imaginable from around the world. They are all over YouTube, plus numerous dedicated websites, as well as the individual train videos to be found on travel and train company websites (railway companies were the sponsors of train films from the earliest years, as they were seem as an easy form of free advertising). The video above is typical – a 90-minute rail journey from Wakayama to Osaka in Japan, made in 2012.
Nor are such videos limited to trains. The several videos of the meteorite that struck Russia in February 2013 were taken from the front of cars travelling along a road. The reason these video cameras were in place was not out of any desire to record the otherworldly beauty of travel on Russia’s roads (or indeed in the hope of recording a passing meteorite) but rather because of the reported corruption of some of Russia’s traffic police. Russian car drivers have taken to videoing their journeys to produce an objective record of what they were doing on the road, just in case they are stopped by the police and have a false accusation planted on them. There are, nevertheless, plenty of videos of car journeys that record the journey alone, often employing time-lapse – something probably introduced by the BBC’s famous 1952 ‘interlude’ London to Brighton in Four Minutes, which in form and intent seems very close to, if very much quicker than, the NRK broadcasts. There are motorbike and bicycle videos filmed from the front of the vehicle, and the whole sub-genre of commuter videos (well worth a post to itself one day).
Train cab videos are made by train enthusiasts with a passion for the rail experience rather than a desire for creating pure film. The NRK broadcasts are significant therefore, because their primary appeal is not train travel per se. It is not even touristic, or a patriotic sentimentality for familiar scenery, though both are obviously part of the local appeal. What seems to make the broadcasts works so effectively is how they gently take people out of themselves. We are disembodied. We float freely through the landscape at an even speed, and though we are on a journey than began somewhere and will end somewhere else, to all intents and purposes we are travelling endlessly. This seems to be what lies at the heart of the success of the NRK broadcasts. They are are so profoundly peaceful because they find that ideal space between stasis and motion. We are still and yet we are propelled forward. We are guided by safe hands. We are travelling hopefully, oblivious for a time at least to the fact that all our journeys must, inevitably, one day come to an end.
- The full 10-hour Nordlandsbanen journey and its seasonal variants can be found at http://www.nrk.no/nordlandsbanen, with a handy background account of the broadcast and the troubled history of the railway line itself here
- All 134 hours, 42 minutes and 45 seconds of the Hurtigruten 2011 coastal boat journey can be seen on this dedicated NRK site
- There is a good account of the history of the phantom ride on Brian Phelan’s The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of blog
- Another informed overview of the phantom ride genre is given by Christian Hayes on the BFI’s Screenonline site, with plenty of examples (available only to UK schools and libraries)
- The excellent Alexandra Palace Television Society YouTube channel includes London to Brighton in Four Minutes
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you …
T.S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’
The Third Man (1949) is one of the satisfying films ever made. From the moment it was released, it was appreciated equally by high-brows and the general public, working as a romantic thriller or as a complex work of art whose depths were as satisfying to explore as it was entertaining to watch. Time has only deepened the appreciation of a film which, through a happy coming together of talent, timing and luck, represents some of the best of what cinema can achieve.
I visited Vienna last week, and took time out to locate several of the famed locations which appear in the film – the Prater fairground with its Ferris wheel, the Zentralfriedhof cemetery, Harry Lime’s apartment entrance in Josefplatz, and the doorway in Schreyvogelgasse where Lime (played by Orson Welles) makes his memorable first appearance. In preparation for this pilgrimage, and again afterwards, I watched the film, and tried to get to the heart of what makes it work so well. It seems to lie in the story, or rather in how it does not rely on the story. What I mean by that is that the film has a plot of almost classical perfection, whose ingenuities transfix us throughout, yet what the film does is constantly to elude the specifics of plot. What is going on is not what we see happen, but how the characters stand outside such circumstance even while they are propelled along by it, perhaps helplessly. There is, moreover, a sense that everyone knows what is going on (albeit their own version of what is going on) except for the storyteller himself, Martins, the man who is trying to piece together the narrative for himself, and for us.
But what is the story? In plain terms it is the tale of an American writer and Czech actress whose loyalties to a friend and lover are severely tested when he is proven to be a black marketeer (with a trail of child victims) and a murderer, all set against an occupied, post-war Vienna. But such synopses are for film encyclopedias. What is the real story of The Third Man?
The doorway in Schreyvogelgasse, Vienna, where Harry Lime makes his dramatic appearance
The starting point has to be the title. Why is this film called The Third Man? It obviously bothered David O. Selznick, the film’s American co-producer, of whom the film’s scriptwriter Graham Greene reported – not entirely reliably – that he felt audiences would be puzzled by the title and it should be called something like A Night in Vienna, a title guaranteed to bring the punters in. The third man is explained early on in the film, when we learn that when Harry Lime’s supposedly dead body was taken across the road there were two known people who carried him, but the porter at Lime’s apartment block is alone in saying he saw a third man (“There was a third man”), to be later murdered because of it. Is that all? Does the title simply point us to a phantom corpse carrier?
Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) walks under a ladder on his way to Lime’s apartment (located in Josefplatz, Vienna)
There are other third men to be found. One is revealed by Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), the writer of low-brow Westerns, who tells Popescu that he is writing a new novel – meaning that he is in pursuit of the mystery behind Harry Lime’s ‘death’ – and he is to call it The Third Man. It certainly helps up to think of The Third Man from the perspective of one of Martins’ novels. The Third Man is perhaps the quintessential British Western film. Martins – author of such works as The Oklahoma Kid and The Lone Rider of Santa Fe – finds himself living out one of the plots from his imagination, their moral certainties challenged by the complexities of reality. He is the stranger who rides into town, discoveries a mystery, clashes with and spurns authority, hunts down the bad guy, and finally gets his man in a final shootout. Martins is also Graham Greene’s joke on himself – the writer of ‘cheap novelettes’ in pursuit of his story amid the ruins of Vienna, throwing together one more entertainment for the big screen which could reduce the writer’s art down to the barest essentials.
Or perhaps The Third Man is a roman à clef whose subject is a real ‘third man’, namely Kim Philby. Charles Drazin, in his excellent In Search of the Third Man, puts forward the thesis that Greene based Harry Lime at least in part on his acquaintance with the British double-agent Philby, who would subsequently be exposed by the press as the ‘third man’ (i.e. third after the exposés of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean). Philby, with whom Geene worked in British intelligence in Portugal during the Second World War, had lived in Vienna as a young man. There he had worked for the Committee for Aiding Refugees from Fascism and had helped persecuted socialists escape the civil war that broke out of the streets via the city’s sewers. He married a young communist, Litzi Friedman, in doing so giving her the protection of his British passport. On his return to London he worked for a news agency gathering information on Eastern and Central Europe and was recruited by Soviet intelligence.
There are interesting echoes here of Lime – living in Vienna, working for a refugee office (Lime works for the International Refugee Office), escape via sewers, girlfriend fearing arrest as an illegal alien, the double life. Drazin also tells us that in Vienna Philby met with one Peter Smolka, who later became the Times correspondent in Vienna and interested Greene in his short stories of city life, including one which featured a diluted penicillin racket which Greene then adopted for his film scenario. Drazin speculates that Greene was aware of Philby’s double-agent life when they worked together in Portugal, though it was only in the mid-1950s that Philby was openly suspected of being a double agent and hence ‘the third man’ (this was finally confirmed in 1963). Philby could have watched The Third Man and seen his own story, at least metaphorically so, and the sense that Harry Lime represents somebody actual (the specifics of the penicillin racket help suggest it) haunts the film.
But there is another story of a third man. The ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ quotation from T.S. Eliot at the top of this post points to it. Eliot, in his notes to ‘The Wasteland’, says that he is referring to an account of the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, when one of the party of explorers “had the constant delusion that there was one more member that could actually be counted”. However, what Eliot is really referring to is the passage in the Gospels where Christ appears, unrecognised, to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus Christ is the third man.
Rembrandt’s Christ at Emmaus
Graham Greene the Roman Catholic habitually wrote about Catholic central figures whose absolute faith is measured against the relativist morals of the unbelievers. Harry Lime is a Catholic – he is given a Roman Catholic burial service (twice) and in Greene’s The Third Man novelette his religion is stated explicitly. Martins reminds him (on the Ferris wheel) that he had religious faith once:
You used to believe in God.
Oh, I still do believe in God, old man. I believe in God and Mercy and all that. But the dead are happier dead. They don’t miss much here, poor devils.
Greene plays with the paradoxes of faith throughout. When Martins is asked to give a talk to the British Council, the theme chosen for him is ‘The Crisis of Faith’, and when the porter tells Martins that Lime is dead he says that he is either in heaven (pointing downwards) or hell (pointing upwards). It is a moment of pure Greene mischief.
And then of course Harry Lime is a man who rises from the dead. He is persecuted, betrayed in Judas-like fashion (“What price would you pay?” Martins asks Calloway when he finally agrees to help trap Lime. “They have a name for faces like that” says Anna, when she learns of this), and executed, before being buried again. The Christ who appears to the two disciples at Emmaus has risen from the dead and crucially is not recognised, until he breaks bread with them. Lime is not recognised for the good that he may represent by any character in the film except Anna.
But Harry Lime is not a good man. He is transparently evil. Although he may have religious faith (to which the film refers only obliquely) he makes no expression of it. He is no one’s moral superior. He simply acts for his own selfish ends with no other governing idea in his life that we are made aware of, and nothing virtuous about him at all save possibly some respect (it is hardly love) for Anna, even while he betrays her. Far from being Christ-like he is Lucifer-like, taunting Holly with his talk of victims by pointing down to the people below them from their Ferris wheel location (“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money — or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax”).
Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the Ferris wheel cab at the point where Martins reminds him that he used to believe in God
The most remarkable thing about The Third Man is that it makes Harry Lime sympathetic and his end tragic. Holly Martins does the right thing in helping the police capture him, but we do not admire him for it. Anna overlooks the evil he has committed (and his child victims) yet it is her decision to spurn Martins at the end of the film that we instinctively recognise as right. Her faith in Lime, her refusal to betray what she believes in, is revealed as the greater good.
This taps into a deep human feeling, much as religion does – the yearning for the truth greater than the petty concerns of daily living. He whom Anna believes in is wrong, but her belief is right. This is the story, or at least the underlying moral, that propels The Third Man, the story that is in all the protagonists’ minds while they negotiate those immediate issues that the film’s plot presents to them. Their feet are on the Josefplatz, but their minds are on the road to Emmaus.
Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) walks past Holly Martins at the Zentralfriedhof cemetery outside Vienna
- Location shots in Vienna of The Third Man is an excellent guide to the Vienna locations used in the film, with a large number of relevant screengrabs and much ingenious detective work on display – a map of the locations is here
- Vienna offers Third Man tours – complete with a visit to the sewers
- Vienna has its own, privately-owned, Third Man museum
- www.thethirdman.net is an exhibition site which serves as a useful introduction to the film, its production history and its locations
- Anton Karas plays ‘The Third Man’ theme on the zither at the Empress Club, London in this 1950 Pathe newsreel clip
I rather enjoyed putting together a post a few weeks ago on obscure new wave records of the 1979-80 period which can be found on YouTube and probably nowhere else, so here’s a follow-up. We’re back in that marvellous period ushered in by the punk revolution of 1976-77, when all of the rules that supposedly governed the popular music business were shown to be sham. You didn’t have to be rich, musically gifted, from London, glamorous, or in hock to a major record company. You didn’t have to sell your soul. So much of the music of the 1970s had become soulless, mechanical, cynical, cheesy, and frequently ludicrous. Punk and then the new wave wiped away it all.
I took a while to to catch on the wonderful music that was coming out of garages rather than faraway studios. I was a bit of a music snob, cherishing quirky jazz-influenced bands like Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North and Caravan. I disliked the sound of punk, but I did at least admire the principles. It was a moral revolution. You didn’t do cover versions, you were nice to support bands, you didn’t mime to records on TV, you believed in social justice, you sang about life on the streets not the life of a rock star. I respected the thoughtful advocacy of the movement from people like Mark P. I admired the principled stand of a band called The Desperate Bicycles, who made their records for small change, called out for a music where the band owned the means of production, and encouraged anyone to do the same with their rallying cry – “It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it!”
Gradually (through John Peel) I started listening to the music, and slowly it dawned on me that the revolution was a beautiful thing. It was a revolution where experimentation was everywhere, and that became a big part of the appeal to me. You didn’t have to know finger-twisting chords or irregular time signatures – you just had to think freely. This selection of obscurities from that period focusses mostly on some of the great musical innovation of the period, but again records largely forgotten by music history. So song number one is the Desperate Bicycles’ ‘The medium was tedium’ (the single sleeve shown above is for another record), which was not only an expression of principles but (I now realise) really musically inventive as well.
Mark Perry – Whole World’s Down on Me
Here is that other prophet of DIY music, Mark Perry aka Mark P. Perry was the publisher of Sniffin’ Glue, the punk fanzine that helped define what was best about the whole movement. He soon became disillusioned by what punk turned into, and formed his own band, Alternative TV. This charming single from 1980 is a solo effort, a cover of a Ken Boothe reggae number. It’s as rudimentary a production as you will ever hear, and holding a tune was not among Perry’s more obvious gifts, but nothing sums up those times better than this simple, heartfelt and sincere record.
Epic Soundtracks – Jelly Babies
Epic Soundtracks was memorable stage name of Kevin Paul Godfrey, founder member of the terrific Swell Maps. That band made such raw and exhilarating singles as ‘Dresden Style’ and ‘Let’s build a Car’ and has a strong cult following, but Epic’s solo work is not so familiar. This early single from 1981 in arrangement, melody and lyric is almost quite like anything else you may have heard. The subject is unwanted children; the tone is bleak; the guest singer is Robert Wyatt (so a reassuring link for me from my Soft Machine days). It wasn’t a hit. Sadly Godfrey died too young in 1997.
Sudden Sway – Let’s Evolve
Sudden Sway hailed from Peterborough and were a damn sight too clever for their own good. Their 1983 appearance on John Peel dumbfounded all who were listening. We simply had heard nothing like before – nor would again. More of surreal audio comedy piece than a song, ‘Let’s Evolve’ is a mock educational lesson in evolution, taking us from amoebas in the pre-Cambrian oceans to making our first lizard-y steps on the shore. It was never released as a single, being issued on record as part of a Peel session EP in 1986. So, take a look at your body and say, it’s good, but it’s getting better…
Liliput – Die Martosen
It has been fun digging out these records from YouTube, but a better option is to go to a site like Bandcamp. Here’s a site expressing the true spirit of the new wave, where musicians can bypass the labels and sell directly to fans. Amid the myriad of musicians from today (none of whom mean anything to me, alas alas) a number from my far-off period of interest have made their records newly available in this way, which you can purchase and/or embed, as I’m doing now. So here’s Switzerland’s finest, the all-female (most of the time) Liliput. Originally known as Kleenex, they were forced to change their name owing to the objections of the tissue company. They released a succession of raw, chirpy, catchy songs that both sound like pop and deconstructed pop at the same time. ‘Die Martosen’ dates from 1980 and brings to the enthusastic mix out-of-tune saxophone and great whistling. There’s isn’t enough whistling in popular song these days.
Liliput – Split
Then you turn over the record and find the magnificently rowdy ‘Split’. Lord knows what they are singing about (the word ‘hopscotch’ seems to loom largely) but it’s a joyous racket with a rhythm that could make the dead dance. A nursery rhyme for the hyperactive child in your family.
Shoes for Industry – Sheepdog trial inna Babylon
Here’s one of those songs that became a legend – albeit a minor legend – on the strength of its title alone. ‘Sheepdog trial inna Babylon’ by Bristol’s Shoes for Industry brings dub reggae to that bastion of English traditionalism, the BBC programme One Man and his Dog. It could be a serious inversion of reactionary values, or it could just be silly. It was the B-side of their 1980 single ‘Spend’, but that I’ve forgotten, while this will earn them their reward in heaven. Great band name, great song title, even a great name for the record company (Fried Egg Records).
And the Native Hipsters – Larry’s Coming Back
And the Native Hipsters (that was their full name) made their indelible mark on radio history with their 1980 single ‘There’s Goes Concorde Again’, which (if memory is not playing tricks with me) had people phoning up stations begging them to stop playing the record because it was so annoying. It was not much more than singer Nanette Greenblatt intoning in a world-weary voice about the ‘fat women’ who walked up and down the hill periodically looking up at the sky and saying ‘Oh look, there goes Concorde again … oh look, there goes Concorde again … oh look, there goes Concorde again’ and so on, and on and on and on. That record deservedly has some fame, but they were an inventive group (duo really, William Wilding being the other member) who married curious melodies to off-the-wall accompaniments that sounded to be on the verge of collapse. ‘Larry’s Coming Back’ has always been a favourite, for the sweetness amid the oddity, including echoes of one-time children’s radio favourite Larry the Lamb.
The Homosexuals – Kiss with Venom
The Homosexuals did not make life easy for themselves. When they changed their name from The Rejects – for purely confrontational reasons – the drummer left in protest. They looked like a standard issue guitar, drums, bass band, but in practice they followed no path but their own, showing remarkable melodic, structural invention and an acrid sensibility in records seldom more than two minutes long. ‘Kiss with Venom’ is the song of theirs that has stayed in my head the most down the years. It dates from 1984.
Girls at our Best! – Warm Girls
Girls at our Best! were a quartet, and only one of them was a girl, which always felt like a bit of a cheat when you heard ‘Warm Girls’, their first record. They are probably much better-known than the other bands listed here, almost making it big after three or four glorious pop singles followed by an album that was a bit too glossily produced. They were the epitome of a band of tremendous vitality and invention when they released singles who faltered at the looming oppressiveness of an actual pop career. This, their first record, released by Rough Trade in 1980, is as imaginative as it is incendiary. Marvel to the musical variety or thrill to the scathing feminist irony (“and I love little children, love little children”). If there is to be just the one record from the new wave era on my desert island, this will be it.