A collection of archival clips puts to shame a seedy corner of today’s TV…
I just caught a wonderful programme on BBC4. That’s a sentence I could write a few times a week: the channel’s worth the licence fee alone, unlike that nice Mr Attenborough who used to be, but has now gone off a bit.
So why mention it? Well this one turned out to be unusually affecting. The London on Film series comprises three seemingly artless compilations of archive films, from the medium’s invention to the rather implausible full-colour arrival of the Canary Wharf development. Last night it was the East End, the West End having been looked at last week, and the suburbs upcoming (you can catch all of them on the iPlayer).
So why was the East End episode so affecting? Common to all the programmes are the lack of ‘astons’ pointing out who’s talking or where. You’re left to rely on your own vague recollections (“Isn’t that Jonny Speight?”) and contemporary voiceovers that tell truncated stories. The lack of pointers and the light editorial touch made these excerpts feel like something that had turned up after a couple of centuries in a capsule, one of those boxes thrown together and buried under a ceremonial tree to enlighten future generations: this is how we lived.
It’s intriguing to see the recent history of your own civilisation handled in this way. For one thing, people become mostly anonymous, stripped of any celebrity or renown. They’re simply people: distant in time and yet just like you and me.
Many of these people told their own stories, and they were often people from very poor backgrounds. They spoke quite matter-of-factly, without any of the fripperies added by the producers of today’s programmes. This was The Rock and Roll Years without the rock and roll, or much anything else.
Watching I was struck how infrequently we hear poor people talking about their lives, their hopes, fears and aspirations, without it somehow being packaged as the worst sort of exploitative entertainment. Unless the poor are amusingly fat, immoral, stupid, rude, shameless, or perhaps foreign, TV isn’t really interested.
I suspect nostalgia for a more civil time is what many viewers of this programme might have felt. However, the civil poor are still with us; they just tend to be ignored. One wonders what a film capsule from our own time would look like to future generations.
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