It must have been one hell of a bus to have attracted a million passengers last Monday night when BBC4 hired it to travel through the Yorkshire Dales; and who’d have thought there’d be such a demand for tickets in this high-speed, fast-cutting television landscape where it’s often difficult to distinguish between a programme trailer and the programme itself, so terrified are programme-makers that the viewer’s short attention span will cause the changing of channels should the camera linger longer than a handful of seconds?
In case you missed it, ‘All Aboard! The Country Bus’ took up two hours of airtime and featured neither host nor voice-over; information languidly glided onscreen every once in a while, though that was the extent of interjection as the programme took the viewer on a sedate excursion from Richmond to Ingleton via the Swaledale Valley in North Yorkshire. It followed in the footsteps of last year’s ‘All Aboard! The Canal Trip’ (a narrow-boat journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal) and ‘All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride’ (the same duration, but this time a sleigh ride in Norway). The location of the latter seemed apt, for the phenomenon known as ‘Slow Television’ is something credited with beginning there in 2009 when the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation screened a seven-hour train journey in real-time.
Some attribute the roots of Slow TV to the notoriously inactive Warhol movies from the 60s, such as ‘Sleep’, in which the camera stays focused on poet John Giorno as he sleeps for five and-a-half hours. However, it could be said that what is now known as Slow TV is as much an old small-screen institution as it is a new innovation – a modern take on what was once commonplace on television and is now seen in an undeniably fresh light when compared to the breathless norm. It will particularly feel so for those raised on the fast-food MTV diet of broadcasting, those with no memory of the days when television operated for most of the time in a far slower gear than would be acceptable today.
Static images on screen for mere minutes would seem radical now, and none of the programmes to have fallen under the Slow TV banner in this country have been quite as radical as that; yet it was once par for the course – as long as there was accompanying music. The ‘Follows Shortly’ caption was standard practice between programmes on the BBC during daytime transmissions. You actually had to wait – yes, wait (!) for the next programme to appear; and pre-breakfast TV and round-the-clock broadcasts, telly would kick-off on a morning with a plethora of static images – programme line-ups, a list of local transmitters (on the ITV stations) or simply the good old test card. And because we knew no better, we waited; and waited. If that wasn’t Slow TV, I don’t know what is.
Before my time, the BBC had its regular famous Interludes that sometimes bridged the gaps between programmes; these weren’t static, but not a lot was going on, to be honest. The potter’s wheel, the kitten playing with a ball of wool, the horse-drawn ploughs, the babbling brook, the shore of a Caribbean island – each soundtracked by the kind of in-house BBC Mood Music that constituted the majority of the playlist on the Light Programme in the 50s and well into the 60s. These were ‘time out’ moments for television – the equivalent of your telly sitting down for five minutes with a cuppa – and could easily be bracketed as Slow TV if they were to reappear in 2016.
Even the proper programmes moved at a less frenetic pace then. Watch any television drama from the 60s or 70s and it bears more of a resemblance to a stage play than a movie; theatre was the training school for most of the actors, writers and directors who produced them, so it was only natural; add budgetary constraints to the picture – the easy accessibility of studio time as opposed to expensive location filming – and it makes sense. But what to many might now seem slow actually appears quite refreshing when viewed anew, allowing breathing space for character development and eschewing the need for constant cutting between scenes to maintain the audience’s concentration, as though the audience comprised a classroom of five-year-olds hungry for incessant sugar-rush stimulation.
When the majority of today’s mainstream television entertainment – certainly the Saturday night variety, anyway – can induce the insane sensation of being entombed in a padded cell crammed full of hysterical, hyperactive kids permanently whooping, cheering and screaming, it’s no wonder there have been so many takers for the soporific charms of Slow TV.
It appears a radical antidote to the bombardment of ads, trailers and interrupted end credits in the same way that the two-minute snarl of ‘White Riot’ was an antidote to the never-ending story of ‘Freebird’. It may be a fad or it may be here to stay; but it’s nice to have a novel alternative with a ring of familiarity to anyone over 40.
© The Editor