INTERMISSION OF MERCY

Considering where my interior excursions have taken me of late, it probably won’t come as a great surprise to learn I spent some of the weekend watching the ultimate visual alternative to the media here and now, i.e. BBC Interlude films from the 1950s. Most of them are on YouTube, and I wandered into their comforting embrace totally unplanned, albeit probably driven by the kind of subconscious craving for unusual escapist options that has become the norm over the past year. As these curious little films predate my lifetime, they’re something I’ve always found quaintly intriguing ever since I saw a few repeated during the BBC’s 60th anniversary in 1982. Although British television had yet to morph into a 24/7 landfill site in 1982, the launch of breakfast TV the following year pointed the way forward, so it now feels as if 1982 was the last year in which television could get away with putting its feet up for a while; and what better way to do that than the Potter’s Wheel?

The Interlude films, ranging from five to ten minutes, hailed from a time when virtually all television went out live; this seems an important point. For example, should the evening’s showcase programme be the broadcast of a play staged at Lime Grove, it would naturally follow the same pattern as in the theatre, with an interval required for scene and costume changes as well as giving the actors a breather; therefore, a short Interlude would plug the gap for viewers, providing a barely moving image on a static camera if one wanted to watch, but a visit to the privy or the boiling of a kettle could be attended to without fear of missing any action; return to the room and nothing had changed.

These famous fillers, which appeared to have achieved iconic status even during the era in which they were broadcast, have a unique period charm that serves as quite a sedative in 2021; I guess their original purpose wasn’t too dissimilar, but some of the subliminal messages inherent within those seemingly innocuous images are now so redundant that their antiquated appeal is considerably enhanced. Of all the ones I’ve chilled out to over the past couple of days, perhaps the ones that appear to embody a particular ‘this is what we fought the War for’ vibe are the ones that could just have easily been immortalised as patriotic propaganda on canvas as on the television screen. The Interlude featuring an old lady at a spinning wheel has an almost-‘Whistler’s Mother’ ambience; I should imagine even in the early 50s use of the spinning wheel had become something of an eccentric choice in the age of the sewing machine, but the fact the old lady is also sat outdoors lends the vision an even greater Olde World potency, as though she represents a gentrified impression of a pre-industrial rural idyll of the kind evoked in a song like ‘There’ll Always Be an England’.

Similarly feel-good nostalgia permeates the Interlude of the windmill in Bury St Edmunds and the lady sedately engaged in embroidery by the fireside. However, maybe none quite spell out these sentiments with such elegiac serenity as the Interlude of horse-drawn ploughs slowly plodding along the field. In reality, the tractor had already all-but replaced this ancient agricultural sight – indeed, one of the earliest storylines on ‘The Archers’ (which began in 1951) concerned the retirement of two Shire horses as the farmers of Ambridge moved into mechanisation; but this archaic Interlude is effective. It makes one think of the wartime ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and the enduring mythology of Merrie England’s green and pleasant land, both the nutritious womb of the nation’s diet and the scenic Arcadia of the Romantics. It’s a step back to a gentler pace of life in that uncertain interim between the horrors of the Home Front and the white heat of the Swinging 60s. I suppose it could also be looked at as a subtle reminder for the everyday trials of a 50s audience that an evergreen England will still be there when austerity and rationing are finally over – that garden beyond the bombsite which proved immune to the jackboot.

Many of these Interludes boast a Light Programme-type soundtrack, whereas some simply feature the melody of nature, whether rolling waves on a distant Jamaican beach or the sounds to be found rowing along a quintessential British river; those belong to the ‘landscape’ variety of Interludes, of which there are several. Some of the more ‘domestic’ indoor Interludes reflect a nation of animal-lovers, particularly the one in which the camera fixes on the inhabitants of a tropical fish tank and the one starring a characteristically animated white kitten romping around what looks like a middle-class drawing-room. The latter is perhaps the liveliest of all the original Interlude films, unless one includes the famous fast-motion ‘London to Brighton in Four Minutes’ short in the Interlude list, which plenty often do.

Generally, however, the Interludes were not necessarily designed to stimulate the senses; on the whole, the opposite was the intention. Lest we forget, the Britain that produced these films was one in which a day like Sunday forced its citizens to take it easy, to relax with a pipe and a paper because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do; an Interlude therefore mirrored the mood in most post-roast households. Although they seem to typify the pre-ITV, so-called ‘cosy’ British TV experience of the 1950s as much as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, BBC Interludes appear to have made it into the brave new world of the 1960s, though the test card began to claim the majority of downtime hours as the decade progressed.

One of the last Interludes I’m aware of dates from the mid-60s and was quite a contrast to its more soporific predecessors in its dynamic style and tone. Titled ‘Toy Fair’, it features a range of children’s prized playthings from the period, such as clockwork cars, toy soldiers, train sets and dolls that have all been wound-up into life. It also shows the encroachment of tie-in merchandise onto the Christmas shopping list and into the nursery as toy Daleks make an appearance, unsurprisingly cast as the villains in this enjoyably melodramatic vignette that bears little relation to the old lady with the spinning wheel; in its own way, however, it shows the country was moving in another direction, a long way from horse-drawn ploughs and potter’s wheels.

Bar the occasional impromptu Interlude I faintly recall stumbling upon when manually channel-surfing in the 70s – perhaps bridging the gaps between acts on a BBC2 Shakespeare production – Interludes disappeared unless dusted down for a repeat outing during BBC anniversaries. In recent years, the arrival of what has been labelled ‘Slow Television’, which has periodically infiltrated the BBC4 schedule, shows that the spirit of the old Interludes can be refigured to suit contemporary mores and sold as novel innovation. The examples of Slow Television seen on British TV tend to span several hours rather than several minutes, promoted as programmes in their own right as opposed to unlisted fillers; but they are undoubtedly welcome breathers that there should always be space for. When one considers the brain-mashing guff that constitutes so much mainstream TV today – not to mention the current desire to lose one’s self in somewhere that isn’t here – the occasional presence of Slow Television, even for five minutes, is something this licence fee-payer wouldn’t object to.

© The Editor

BOREDOM IS A VIRTUE

vlcsnap-2016-09-02-16h26m57s181It 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