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Posts from — November 2011

Lumiere — A Festival of Light

Last week­end I was lucky enough to get up to Durham, in the NE of Eng­land, to spend a cou­ple of nights expe­ri­enc­ing the lat­est event from Arti­choke, titled Lumiere. And a mag­nif­i­cent event it was too.

Lumiere was in fact how I first heard about Arti­choke, via a TV doc­u­men­tary on Sky Arts (in the old days when I used to sub­scribe to Mur­doch TV — we’re now on Freesat). That first Lumiere hap­pened in 2009, and of course I’d missed it. But they planned to do it again, and when I heard about the 2011 event I was quick to block out the time and book a hotel.

The event, which brought dozens of inter­na­tion­al artists work­ing with light into the heart of the medi­ae­val city, turn­ing it into a vast illu­mi­nat­ed art gallery, last­ed over four nights, nom­i­nal­ly from 6–11pm, and fea­tured around three dozen sep­a­rate exhibits. Some of the high­er pro­file instal­la­tions were in the city cen­tre, but many were rather fur­ther out, and in fact you would have need­ed all four nights to catch every­thing. I only had two nights, and that sim­ply was­n’t enough — I prob­a­bly saw about 2/3 of the instal­la­tions and missed some that I real­ly want­ed to see. Thank­ful­ly the weath­er was kind to us — no rain and in fact quite warm — a good deal warmer, in fact, than the last Arti­choke event I attend­ed, Din­ing with Alice, back in May!

What I had rather under­es­ti­mat­ed was the num­ber of peo­ple who would throng the cen­tre of the ancient city as night fell and we approached 6pm. We gath­ered next to the stat­ue of the Mar­quess of Lon­don­der­ry — not one of the nicest peo­ple in life, alleged­ly — who had been trans­formed, thanks to Jacques Rival, into an immense snow-globe with the words “I Love Durham” on the plinth. Hehe.

The crowd con­trol was excel­lent, despite the enor­mous num­bers of peo­ple, but what the organ­is­ers could have done that would have helped was to have had a fair­ly seri­ous PA set up in the Mar­ket Place so that the crowds could be informed about what was hap­pen­ing. The bull horns in use had an effec­tive range of about 10 feet, so most of the time none of us had any idea what was hap­pen­ing or going to hap­pen. It turned out that we were wait­ing to be allowed up the cob­ble streets to the Cathe­dral, but we did­n’t all know that. How­ev­er, that is the only mild­ly neg­a­tive com­ment I have about the whole fes­ti­val, and hope­ful­ly the planned 2013 event will take this sug­ges­tion into account.

Via Twit­ter, @ArtichokeTrust asked what my favourite exhib­it was, and it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to say. Of course the amaz­ing son et lumiere at the Cathe­dral, high­light of the orig­i­nal 2009 show, must rate up there, and that’s the first thing we were effec­tive­ly queu­ing to see. Titled Crown of Light, it con­sist­ed of mar­vel­lous images of the Lind­is­farne Gospels and much more, illu­mi­nat­ing the front of the Cathe­dral with mul­ti­ple sec­tions slid­ing up and down inde­pen­dent­ly, accom­pa­nied by a pow­er­ful sur­round audio and music sound­track includ­ing actu­al envi­ron­men­tal record­ings from Lind­is­farne itself (though I think it would have sound­ed bet­ter in Ambison­ics, of course). Crown of Light was cre­at­ed by Ross Ash­ton, Robert Ziegler, and John Del’ Nero.

It’s actu­al­ly quite hard to con­vey much of a sense of Crown of Light as it was so immense. But here’s a taste:

The above video includes two extracts, one from near the begin­ning and the oth­er from the end. It’s a hand-held mini-cam­era run­ning at its high­est sen­si­tiv­i­ty, so it’s not won­der­ful qual­i­ty, but hope­ful­ly you’ll get the idea. The first extract is 16:9 and the sec­ond pil­lar­boxed 4:3, the lat­ter show­ing rather more of the building.

Fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion (there were three per hour), we could either go off to the left, and down towards the riv­er, or we could file into the Cathe­dral itself, where there were some amaz­ing things going on in the Nave, the clois­ters and the Col­lege gar­dens behind.

Com­pag­nie Cara­bosse had hung the Nave with lamps made of white vests on frames, while at the far end of the Nave, next to the pul­pit, was a gen­tle­man per­form­ing on elec­tric gui­tar, synth and vocals, in a rather cool neo-Steam­punk envi­ron­ment. This pho­to of him is a bit ropey, but hope­ful­ly you get the idea from that and the (even more ropey) raw iPhone video below (the audio improves dra­mat­i­cal­ly at 2:22).

In the clois­ters and gar­dens it was fire — with amaz­ing met­al frame­works and sculp­tures with flames issu­ing from var­i­ous parts — from the enor­mous (a rotat­ing globe cov­ered in fire­pots in the clois­ters) to fiery foun­tains and strange lit­tle figures.

Emerg­ing from the gar­dens through an ancient arch­way, we turned down the hill to be con­front­ed by a sequence of mar­vel­lous illu­mi­nat­ed wire-mesh sculp­tured human fig­ures, some­times fly­ing, some­times sit­ting non­cha­lant­ly on a roof, or reclin­ing in a gar­den. These were Les Voyageurs (The Trav­ellers), by Cedric Le Borgne — a num­ber of French artists were rep­re­sent­ed here.

We pro­ceed­ed down the hill, mar­vel­ling at these over­head, near­by and dis­tant fig­ures, until we came to Prebends Bridge, which gave us a pas­sage through a pro­gres­sive rain­bow of colours.

And then it was back towards the cen­tre of the city along the river­front, with the trees and bridges illu­mi­nat­ed by gen­tly shift­ing coloured lights — and vir­tu­al­ly all the lights in the Fes­ti­val, inci­den­tal­ly, were low-ener­gy vari­eties, with some City light­ing turned off so the over­all ener­gy impact of the event was minimal.

Some of the exhibits were low­er-key, but nonethe­less effec­tive. Real and imag­i­nary sto­ries were told in illu­mi­nat­ed text; a clock on a far build­ing spelled out the time in low­er-case Hel­veti­ca; and a series of illu­mi­nat­ed pan­els hung high above the nar­row streets. Pos­si­bly the best-known artist’s work at Lumiere was Tracey Emin’s: an illu­mi­nat­ed phrase, “Be Faith­ful to your dreams” in blue, hand­writ­ing-style text on the side of the chapel in a dis­used grave­yard, approached along a path lined with trees soft­ly shin­ing with slow­ly shift­ing colours.

Else­where, an enor­mous light bulb made of lights hung over the riv­er Wear:

…while com­mon­ly-thrown-away objects were mon­taged and lit with LEDs:

We had an invi­ta­tion to join friends and spon­sors in the Town Hall on the Sat­ur­day night, which was good fun, and I had some inter­est­ing chats — with Arti­choke co-Direc­tor Nicky Webb and with the peo­ple who organ­ised the food for Din­ing With Alice, who had quite a tale to tell, to name but two.

All in all, Lumiere 2011 was an amaz­ing, mag­i­cal, mar­vel­lous fes­ti­val of lights and art – exact­ly what I have learned to expect from Arti­choke. I do hope they are able to do it again in 2013.

For more videos of Lumiere (includ­ing some from the first event in 2009) on Vimeo, click here.

November 23, 2011   Comments Off on Lumiere — A Festival of Light

Christmas(ish) At Beamish

When­ev­er I’m in the NE of Eng­land, I try to get over to Beamish - “The Liv­ing Muse­um of the North”. It’s a won­der­ful place built around a road/tramway loop on which run vin­tage bus­es and trams.

On this occa­sion (20 Novem­ber) I was up for the week­end to go to Lumiere in Durham, so nip­ping over was a chance I could­n’t miss. It was fog­gy on leav­ing Durham but approach­ing Beamish the sun came out and it was gor­geous­ly sun­ny until the dri­ve home, when the fog closed in again.

Dif­fer­ent sites around the tramway loop recre­ate dif­fer­ent eras, each cre­at­ed from build­ings that have been lov­ing­ly trans­plant­ed from their orig­i­nal sites: the Town, for exam­ple, is Edwar­dian, with a Bank, a gor­geous Mason­ic Hall (rebuilt with the help of the Masons, appar­ent­ly), a Co-Op depart­ment store, sweet shop/factory and lots more. It also has an adja­cent Steam Rail­way and sta­tion and a steam-pow­ered fairground.

The Pit Vil­lage is per­haps some­what ear­li­er, and fea­tures a col­liery and a rel­a­tive­ly new addi­tion: a coal-fired fish & chip shop that uses beef drip­ping to cook with, result­ing in utter­ly tasty meals that you have to queue for twen­ty min­utes or so to get, it’s so pop­u­lar. Yet anoth­er area, Pock­er­ley, is more Geor­gian, with a Wag­gonway that fea­tures steam locos from the ear­li­est times and Pock­er­ley Old Hall. I’ve talked about Beamish before, here.

From this time of year until Christ­mas itself, Beamish is hav­ing a series of Christ­mas week­ends, includ­ing San­ta’s Grot­to some­where over by Pock­er­ley I think, com­plete with snow, an ice-rink in the Col­liery Vil­lage (above), and dec­o­ra­tions up in the Town.

I had to pop into some of the ter­raced hous­es, sev­er­al of which con­tain busi­ness­es, such as a solic­i­tor’s and a den­tist — the tor­ture cham­ber itself is shown below. In those days you would have had the option of (unreg­u­lat­ed) nitrous oxide (with a fair risk of death) or cocaine as anaes­thet­ics, the lat­ter effec­tive­ly remov­ing your short-term mem­o­ry, so things hurt but you did­n’t remem­ber it (rather like intra­venous Val­i­um it would appear, which I always loved as an adjunct to den­tal operations).

Anoth­er house includ­ed peri­od Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions in the front room.

Across the street is a lit­tle park, with a band­stand, and there was the Mur­ton Col­liery Band prepar­ing to play some suit­ably sea­son­al music, which they pro­ceed­ed to do beautifully.

Here’s some video of extracts from their programme:

The band was formed as the Mur­ton Gospel Tem­per­ance Blue Rib­bon Army Band in 1884, and play­ers were request­ed to wear a blue rib­bon on the sec­ond but­ton of their waist­coats. They became Mur­ton Col­liery band in 1895. When the col­liery closed, the band became self-sup­port­ing — and it still is today. They’re also one of the few remain­ing bands to con­tin­ue to call itself a ‘Col­liery Band’, and they still proud­ly march through the vil­lage dur­ing the Durham Min­ers Gala and Armistice Day. I don’t know about you, but brass band music and Christ­mas do seem to go togeth­er rather well.

There was time for a good wan­der around and trips on some of the trams — includ­ing a 1930s enclosed dou­ble-deck­er Black­pool tram, which is tech­ni­cal­ly a lit­tle late for their re-cre­ations but very impres­sive — and I had some good chats with the tramway staff, notic­ing that they wore the arche­typ­al “wheel and mag­net” emblem of British Elec­tric Trac­tion (lat­er to become the par­ent, sur­pris­ing­ly, of Red­if­fu­sion Tele­vi­sion) on their caps. The shop at Beamish should sell those cap badges — I would have bought at least one.

Final­ly it was time to head off on the 3+ hour home, and soon after get­ting back on the A1 the fog closed in, and it end­ed up tak­ing a good deal longer than that. But it was a great day out.

November 23, 2011   Comments Off on Christmas(ish) At Beamish

75 Years of BBC Television

Wednes­day 2nd Novem­ber saw the 75th anniver­sary of the open­ing of the BBC Tele­vi­sion Service.

To com­mem­o­rate the event, the BBC held a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion at Alexan­dra Palace, where the Ser­vice opened.

Orig­i­nal­ly, the inten­tion was to hold a spe­cial Open Day on the 2nd, at which mem­bers of the pub­lic would be able to vis­it the stu­dios and see audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions. How­ev­er this was even­tu­al­ly moved to Novem­ber 5–6, leav­ing only an inter­nal BBC event hap­pen­ing on the actu­al day.

I man­aged to obtain an invi­ta­tion, for which my thanks to the ebul­lient Robert Seat­ter, head of BBC His­to­ry, and tech­nol­o­gy jour­nal­ist Bill Thompson.

The invi­ta­tion said “3:45 for 4pm” and as a result I found myself in the Alexan­dra Palace Tow­er end car park well in time for the off, giv­ing some time to take in the views over the city, expe­ri­ence the con­tin­u­al wind and enjoy some dra­mat­ic skies over this “Palace of the Peo­ple” locat­ed at the high­est point in North London.

When the BBC decid­ed on Ally Pal­ly as the site for the new BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice in the wake of the Sels­don Report in 1936, the place was already decay­ing some­what. It’s a process that has con­tin­ued since BBC Tele­vi­sion left here sev­er­al decades ago, and although the team now fronting the Trust that runs the site today is incred­i­bly, and impres­sive­ly, enthu­si­as­tic and upbeat, there is no way it can be oth­er than an uphill strug­gle in these aus­tere times. But you can’t say they aren’t try­ing hard and I wish them every success.

The BBC still main­tains active offices in the block under the mast. But instead of enter­ing through the doors there, adja­cent to the GLC blue com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque on the wall, we were motioned into an entrance along to the left, up a met­al ramp and into what had orig­i­nal­ly been the Trans­mit­ter Hall. It may be not­ed that this was prob­a­bly not the first, but pos­si­bly the last, time that any­one had the bright idea of plac­ing a pair of pow­er­ful VHF trans­mit­ters and a pig­ging great set of trans­mit­ting anten­nae right next to a set of tele­vi­sion stu­dios full of sen­si­tive equipment.

Inside, the room had been dec­o­rat­ed with pan­els against the walls, each car­ry­ing infor­ma­tion and images of some aspect of Ally Pal­ly TV his­to­ry, and a free-stand­ing pho­to dis­play of his­tor­i­cal images, main­ly pro­vid­ed by the Alexan­dra Palace Tele­vi­sion Soci­ety. A jazz quar­tet played suit­able 1930s style music; servers glid­ed among the assem­bled invi­tees dis­pens­ing water, orange juice or Prosecco.

We had the chance to min­gle and chat, and I was very pleased to meet TV cook Zena Skin­ner, who prob­a­bly coined the phrase “Here’s one I made ear­li­er” — though in her case she real­ly had made it ear­li­er, her­self; I also met Pro­fes­sor Jean Seaton, the BBC’s Offi­cial His­to­ri­an and Pro­fes­sor of Media His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­min­ster; and talked briefly to John Tre­nouth, Tech­nol­o­gy Advis­er to the BBC Col­lec­tion, whom I met dur­ing his time at what is now the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Bradford.

In the cen­tre of the room, a make-up table and lights were set up, where var­i­ous young women were being made up using the colours required by the Baird System.

When the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice was estab­lished, the Gov­ern­ment required two tele­vi­sion sys­tems to be used. On the one hand was the all-elec­tron­ic Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem, which offered 405 lines, and on the oth­er was the Baird electro­mechan­i­cal sys­tem which deliv­ered 240-line tele­vi­sion. Ear­ly on, it became evi­dent that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was sig­nif­i­cant­ly supe­ri­or, but it had been Baird who had tire­less­ly pro­mot­ed tele­vi­sion as a con­cept, and lob­bied the GPO over licens­ing and the Gov­ern­ment to leg­is­late for a Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice. Baird high­light­ed the fact that his was a British inven­tion – though it could equal­ly legit­i­mate­ly be claimed that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was British. Almost cer­tain­ly the Gov­ern­ment deci­sion, a typ­i­cal British com­pro­mise, was made at least in part to avoid sug­ges­tions that they were turn­ing down a British inno­va­tion, the deci­sion man­dat­ing the use of both sys­tems on an alter­nat­ing basis for six months before a choice was to be made before the two. The prob­lems expe­ri­enced with the tech­no­log­i­cal dead-end of the Baird mechan­i­cal scan­ning sys­tem result­ed in the deci­sion — in favour of Mar­coni-EMI — to be made after just three months.

Baird Tele­vi­sion actu­al­ly used two sys­tems. The fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of both was a “fly­ing spot scan­ner” in which, almost com­plete­ly counter-intu­itive­ly, the scene was scanned with a spot of light and pho­to­cells col­lect­ed the light reflect­ed from the sub­ject. The “Spot­light Stu­dio” used noth­ing more than this; the Inter­me­di­ate Film Tech­nique used a con­ven­tion­al film cam­era, exposed film from which was then passed imme­di­ate­ly through devel­op­er and high­ly poi­so­nous cyanide-based fix­er (par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty when it got loose), then scanned with a a fly­ing spot actu­al­ly under water. The fly­ing spot scan­ner was very sen­si­tive to red light, so if you were appear­ing in the Spot­light Stu­dio, you need­ed the spe­cial make up: black lip­stick, blue eye-shad­ow and a pale white face. Very neo-Goth. You checked it by look­ing through a red gel.

This was the make-up that was being applied to the young ladies at Ally Pal­ly on the 2nd. Appar­ent­ly the idea had orig­i­nal­ly been that BBC Lon­don would be send­ing a crew up to cov­er the par­ty, but they had pulled out and the job was left to an enthu­si­as­tic team from BBC News School Report.

Mean­while, we were treat­ed to wel­com­ing pre­sen­ta­tions: by the PR gen­tle­man from the AP team, and from Robert Seat­ter, who encour­aged us to relin­quish our glass­es and pro­ceed upstairs to Stu­dio A.

There were two main stu­dios at Ally Pal­ly orig­i­nal­ly, one above the oth­er. Stu­dio A was the Mar­coni-EMI stu­dio, while direct­ly above it was the Baird stu­dio, Stu­dio B. You can’t go into B today, because it’s rid­dled with asbestos and things are like­ly to fall on your head. But Stu­dio A is acces­si­ble. At one end of the room is a tableau rep­re­sent­ing the pro­duc­tion of the mag­a­zine pro­gramme Pic­ture Page, which ran from 1936–39 and 1946–52 and was ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed by Joan Miller.

Around the room are assem­bled old TV sets, and var­i­ous exhibits in the room itself includ­ed an EMItron cam­era, which John Tre­nouth of the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Brad­ford kind­ly removed the lid of so we could have a look at the innards (sans tube).

In Stu­dio A we were treat­ed to a cou­ple of brief audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions, the first assem­bled main­ly from clips from the film doc­u­men­tary Tele­vi­sion Comes To Lon­don, which was made to tell the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice sto­ry in 1936. Rebec­ca Kane, the MD of Alexan­dra Palace Trad­ing Ltd, intro­duced Michael Aspel, a news­read­er at AP dur­ing the peri­od when BBC Tele­vi­sion News was based here, to cut the cake.

And what a cake it was: made in the form of an old bake­lite tele­vi­sion with a pic­ture of Alexan­dra Palace on the screen, deli­cious­ly thick icing and suc­cu­lent innards. Very nice.

After that, we all wan­dered around Stu­dio A and chat­ted to each oth­er. I got into an amus­ing dis­cus­sion about the way in which the Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice closed down at the start of the Sec­ond World War, on Sep­tem­ber 1st, 1939 – about which a num­ber of myths have arisen, most of which are incor­rect (includ­ing the per­pet­u­a­tion of the main myth in Alan Yen­to­b’s Imag­ine doc­u­men­tary, re-shown on Wednes­day) – see The Edit that Rewrote His­to­ry on the Trans­d­if­fu­sion Baird site, which includes a num­ber of arti­cles on tele­vi­sion pri­or to 1955.

And then we grad­u­al­ly sloped off home.

See also:

The birth of tele­vi­sion: the “Baird” microsite at Transdiffusion

75 years on from BBC tele­vi­sion’s tech­nol­o­gy bat­tle — a nice piece by John Trenouth

BBC Cel­e­brates 75 Years of TV — Nick High­am vis­its Alexan­dra Palace











November 5, 2011   Comments Off on 75 Years of BBC Television