Category: Television

Possibly my favourite Christmas present last year!

You may have noticed that my gravatar is the rather cute Tiny Clanger.  The Clangers have something of a cult following now, but I find it’s quite unusual for somebody my age to be such a big fan.  Although I grew up in the ‘90s and enjoyed many of the kids’ TV programmes produced in that decade, my earliest television memories are actually of shows like The Clangers that first aired in the 1960s and 1970s, made by the company Smallfilms.  This is due to my parents, who would sit me down with a video of Noggin the Nog or The Clangers, so that they could revert back to their childhood whilst keeping me entertained too.

Noggin was the Prince of the Nogs, whose peaceful life was sometimes disturbed by the exploits of his wicked uncle, aptly named Nogbad the Bad.  The programme was loosely influenced by the Viking era and was told as a saga from the opening of each episode.  My favourite character was either Grolliffe, a friendly ice dragon, or Olaf the Lofty, the court inventor whose flying machine took Noggin to distant lands with silver palm trees and magic carpets.

The Clangers was, in a charming sort of way, more futuristic. Bearing in mind that it came to the screen around the time of the moon landings, it’s unsurprising that it captured the imagination of so many children.  Clangers were small, woolly, mouse-like creatures, who pottered about on a small planet and dined on blue string soup.  They communicated by whistling and had adventures that included growing a music tree and meeting the mysterious iron chicken.

Noggin, Nooka and Knut: The Nogs

Smallfilms was a collaboration between writer Oliver Postgate and animator Peter Firmin.  Their programmes remain distinctive for Postgate’s gentle narration and for the stop motion animation, which was filmed in a barn in Firmin’s garden.  Other well-known Smallfilms creations were Bagpuss and Ivor the Engine, but my favourites have always been the whistling moon mice and the friendly Norseman.  I recently re-watched some episodes of Noggin on YouTube and was surprised at how much I remembered, nearly two decades after I was first entranced by it on VHS.  Both Noggin the Nog and The Clangers are now available on DVD, with the Dragons’ Friendly Society website playing a huge role in keeping these classics alive.  Explosions and special effects may be few and far between, but I firmly believe that Smallfilms produced some of the best kids’ TV of the last century.  The originality still shines through and there is a simple charm to them that seldom appears in childrens’ television today.

To my mind, how you watch television is not just about the physical act of positioning yourself in front of a screen.  It’s also to do with how you consume the content as it plays out before you.  Last September I finally began a media-related course after seventeen years in education.  I have no regrets that I didn’t take this path sooner, but it began influencing the way I think about television and film surprisingly quickly.

Paul Merton investigates the early years of Hollywood

Take the module on Documentary Film Making in the autumn term.  After the very first seminar I found myself questioning whether objectivity can ever truly be achieved, as we debated whether reconstructions should be used in the documentary genre.  The basic argument against reconstruction is that it plants an image in the viewers’ minds which may not resemble the situation it purports to document.  Fair point, but I believe reconstructions can actually be used to positive effect in many documentaries.  Let’s return to Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood: not only were situations in dining rooms and hotels recreated, but Merton himself then appeared as part of the scene to guide his audience through what was happening.  I particularly liked the fact that these scenes were shot in black and white, complete with monotone Merton.  Not something I’d seen in a documentary before, but very engaging.

The main reason it’s taken so long to write this blog is that I’ve been filming, digitising and editing footage for my own documentary – and moving house, but that’s another story. The three-part series on the Birth of Hollywood was well-timed, as it also made me consider the practical aspects of making television and films. How interviews are framed; the cut away shots that interviews are interspersed with; transitions between different narrative sections; the soundtrack…it’s surprisingly hard to decide on these things when producing your own work.  So tempting to go for overkill on the effects and forego the content, but Birth of Hollywood proved that keeping things simple with a few innovative touches is definitely the way to go.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s become impossible for me to watch anything without dissecting how it’s been put together and thinking about how I might do something similar in my little Marmite film and my Robin Hood documentary.  It’s not a bad thing, even if I do wonder just how many identical beige suits Paul Merton owns and whether they’re now dispersed across America.  Ideas can come from anywhere and I actually enjoy television all the more for having an insight, albeit a tiny one, into the many decisions that determine each scene.

BBC iPlayer: Lifeline to TV!

At a recent interview I was asked “how do you watch television?”  It’s a question that’s hovered in my mind ever since, particularly since these past few years both the ways I watch and think about TV have changed considerably.  For starters, the television we had in second and third year of Uni would only tune fuzzily to BBC1, meaning 4oD and iPlayer were essential tools for keeping up with Glee and Strictly: It Takes Two (my somewhat predictable TV guilty pleasures).  Being slow to grasp technology, it was only at the end of my degree that I realised you could stream some programmes live, but by then it didn’t matter, because I was moving into my current house with, finally, a fully functioning TV.

However, as I’ve mentioned before and as anyone who has lived in a shared house will know, merely owning a working television is no guarantee of controlling what goes on it.  In any case, I occasionally forget something’s on, so I’m still a faithful user of iPlayer and 4oD, often over my breakfast toast.  When the box is free though, it’s always satisfying if you find something great to watch by fluke.  On Friday evening I caught episode two of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood, and enjoyed it so much that I iPlayered the first episode this morning.  Has the word iPlayer been legitimately converted to a verb yet?  If not then maybe it should be.  So many of us watch programmes on demand that it seems sensible to just say “I iPlayered it” instead of “I watched it on iPlayer”.  Grammatical wonderings aside, my point is that it’s brilliant being able to catch up on things you missed, forgot about, or heard about from someone else, as and when you feel like it.  (Internet connection permitting, of course).

4oD: Home of Glee

Some people might argue that it’s antisocial to coop yourself up in front of a laptop instead of congregating around the box in the living room, but I disagree.  Generally I catch up on TV at breakfast time, when let’s face it, I’m not in the mood for scintillating conversation.  Plus, not everybody likes the same shows, so I’m really doing my housemates a favour by not subjecting them to Glee every Monday evening.  My final point is that I often watch TV on demand with somebody else anyway.  The boyfriend isn’t a football fanatic so he and I regularly escape the curses and chants of his housemates to stream How I Met Your Mother.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good deal this year, what with having a working TV in the house and getting to grips with iPlayer Desktop.  In a few weeks though, all is set to change: I’m moving in to a house that already has a Virgin Multimedia subscription which, from what I can gather, involves catch up services for pretty much everything.  Are my days of watching 4oD numbered or, given that three of my housemates-to-be are those same football-loving boys, are they just beginning?

Eurovision 2011

The annual Eurovision Song Contest took place in Düsseldorf nearly two weeks ago, so I’ll clarify why it’s taken me until now to write about it.  It’s not because I’m an avowed hater of this musical extravaganza and just didn’t want to talk about it – I generally find the whole spectacle very entertaining and a great excuse to have a few drinks – but on 14 May I was sitting in a motel in Missouri, USA.  There may have been a TV in the room, but all efforts to locate a channel that might be broadcasting Eurovision proved, unsurprisingly, futile.

Thanks to BBC iPlayer, I watched most of the entrants a week later on the day of my return.  That is, I semi-watched sleepily until jetlag set in halfway through the Ukrainian effort.  By the time I woke up on Sunday afternoon, the programme was no longer available.

Moldova at the Eurovision 2011 Finals
Moldova at the Eurovision 2011 Finals

Eurovision always has its fair share of critics, but I’m still glad I saw most of the show, even if it couldn’t be amongst the company of friends eating over-barbecued burgers.  The yearly dose of musical madness was delivered; from Jedward ‘dancing’ around like twin yo-yos for Ireland, to Moldova’s wonderfully random staging of their entry ‘So Lucky’, which put me in mind of a modernised, musical breed of garden gnomes.  By contrast, French tenor Amaury Vassili gave a refreshing performance that showcased true vocal talent, heightened by dramatic clouds that billowed across the screens behind him.

I’ll assume the usual cynicisms were voiced during the voting, but I’m pleased that Blue finished in a fairly respectable 11th place for the UK.  Somebody out there must have written a thesis on the wider political implications of the contest, year on year, but even in my jetlagged state, all that mattered was that there were still performances that didn’t take themselves too seriously and proved Europe is home to a wide variety of musical cultures.  Not that I’ll be travelling to Moldova any time soon…

A Toast to Coast

When you live with four other students, two of whom are die-hard film fanatics who own over 500 DVDs, it is rare to find yourself alone in the house with unique control over the television.  Yet this golden scenario presented itself to me a few weeks ago.  The housemates were all out and my latest essay was finished, so I settled myself on the sofa with a ham and mushroom pizza, delighted at the prospect of watching exactly what I wanted for an entire evening.

So, what does a twenty-two year old opt for when all of Freeview is available to her? It may surprise you, but after a brief flick through most of the channels I settled on BBC 2 to watch Coast.  I’ve always enjoyed dipping in and out of this programme, with its combination of geography, history and local culture, but this episode particularly appealed to me as it was filmed across the Channel in Brittany, where I’ve enjoyed annual family holidays since I was a toddler.

Sunset over Kervillen Beach

Plage de Kervillen Sunset

Neil Oliver and company (no pun intended) travelled from St Malo, where we usually get off the ferry, down to Guérande, a town I visited way back on the Year 9 French Exchange.  Interviews with veterans who had responded to “L’Appel”, Charles de Gaulle’s famous call to the French people in 1940, made me forget the laborious hours spent in archives and see my undergraduate dissertation about the Free French leader through rose-tinted spectacles.  The report on the many uses of seaweed, however, whilst interesting, did not leave me inclined to sample beer made from the green salty plant any time soon.  The crowning minutes instead came with a section on the standing stones of Carnac, strange megaliths in long rows that tourists and academics alike have wondered at for centuries. With nobody else in the house, let alone the room, I could hardly point at the screen and exclaim “Look! I’ve been there!” but the urge to do so nonetheless remained.

The rest of the evening was also spent conservatively on the terrestrial channels, watching Supersize vs Superskinny and Dan Snow’s latest venture, Filthy Cities.  I tried not to imagine what I would smell like if I’d lived in the sewage-ridden streets of Medieval London, or worse still, what my long-gone pizza would look like at the bottom of Dr Christian’s feeding tube.  Both shows were informative and entertaining, albeit with something of a shock factor, yet they weren’t as enjoyable as the first sixty minutes of my TV reign had been.  Call it clichéd, but Coast had taken me on a journey; from joyful childhood summers to recent academic pursuits, a wealth of memories came to the surface from watching just one hour of television.

I recently discovered that Coast is made by BBC Birmingham, which amuses me considering you can’t really get much further away from the sea.  Nevertheless, the programme never fails to deliver a mixture of fascinating maritime trivia, stunning panoramas and, if you hit the right episode, a good dose of nostalgia.