M Spence's blog

Author: 
M Spence

On 30th September 2017 we mark the 50th anniversary of the transformation of the BBC’s Light Programme into Radios 1 and 2; and of the Home Service into Radio 4. (The transition from the Third Programme to Radio 3 took a little longer).

The Light Programme and Home Service were both, in their different ways, creatures of wartime. The Home Service was created on the outbreak of War in September 1939, as a merger of the former ‘National’ and ‘Regional’ programmes: it was feared that enemy bombers might use differential signals from regional transmitters as navigation guides. The Light Programme on the other hand was launched as the War ended, in July 1945, making use of the old ‘National’ longwave frequency which was now freed up again. When they were laid to rest in 1967, the Home Service was therefore only 28 years old, and the Light Programme a mere 22. Their middle-aged successors, Radios 1, 2 and 4, have lasted much longer.

Author: 
M Spence

 

It’s not often that a film or TV programme has a direct, measurable political impact, and perhaps today, with the sheer volume of audio-visual content coming at us from all directions, it can’t happen. But once upon a time it could, and here in Britain we have two celebrated examples from the ‘60s: the Tony Garnett / Ken Loach 1966 TV play Cathy Come Home highlighted the reality of homelessness and helped launch the charity Shelter; and the Basil Dearden / Michael Relph 1961 film Victim helped pave the way for the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. 

Author: 
M Spence

Michael Bond passed away three weeks ago, but when I visited the statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station yesterday, it was still an intimate little shrine, festooned with flowers and jars of marmalade. There is definitely a ‘national treasure’ here somewhere, but I’m not entirely clear whether it’s Paddington Bear or Michael Bond. Or maybe a sort of composite of them both?

 

Although our memories of Michael today are inseparable from the figure of Paddington, there was a Michael before Paddington. When A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958, Michael was a Cameraman at the BBC studios in Lime Grove. He had been working for the BBC for over a decade, and he would continue to work for them for almost another decade before finally deciding to become a full-time writer.

 

Author: 
M Spence

 

The death of Roger Moore last month triggered a wave of nostalgia, with the main focus inevitably on his seven film performances as James Bond. His were the funniest and silliest of the Bond movies. The plots, the villains, the fights, the gadgets, the seductions, were classic kitsch: cheesy and tacky, yet knowing and ironic. And Moore, with his matinee idol looks and oh-so-expressive eyebrow, was just the man to personify the package, a mocking celebration of Britain’s ‘70s and ‘80s delusions about itself. And the fans loved him for it. Maybe it was rubbish, but it was our rubbish.

Author: 
M Spence

The ‘Girls Like Us: British Women and WWII Cinema’ season continues at the National Film Theatre in May with more great films on offer. As in April, and despite the fact that these 1940s films have been selected for their strong female content, all of them were directed by men. But, also as in April, if we look more closely we will still find women in key roles not just on screen but also behind the camera.

Author: 
M Spence

 

In April and May 2017 the National Film Theatre is running a season of films under the heading'Girls Like Us: British Women and WWII Cinema'. There are some real treasures here. Some of the April titles – Went the Day Well?, Millions Like Us, In Which We Serve – are relatively well-known. But – to my enduring shame, I’m sure - I have never seen Demi-Paradise, or The Gentle Sex, or Unpublished Story. I can’t wait.

Author: 
M Spence

This month – March 2017 – the National Film Theatre is showcasing Ken Russell’s 1971 production of The Boy Friend, focusing in particular on the production design and costume design that gave it its particular 1920s/1960s crossover look.

The Boy Friend sits right in the middle of Russell’s purple patch, stretching from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, when he produced much of his most enduring work. In the early 1960s he was in television, producing idiosyncratic documentaries, including several on composers – Bartok, Debussy, Prokoviev - for the BBC ‘Monitor’ series. From 1967 he moved into film with Billion Dollar Brain, followed in 1969 by Women In Love which won him an Oscar nomination, and Glenda Jackson an Oscar.

Author: 
M Spence

 

In February 2017 the National Film Theatre (NFT) has been screening Robert Hamer’s 1947 classic It Always Rains On Sunday – a dark and complex domestic thriller from Ealing Studios, from a time before it became overwhelmingly associated with ‘Ealing Comedies’. (The first ‘Ealing Comedy’, Hue and Cry, was in fact produced in the same year).

It Always Rains On Sunday stars Googie Withers in perhaps her finest role. In a bleak portrayal of post-war East End working class life, she plays Rose, a woman with a past, forced to choose between a decent but unexciting husband and family, and a glamorous but dangerous old flame who turns up out of the blue, on the run from the law. I won’t say more: if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a morally-compromised treat.

Author: 
M Spence

The recent re-release of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in a new print from the BFI, has been a triumph.

When Barry Lyndon first came out in 1975 it went off like a damp squib. Kubrick’s previous films – Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange – covered a range of themes and a variety of moods, but each in its own way kept the story moving along at a brisk canter. When it was known that Kubrick was working on a screenplay of Thackeray’s novel set in the eighteenth century, one obvious point of reference was Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s bawdy celebration of life and lust starring young Albert Finney. Of course, Kubrick was a very different filmmaker – but even so, the eighteenth century was all about frock-coats, oaths and wenches, wasn’t it?

Author: 
M Spence

Over recent months the BECTU History Project has been busily continuing its interviews with women and men from across the UK film and television industries. With nearly 700 recordings so far, it is one of the most extensive audio-visual archives in the world. 

Recent interviews have included:-

John Henshall 

John Henshall is an acknowledged expert in electronic photography and digital imaging. He started at the BBC in the 1960s, and left in the mid-1970s. As a DoP in the following years he helped establish the new genre of music videos, and did innovative TV work such as ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Network 7’.