‘Does it have Hitler in the title?’: Broadcasting History on Television

Michael Cove, Head Writer, WildBear Entertainment

14 November 2017


With the diversification – or, perhaps, fragmentation – of the broadcast television market, factual programming has found itself corralled into specialised outlets.  The fate of history-themed programs is typical, more hours are being produced, but the great majority of them are finding homes either on dedicated channels (“Yesterday”. “History”) or on subscription outlets which, equally, create and appeal to niche markets (Amazon Prime).  For the writer/producer in the history space this focusing of the market carries both opportunities and liabilities.

The opportunity, of course, is that there is a larger market for output, though this is moderated slightly by the limited budgets such outlets typically make available.  The liability is to offer material to an audience that has an established interest in, and knowledge of, the subject matter.  Mistakes are sure to generate emails from unexpected corners of the globe.

That all of this exists within a commercial reality confronts the program maker with a further fact – not all history is equally saleable.  Which, without too much exaggeration, could be characterised by the question: Does it have Hitler in the title?

Everywhere, Hitler, the Third Reich, more broadly the Second World War are seen as the most bankable of the history stories – which explains the existence of Uncle Hitler, Hitler the Junkie, Supernatural Nazis and many more (these are real titles).

This appetite is cheerfully fed by program makers because the content exists – in the form of archive material (pre-1900 and even pre-1920 life gets hard).  Of course, archive is not a limitless resource, there is only so much footage of Munich or Nuremberg, D-Day or Hiroshima.  Strangely, the dedicated core audience does not seem to mind this unduly and viewer feedback not infrequently includes a slightly surprised “even contains some footage I had not seen before!”

This limited amount of archive material – and each individual production further restricts its archive because of licensing costs – encourages reversioning.  Upscaling the material to HD perhaps, or “colourising” the B&W footage.

Where the program is being produced out of a market that is almost self-supporting, the use of on-camera talent – particularly of a name that helps to boost ratings – is a common practice in history programming.  But for an independent production company away from the main centres, like the one for which I work in Australia, international success across broad markets is an economic necessity.  And this speaks against the use of the onscreen presenter – regrettably, for such a device makes narrative structure and the filling of screentime a fairly straightforward business.  But onscreen presenters are not appreciated in the international market where foreign language versions that replace the so-called “voice of God” narrator are much easier to organise and to sell on to the viewer.

These, then, are some of the parameters that influence the choice of topic, its development and decisions concerning creative execution that someone like me needs to address.  They are not – or should not be – the only issues.  The greater the requirement on an individual to take carriage of the production, the more important it is that the subject matter encourages a personal investment.  My work practice, necessarily, means coming up with an idea, conducting the research, writing the script, finding the participants, conducting the interviews, creating the integrated script and overseeing all of the steps of production.  I cannot imagine being able to do that effectively with a topic in which I had no interest.

Having offered a topic – and been approved for development – I imagine that the next question is one with which academics are very familiar: what can I say about this that has not been said before?  The answer, to return to the point I made above, may partly be answered by a technical/creative initiative – first time in HD, first time in colour and so on.  Titles like World War Two from Space are in the same category and adding 3-D animation is a variant.  Another production novelty – not using the word in a pejorative way – could be the contributors, whether expert or eyewitness.

In my view, these features add marketing benefits to a program – they can be the USP that the agents and others whose responsibility it is to sell productions are so keen to identify.  But they are not a substitute for a perspective or point of view that validates the program.

The last four history-based productions for which I have been responsible were all traversing familiar territory and in a basically familiar way: each was substantially clip-based – that is, each drew heavily on the footage archives to which the production company had access – and each incorporated original interviews.  One of the two two-part series that I have made in collaboration with CCTV10 (China Central Television) had new, original footage of locations relevant to the story, the original material in the other three series was limited to interviews.  Other productions with which I have been involved as writer have additionally used historically informed re-enactment (particularly World War 1 narratives).

The longest of the series for which I have been responsible, The Price of Empire, was thirteen episodes attempting to tell the global story of the Second World War.  It was decided that a “USP” would be scaling all of the archive to HD.  I was not entirely persuaded of the benefits, but when I began to see the material in this form, and observe details in the image not previously clear, I was converted.  My own creative decision for the series was that the contributory interviews would be limited to eyewitnesses and I interviewed fifty people from fourteen countries, mostly veterans of the fighting, but also Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors.

My most recent program, in eight episodes, tells a complicated story of the years 1919-1939 under the title Impossible Peace.  All of the interviews for this program were with academics (38 of them) covering the spectrum of content.  There are limitations in terms of the archive and we settled on a strong, visual style of multiple screens which in part helps to accommodate the limitation and in part to refresh familiar images; more importantly, it was a visual way of reinforcing the thematic foundation of the program, the idea of many things happening, simultaneously, sometimes with connections, sometimes not, but always with some degree of effect.  To achieve such visual effects when I entered the industry, as a trainee assistant film editor at the BBC in 1966, would have been prohibitively expensive and have taken weeks in a film laboratory.  For program makers it is by exploring new ways of telling familiar stories that we can hope to hold, and add to, our audience.



Michael Cove was born in London, attended the London Film School and joined the BBC in film editing.  He worked in film editing following migration to Australia before becoming a full-time writer in 1974.  In a freelance career spanning 25 years, he wrote for every medium and every genre – feature film, theatre, radio drama and every type of television program.  In 1998 he joined a small production company in Canberra.  It is now a large production company outputting multiple hours of factual programming for international broadcast.  The company’s particular areas of interest are history, natural history, and science and technology.  Cove’s main contribution has been to the history slate.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

 

Cinema City: A Medieval Movie House

Anna Blagrove, University of East Anglia

19 September 2017


How can a cinema be medieval when moving pictures weren’t introduced until the 1890s? My place of work is in one-such venue however: Cinema City in Norwich, where parts of the building date back to the fourteenth century.  Its main use since its earliest days in the 1300s was as a merchant’s residence and dining hall, and so perhaps it is appropriate that the great hall is now used as the Cinema City café bar. Admittedly, it wasn’t converted to a full-time cinema until 1978, but before that (from 1925) it was a public hall that housed a projector and screen and was dedicated to ‘the advancement of education in its widest and most comprehensive sense’ [i]. Honouring this objective, since 1978, Cinema City has had an education programme as part of its offer. The cinema today is operated by Picturehouse and so screens a specialised film programme.  In 2017 it also has three digitally equipped cinema auditoria, a box office, a courtyard, a restaurant, the café bar, a kitchen, offices, and an education facility.

I am part of a team of film educators based in this special building, operating separately to the main cinema and known as Cinema City Education.  Recently we devised a project that would not only allow us to research the history of our own cinema, but more widely collect and preserve memories of cinema-going in our county – we called the project Norfolk at the Pictures.   We were awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund Part, which allowed us to refurbish our first-floor education rooms. In the autumn of 2016 we launched the John Hurt Centre (named after our now sadly deceased patron, Sir John Hurt).  This state-of-the-art and fully-accessible education and exhibition venue is now entered via a new foyer with a lift in our courtyard.  It is used for regular film clubs for all ages (from U3A to young programmers), evening courses and day schools for adults, scriptwriting and filmmaking groups, school holiday animation workshops, training, conferences, and private functions.

As for the activities part of the project: What do you unleash if you invite the public to reminisce about their trips to the cinema with you?  As it turns out you receive a mini avalanche of fascinating anecdotes, photographs, histories, artefacts (ranging from cinema programmes to pieces of projectors); and as a result, a palpable connection with the social history of cinema-going.

We heard from audience members from the 1930s onwards and really got a feel for the changing fortunes of picture houses, not just in Norfolk but nationally.  We heard about the impact of World War Two, the rise of the picture palace, the coming of colour, the weird and wonderful promotional stunts that cinema managers would employ, the popularity of children’s cinema clubs, and the unrest that 1950s teenagers flocking to ‘rock and roll pictures’ caused with older audience members.

One particularly rewarding part of the project was cinema-themed reminiscence work with the elderly, we called this Moving Memories.  A team of staff and volunteers visited residential homes and luncheon clubs, where we held sessions with groups of over sixties.  This usually involved us presenting a show with photographs of cinemas, films stars and film posters, and film clips of archive footage.  A popular clip was that of the National Anthem with images of Queen Elizabeth – which would always be played at the end of the film programme – some recalled patriotically standing to attention whereas others remembered it as a cue to make a mad dash to the door so as not to endure the song.  We asked prompt questions of the groups such as, ‘do you remember doing anything naughty at the cinema – such as sneaking in without paying?’ and we took props such as tubs of popcorn, ticket stubs and cinema programmes for people to handle and help them to recall their cinema-going memories.  Some of the participants were suffering from dementia and we took advice and training from experts to enable us to illicit responses from these particular folks.

Personally speaking however, the part of the Norfolk at the Pictures that I am most proud of is The Final Reel; the documentary film that we made in connection with the project.  With a micro-budget and a small team of dedicated and talented crew, we made a feature-length documentary charting the development of film exhibition in Norfolk, but again, reflecting national trends too.  We were fortunate enough to secure the talents of our patron, Sir John Hurt, who recorded the narration in his familiar gravelly voice.  We interviewed film historians such as Stephen Peart and Tim Snelson (UEA), film lovers that had attended the different Norfolk cinemas through the years, and cinema managers and projectionists.  It charts the decline of cinema from the heyday of the 1930s and 40s to the sad closure of many venues from the 1950s onwards, but we also reflect positive recent developments such as the rise of event cinema (live theatre and opera performances and outdoor screenings), community film clubs, and the continued appeal of much-loved art-house cinemas like Cinema City.

I feel very fortunate to work in such a beautiful, old building with such a thriving cultural offer and through The Final Reel film and the Norfolk at the Pictures project as a whole, we were able to share and celebrate this enthusiasm with a much wider audience.


[i] Ethel and Mary Colman, owners in 1925, bequeathed the building to Norwich City Council with this stipulation for the building’s use.


Anna Blagrove is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia in the school of Film, TV and Media Studies.  Her thesis is an ethnographic study of teenagers and their relationship with cinema-going.  Other teaching and research interests are Australian cinema, film locations, and the work of Studio Ghibli. She also works as Education Officer for Cinema City, a specialised cinema in Norwich.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Utilitarian Filmmaking

Deane Williams, Monash University

20 June 2017


In recent years, outside Australia, there has been significant research undertaken into utilitarian filmmaking, particularly in the US, and across many territories in Europe. This research provides a highly informative, revisionist complement to the thoroughgoing study of the production, distribution, exhibition and viewing practices that have long been associated with feature-film drama, television, ‘art cinema’, and documentary filmmaking around the world. These latter domains have always been the mainstay of film history, film theory and media studies worldwide, including in Australia (which has been an extremely influential contributor to these disciplines on a global basis over the past four decades). But now European and American research into utilitarian cinema has begun to provide a provocative and informative complement to the disciplinary orthodoxies. For example, the recent books Films That Work (Hediger & Vonderau, 2009 – Europe-focused) and Useful Cinema (Acland and Wasson, 2011 – America-focused) have canvassed the scope and cardinal themes of utilitarian and non-theatrical cinema in a range of different national cultures and economies where it has only recently become evident that utilitarian cinema provided employment for thousands of people, fostered the long term publication of several trade journals and generated an international circuit of trade shows, festivals and industrial and governmental conferences between 1950 and 1980.

Also, highly influential archives have been made available to scholars under Creative Commons licences. The global ‘gold standard’ is the Prelinger Archives that is now administered by the Library of Congress in the US; Archive.org is also a vital contributor in this field. Even so, Australian specificities concerning utilitarian cinema have received almost no attention, at home or abroad. Archives of utilitarian cinema in Australia are nowhere near as consolidated as they are in the US and Europe, even though there are some small but notable exemplars such as portions of the Mu-meson Archive, and the Teasdale Collection of films detailing farm work and rural culture, which Ross Gibson has been investigating for some time (see Gibson, 2015): http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/john-teasdale-chronicle-of-a-country-life/.

Clearly an investigation of utilitarian cinema in Australia can inform an important and innovative recasting of audiovisual media histories as well as industrial practices in communications both at home and abroad. A team consisting of Ross Gibson (University of Canberra), Mick Broderick (Murdoch University), John Hughes (University of Canberra), Joe Masco (University of Chicago), PhD candidates Grace Russell (Monash University), Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd and Stella Barber (Murdoch University) and myself received Australian Research Council funding to pursue what we understand to be urgent and important research for at least three compelling reasons. Firstly, an understanding of the ‘peculiarities’ of the Australian utilitarian filmmaking ‘scene’ adds nuance to the global account and brings Australian- focused scholars into fruitful dialogue with their international counterparts in a rapidly-expanding field of scholarship. Secondly, we are generating and disseminating vital new knowledge about market-focused and audience-focused interpretations of Australian media and communications, particularly because of the way utilitarian filmmakers developed systems of exhibition and distribution in this country that were different (and sometimes even oppositional) to the US-dominated cartels that organised the entertainment sector here. Thirdly, from industrial-relations and labour-history viewpoints, a history of Australian utilitarian filmmaking deepens our understanding of how the utilitarian sector maintained a critical mass of well-trained technical and creative staff who formed the basis, despite long ‘fallow periods’ prior to the ‘renaissance’ that occurred during the1970s in the entertainment, of the theatrical and television-focused sectors of Australian film production. Indeed, for all their avoidance of explicitly aesthetic approaches to the medium, utilitarian filmmakers in Australia would appear to have supplied a consistent ‘through-line’ of factual, pragmatic and documentary ideologies and aesthetic and technical capabilities that have nourished and guided the more well-known, entertainment-focused sectors of cinematic production in the nation. This is a revelatory new line of investigation and explanation.

Definitions

By utilitarian we mean pragmatic, purposeful films that were made and distributed outside the well-studied systems of entertainment, ‘theatrical’ exhibition and visual arts installation; films that were produced, distributed and exhibited to a wide range of (as-yet under investigated) audiences in mostly ‘non-theatrical’ and ‘mundane’ contexts and spaces.

Dressing a Chicken (Victorian Department of Agriculture, Australia 1960)

These were films produced in significant numbers worldwide (including in Australia) for the functional purposes of instruction, surveillance, quantification or recordkeeping rather than principally for reasons of commercial entertainment, creative non-fiction narrative, or clearly-contextualised artistic and aesthetic appreciation. The project is, at the same time, seeks:

  1. To survey the full extent of holdings of utilitarian cinema dispersed across private, public and government-administered collections in Australia;
  2. to assay the themes and patterns of historical information that are contained within this reservoir of cultural, pedagogical, sociological and industrial evidence; NOTE: as part of this assay, the team is conducting, recording and making available a range of oral history interviews with practitioners, users and consumers’ of utilitarian history 1945 – 1980;
  3. to work with partners (such as the National Film & Sound Archive, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, the National Archives of Australia and the online departments of State Libraries) to ensure not only that there are secure repositories for the discovered material but also that there is continuing policy-development as well as curatorial commitment devoted to accessing and interpreting the national heritage of utilitarian cinema in Australia;
  4. to consolidate and communicate to scholars and the interested general public the findings about Australian utilitarian cinema so that this new knowledge can be productively compared and integrated with extant knowledge of Australian media as well as with the global understanding that has begun to be accrued worldwide within the new sub-discipline of utilitarian film and media studies.
  5. to engage the participant public in a process of continuing, long-term data-collection, assets-collection and oral history via the project’s online repository and via the crowd-sourcing and citizen-curatorship enterprises that are now being enacted by the partner institutions.

Deane Williams is a film historian specialising in documentary film history and Australian documentary from Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of 7 monographs and edited collections and of articles published in Screening the Past, Continuum, Media International Australia,  Framework and Critical Arts. He is also Editor of Studies in Documentary Film (ISSN 1750-3280 (Print), 1750-3299 Online), the only international, refereed, scholarly journal dedicated to the history and criticism of documentary. In 2015 he commenced work with Ross Gibson, Mick Broderick, John Hughes, Joe Masco on the four-year Australian Research Council Discovery Grant supported project, Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945-80. ($AUD 363,359).

http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/deane-williams/

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