fri 14/06/2024

Regional TV: Life Through a Local Lens/ Britain Through a Lens - The Documentary Film Mob, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Regional TV: Life Through a Local Lens/ Britain Through a Lens - The Documentary Film Mob, BBC Four

Regional TV: Life Through a Local Lens/ Britain Through a Lens - The Documentary Film Mob, BBC Four

Regional telly and John Grierson's squad of documentarists revisited

And now, the news where you are: Television puts Britain's regions in the frame

I was once shown around Anglia TV’s studios by the bloke who used to say, "And now, from Norwich - the quiz of the week!” by way of introduction to the immortal Sale of the Century. A tremendous thrill, as you can imagine.

It all came back to me while watching Regional TV: Life Through a Local Lens which, despite a title which seemed to be code for “please don’t watch me”, proved to be a sprightly little mover packed with absurd stories and amazing factoids about the days when regional TV, BBC and independent alike, was far more than just a bit of token local news stuck on the end of the national bulletin.

We were reminded, for instance, that the very first presenter of Top Gear was Angela Rippon, when it used to be a regional monthly programme aimed at the Midlands heartlands of the motor industry. The original telly superchef Keith Floyd was discovered at his restaurant in Bristol by BBC bon viveur David Pritchard, who stuck him on his local TV show RPM and watched his career soar vertically upwards. As for Michael Parkinson, never knowingly overshadowed, he claimed to have done the first TV interview with The Rolling Stones for Granada TV, and even to have launched a cultural revolution. “We created, without knowing it, the Sixties!” he declared, of himself and his regional telly comrades. “We tilled the ground for that to happen.”

RIppon_young_TRIMFor anybody who experiences a morbid sinking feeling on hearing the words, “And now, the news where you are,” this film was like entering a fantastic unknown dimension, where there was no death and no gravity. In this version, local TV was not, after all, a wasteland of non-news and scintillatingly feeble light entertainment. Tyne Tees, driven by the entrepreneurial Black brothers, was said to be “like Hollywood come to Tyneside”. The regional programmes nurtured such upcoming talents as David Frost, Martin Bell, David Dimbleby and Look North’s Mike Neville, who once rewrote the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in Geordie. Yorkshire TV’s Austin Mitchell “came on like a big daft Yorkshire lump – and he wasn’t”, according to former ITV regional producer Sid Waddell. There was an incredible clip of Fred Trueman presenting Yorkshire TV’s pub games series Indoor League, his head enveloped by a shiny swathe of jet-black pseudo-hair. (Angela Rippon, pictured above.)

Regional broadcasting was eventually swallowed by rationalisation and globalisation, and economics meant that it made better business sense to commission fewer networked programmes instead of various local ones. But regional telly was like the pop charts – for every immortal classic, there were a thousand turkeys.

grierson_trimPerhaps more convincingly and self-consciously mythic was the output from John Grierson’s squad of film-makers from 70 years ago, who created an authentic school of British documentary while operating as the GPO Film Unit and later the Crown Film Unit. As Britain Through a Lens made clear, Grierson had little interest in merely recording real-life events, although that was intrinsic to his method. He wanted to “change the country with films about real life”, and create a sense of social unity in Depression-hit 1930s Britain by illustrating the interdependence of all strata of society. Night Mail (1936), a carefully staged and scripted depiction of the workings of the London to Scotland mail train, stands as possibly the finest specimen of this kind of sculpted reality.

The outbreak of World War Two gave Grierson (pictured above) and his gifted team – which included Basil Wright, Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt – undreamed-of scope to splice propaganda with creative inspiration. London Can Take It (1940) was designed to persuade the Americans to come to the aid of Blitz-battered Britain, and worked well enough to bag an Oscar nomination. Target for Tonight was an ode to the RAF’s dogged fight-back against the Hun, while Diary for Timothy wondered what the future might hold as the war drew to a close. It all pointed to the conclusion that the most powerful documentaries are the most subjective and personal ones... in which case, maybe they shouldn’t be called documentaries at all.


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