Saturday, March 25, 2023


On the afternoon of Saturday 8th August 2015, I sent nine rubbish bags to my local recycling centre in what was, at the time, a very lucid and easy decision.

The bags contained over two hundred and fifty Video Home System (VHS) cassettes of off-air TV recordings I had amassed from 1997, none of which were able to be recycled at the time due to the black plastic used in their composition. I had intended to digitise their contents for future use, but after realising the size of the task, and that all I had recorded on them, from obscure films that helped with my degree studies to whole series of the BBC comedy quiz "Never Mind the Buzzcocks", will continue to be available online or from archives.

My habits with recording programmes to VHS also meant you were unlikely to find anything special. I recorded in Long Play mode, reducing the maximum 240 lines of picture quality to 230, something that made very little difference when recording episodes of “The Simpsons”. I also eliminated continuity announcements and advert breaks as much as I could, their comparatively ephemeral nature now making recordings of them more highly prized. Safe in the knowledge that nothing was going to be lost from the loss of my collection, it was easy to let it go.

The big regret I still have was getting rid of the VHS recorder as well, perceiving there to be no more use for it. The random analogue glitches of an authentic VHS recording are more acceptable than the hazy VHS-like filter that can be applied to a digital video file to produce a degraded or nostalgic effect, and because making videos was not a consideration I had at the time, I saw no reason to hold the recorder back. Not readily having the ability to recreate that prized look with authentic equipment was an oversight on my part.

Changing rituals from “time-shifting” by recording programmes to watch later, to streaming everything at any time, makes it easy to forget that VHS was once the only way most people owned moving pictures, other video tape and disc formats notwithstanding. This was mainly the result of the Japanese government attempting to force manufacturers to adopt a single consumer tape format, and by JVC providing their VHS format as an open standard others could use without licence, something Sony was not willing to do with their technically superior Betamax format, its smaller cassette size also limiting their available recording time.

While we have not lost the right to make home video recordings for personal use, the ability to do so has mostly been lost. There is no open ability to download and keep programmes from streaming websites, and neither would they accept that, and while my television can record off-air video to a USB stick, it will only play back on that one television. Very occasionally, a TV station may also show a programme that has been out of circulation for decades – I am still waiting for the BBC to show John Berger’s original 1972 series “Ways of Seeing”, never issued on home video to my knowledge, instead of relying on the tie-in book.

Attaching some sort of video capture device to my television is starting to sound like good proposition, especially now the bulk of VHS cassette storage can be avoided.

Saturday, March 18, 2023


I should have realised that, when “The Shape of Water” won in 2018, a truly original genre-based film like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This year, I was worried that either the remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “The Fabelmans” would win because they fit the stereotypes of films that perform well at award ceremonies: important dramas about the human condition, and/or a paean to the art of filmmaking. 

Centred on an unconventional romance, inspired by “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “The Shape of Water” was the first fantasy film to have won the Best Picture Oscar since “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” in 2004, but if you classify it as science fiction, then “The Shape of Water” is the first sci-fi winner of the award. 

For me, “Everything Everywhere All at once” winning Best Picture felt like if “The Matrix” had won in 2000, or “Back to the Future” in 1986, but neither film was even nominated – the films that won in these years were “Gladiator” and “Platoon”, with nominations including “Children of a Lesser God”, “The Mission”, “Chocolat”, “Erin Brockovich” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, when foreign language nominations for Best Picture were still very rare.

I have never been convinced by those that said “The Matrix” was too complicated to follow for a mainstream blockbuster film, especially when “Inception” received a Best Picture nomination a decade later, and the success of productions by the Wachowski sisters and Christopher Nolan proves there is a wide audience for blockbuster films that make you sit forward, rather than sit back, released by their genres rather than trapped by them. 

Sci-fi, horror, fantasy or other genre-based films have rarely won Best Picture, to the extent that I said to myself this year that, wow, a comedy has won, albeit one that has inhaled most other film genres in its representation of alternate universes. It is like “drama” has become the default in fictional film, instead of a genre in itself.

When I saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in May 2022, I wrote in my diary that it “was absolutely brilliant, perhaps the most imaginative science fiction film since ‘The Matrix’, and the kind of film I am not likely to see made again in a long time.” I like that I managed to successfully summarise the plot: “Michelle Yeoh [stars] as a laundrette owner who must save the world by accessing the ‘multiverse’ to harness the powers of alternate versions of herself.” It’s like baldly describing “Back to the Future” as someone trying to unite their parents before they cease to exist.

I also wrote “it has stayed with me too”. The resonance among its audiences over the choices we make, and lives not led, must have turbocharged the word of mouth that carried this film through the rest of 2022. Then again, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is far more my sort of film than franchises like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water”.

Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis deserve their Oscars based solely on the acting range they had to display across different roles and genres, while the film’s triumph for Asian representation in Hollywood means Stephanie Hsu will have her chance again soon. I am sure I didn’t think of this aspect at the time due to being caught up in the story, and my tastes in cinema not being centred in Hollywood.

What I like the most about “Everything Everywhere All at Once” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture is that it now shows there is an appetite for breaking the boundaries of what a mainstream film is, and those that break it will now be rewarded for it. This also guarantees that the next film to cause this much excitement may be just as original. Whatever that may be, I will have more of it please.

Sunday, March 12, 2023


I had wanted to buy a copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” for a while. I now have the Eureka Entertainment "Masters of Cinema" series edition, making it part of an excellently-produced series that includes the definitive versions of silent films like "Metropolis," "Nosferatu," and "The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari," along with later films like "Nashville" and "Grey Gardens" - although, if you are a serious film collector and scholar, you will be already aware of this.


My reason for buying this film is, like "Citizen Kane," it is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Both films also suffered the fate of the original camera negative being destroyed in fires. However, with the reputation of "Citizen Kane" only being firmly established after the critic Pauline Kael wrote about it in the 1970s, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" was seriously studied from the start, even if everyone was watching the wrong version of it.


As befits a religious-themed, pre-"Life of Brian" film, and one not made by a French person, "Joan of Arc" was subjected to cuts mandated by French film censors and the Archbishop of Paris. The fire happened after that, and in a time when copies of films were easily discarded after use, and when those copies were routinely made from the original negative, the original film was as good as lost.


What do you do from here? Carl Dreyer was able to stitch together a second version of the film, using alternate takes, and other shots not originally used.


That version was also destroyed by a fire in 1929. "Safety film" was not introduced until the 1940s, meaning an entire art form had to rely on nitrate film stock, combustible when stored or even moved wrongly.


Until 1951, the only widely-available version of the film was a cut-down version with a commentary from an American radio personality. The rediscovery of a print of the second version consigned the bastardisation to the bin, but this version had a Baroque-style film score and subtitles added by the person who found it. All the while, the director had to look on and object to what happened to what was left of his work.


This is where it gets weird, if it didn't feel so already. In 1981, a copy of the original version was discovered, in its original wrapping from the Danish film censor, in a janitor's cupboard in a mental hospital in Oslo - in 1928, the director of the hospital asked for a copy, as they had written about French history. The Norwegian Film Institute was contacted to see if they wanted it. They took it, then stored it for three years without watching it. When they finally did, it was found to be perfect.


This sort of miraculous discovery is not new - two episodes of "Dad's Army" were rescued from a skip, some Patrick Troughton "Doctor Who" episodes were recently found in Nigeria, and the now complete version of "Metropolis" used elements found in Argentina and New Zealand. The simple thing is never to throw anything away, as you may not be the one who realises how much it is worth.

Saturday, March 4, 2023


On Monday 3rd April 2023, the BBC will launch “BBC News”, a new 24-hour TV news channel replacing both BBC World News and the domestic BBC News Channel, known on-screen as simply “BBC News”, which launched as BBC News 24 in September 1997. With both channels merged into one service a month ahead of the relaunch, the final UK-only hour of the BBC News Channel was broadcast from 5pm on Friday 3rd March, which I watched on my phone while on the way home from work... and there lies the problem.


There was a time when I had BBC News 24 constantly on in the background at home, turning my room into a hotel foyer. It was my major source of the latest news, along with the BBC’s teletext service Ceefax (which I talked about here). But around the time it renamed as the BBC News Channel in 2008, I gained access to broadband internet, starting my shift towards getting most of my news online, even if still led by BBC News, live streaming and reports now even more immediate than television can provide.


Sharing programmes between the BBC’s two news channels has happened since the launch of BBC News 24, and if the bulletins weren’t shared, the stories often were. The UK feed of the new “BBC News” channel will be able to break in with, well, UK-based breaking news, just like live news pages appear on the BBC News website. If I don’t catch one, I will catch the other.


With the new channel broadcasting worldwide, opting out at various points for UK news, this relaunch could be seen as the death of the domestic news channel through cost cutting. With BBC World News being a commercial enterprise, and not funded by the UK’s TV licence fee, there is an argument for the BBC preserving that which makes money to make more programmes, but BBC World News also reaches nearly a hundred million people every week, a major example of British cultural soft power emulated by English-language channels from broadcasters like NHK of Japan, TRT from Turkey, and Al-Jazeera in Qatar. 


Meanwhile, audiences to UK news channels are usually measured in the tens of thousands. The commercial Sky News, arguing in 1999 that a publicly funded news channel was unfair and illegal under EU law, a complaint rejected by the European Commission, has not made money since it launched in 1989. The audiences of the right-leaning GB News and Talk TV, both having launched relatively recently, remain small.


Changes in newsgathering have also accelerated in recent years. Appearing on the BBC News Channel once involved travelling to its studio in London, or one of several regional centres across the UK, or being interviewed by reporters whose cameras were connected to satellite trucks, or whose footage would later be compiled in an edit suite. Now, particularly following the pandemic, contributors mostly appear from their homes, or anywhere at all, using their own computers and phones, the inevitable decline in picture and quality accepted and tolerated by both audiences and the BBC in pursuit of the news. Live reports to TV can use mobile internet to provide the link, just as reports can similarly be completed at the scene and uploaded to the channel’s production team.


The news eats through media, from newspapers to radio, through to television and online. This has just been the latest part of that process.