Archival footage and new bridging material are used to chart the course of 20th century British literature and global philosophical, social, and economic thought.
Completely subjective reaction: Half of this BBC series is terrific; the other half isn’t. I’m not saying the final three installments are bad, mind you, but I’d much rather hear Salman Rushdie discuss the origins of Midnight Children than hear Tariq Ali extol the virtues of Marxism. I’m far more interested in literature than I am economics, psychology, etc. The series always does a rather commendable job knitting its various sources into something of a cohesive whole, but I watched the first three episodes with full-bore fascination, the final three with my brain wandering a bit. So you can fully expect this review to be unbalanced.
The episodes devoted to the literature of 20th century Britain don’t cover the entire breadth of those hundred years, stopping instead ten years early. I don’t think this is a dig at the quality of ‘90s literature but is rather a concession to narrative. As anyone who has read, say, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam can attest, British novelists didn’t lose their mojo for a decade. But there’s an obvious stopping point here: the storm of intolerance, small-mindedness, controversy, and hatred that surrounded Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. How do you follow the story of any author who was forced to go into hiding after having a bounty put of his head by a religious madman? You don’t.
There’s one problem with what the show does choose to cover: it’s not enough. I don’t know how much viable material the producers found in the BBC vaults, but the people who are into what this show offers will likely come away wanting more. Each episode could easily run two hours without wearing out its welcome. There’s footage here of Tolkien reading in Elvish, but not much. There’s also the only remaining audio recording of Virginia Woolf, but it’s not exploited to its fullest. Some authors are conspicuously absent. For example, how do you discuss British literature without even mentioning Kazuo Ishiguro? Both Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi are used as examples of the influence immigration had on the British novel, and Ishiguro would have fit right in with them. The show’s expansive, but by no means is it comprehensive.
What you do get, though, is generally great. That you’re hearing it straight from the mouths of these individuals proves there’s no substitute for the real thing. It’s one thing to be told that Evelyn Waugh showed enormous contempt for other members of the literary establishment, quite another to actually see and hear him causally dismiss James Joyce. Angela Carter responds to criticisms of the dark, explicit eroticism of her work by reading one of the darkest, most explicit passages she ever wrote. Future Commander of the Order of the British Empire Kingsley Amis rants about anything and everything.
In a segment that looks straight out of The Wall or Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, William Golding is shown lecturing to a group of regimented schoolboys. T.H. White is interviewed at his home on the Channel Islands, workers in the background erecting an extravagant pagan temple (for real; looks like all of that stuff about White’s bizarre personal life could very well be true). Best of all is footage from one of the BBC’s broadcasts of the Man Booker Prize ceremonies. Can you imagine a major American network devoted a couple hours of its programming to the Pulitzers?
The other half of the series (which moves beyond the borders of Great Britain and brings in interviewees from around the globe) is only intermittently interesting. As I said, it primarily covers material I care nothing about, and said material is presented in a drier, slower, more academic manner. Some of it I did enjoy, though. There are segments on Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall. There’s footage of an exasperated Richard Dawkins attempting to explain his concept of the selfish gene to an interviewer who can’t get past the word “selfish.” Marshall McLuhan delivers some of his intriguingly pretentious, impenetrable gobbledygook.
And in what is unquestionably the highpoint, Susan Sontag drags a BBC camera crew to Andy Warhol’s Factory, finds Warhol isn’t there for their scheduled interview, is forced to hang her head in shame when the footage is broadcast anyway, is pilloried by a group of British intellectuals, and is savagely spoofed in (and was hopefully knocked down a few pegs by) a segment of a BBC comedy series. Nothing else really interested me, though. But anyone with an interest in the topics covered will likely find much to enjoy.
The series is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio; the image has been enhanced for anamorphic displays. The new material was shot digitally, and thus in a native 1.78:1 ratio (the series is only a couple years old); it looks quite good, if just a little soft (in other words, it’s typical of most British television of late).
All of the older material in the first three episodes is windowboxed within the larger frame, preserving its original 1.33:1 (or thereabouts) ratio; the older material in the final three episodes has been zoomed/cropped to fill the 1.78:1 frame, with results that are better than you normally get with such a process. The quality of the older material varies (the footage shot on film is rife with nicks and scratches, while the material sourced on analog videotape can look blocky and washed-out), naturally getting slightly better as the years go by.
Audio is presented in no-frills Dolby Stereo. The quality varies here, too, with the older material riddled with hiss, crackles, and pops, the newer stuff sounding quite good. SDH subtitles (which come in handy during some of the older recordings) are available.
The only extra you’ll find on the discs is a series of biographies of the interviewees.
The standard acorn Viewer’s Guide offers a history of the BBC, an update on some of the ideas and theories put forth by the individuals featured in the series, and an overview of seminal British novels (specifically ones that were vilified upon publication but have since evolved in stature).
As it usually goes, the audience for this one will be narrow, but members of that audience should be quite pleased with what they find here.