40 Years of Arena in 24 Hours

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Created in 1975 by the then head of BBC Music and Arts, Humphrey Burton, Arena has been a platform for some of the most groundbreaking arts documentaries on television. From My Way (1979) to The Chelsea Hotel (1981) and The Private Life of the Ford Cortina (1982), the multi award-winning arts strand has received critical acclaim for its high quality, avant-garde approach to the arts in terms of both form and content.

Introduced by the writer and broadcaster, John Lloyd, Night and Day celebrates the creativity and diversity of filmmaking that has come to define the strand over the past forty years:

“The film you’re about to see brings together the work of many producers, directors and their teams, but it demonstrates a commonality of purpose that characterises the six hundred or so films in the Arena canon. […] Rather than make a best of compilation to mark the anniversary, the decision was made to try and bring the past into the present and make a new film. It’s an evocation, drawn entirely from Arena films, of the one experience common to everything thing and everyone on the planet; the inextricable twenty-four hour cycle of night and day.”

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 The film takes the viewer through footage spanning a range of subjects, eras and locations, cut out and stuck together to form a video collage of a day. From Pete Doherty diving into a rooftop pool against a pre-dawn Barcelona skyline, to Sonny Rollins walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, we watch as the world rises to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Night and Day’. Breakfast is then served by Mary Jenkins Langston, Elvis Presley’s personal cook who featured in the 1996 film, The Burger and the King and charted some of The King’s more eclectic dietary tastes.

The morning commute is a montage of suits, trains and umbrellas from the streets of cities around the world. Amongst them is Mel Brooks arriving on set in Hollywood from Alan Yentob’s 1981 iconic portrait of the film director, screenwriter and sometime actor. We then join the Spectator columnist, Jeffrey Bernard in his home office as he taps out the latest entry for the weekly column that earned him his cult following.

While noon brings a liquid lunch down the pub for Bernard and actor Tom Baker, The Beatles are taking a break on their 1967 Magical Mystery Tour to visit Smedley’s chip shop on Roman Road, Taunton.

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In the afternoon Richard Rogers guides us through the financial marketplace housed in the Lloyds building, London. Scenes of bankers in suits become street vendors in coats as we are taken along with Linda McCartney as she photographs bustling marketplaces of a different kind. At the Partagas Cigar Factory in Havana the workday continues, while seemingly worlds apart George Martin takes afternoon tea with his oboe teacher, Margaret Eliot.

The sun sets over busy highways and tranquil beaches as day fades into night. At Elstree Studios, London, Jack Nicholson is brushing his teeth and preparing to go back on set for The Shining, while over at The Chelsea Hotel in New York, pop artist Andy Warhol and novelist William Burroughs are engaged in rather surreal conversation over dinner.

As both the 24 hours and the film draw to a close, the cycle of night and day is completed as a passage from Under Milk Wood read at the beginning of the programme is repeated once more.

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In some ways this 90 minute feature-length film is reminiscent of Life in a Day (2011), which used crowdsourced video clips to tell the story of a single day on earth ‘through a multitude of perspectives’. Although the two films seem rather juxtaposed in terms of production, with Night and Day centred around creative use of archive footage and Life in a Day around more everyday content creation in the digital age, the central theme is still that of shared human experience governed by the perpetual cycle of the 24 hour day.

However, more importantly Night and Day bears testimony to the exceptionally broad remit of Arena over the past forty years. From Francis Bacon to George Formby, Marilyn Monroe to Henry Moore, popular culture and high are presented with equal attention and depth across the strand. What is also striking is the creative and imaginative ways in which these range of topics have been presented on screen. Through this Arena has built a reputation as a strand that is willing to be experimental with both form and content. Night and Day and the films featured within it don’t just serve to document art and culture, but also stand as significant cultural artefacts in their own right.

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