Tag Archives: 2014

The People’s Portrait: Capturing Human Experience on Television and Canvas

Image

The People’s Portrait follows the story of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston as he becomes the first person voted for by the public to be painted for the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by viewers of The One Show, Weston is painted by esteemed artist Nicky Philipps, who is perhaps best known for her portraits of the royal family.

Image

The main focus of the programme is Weston’s recovery from the serious injuries he suffered during the Falklands War. His story captures popular narratives that resonate both on a societal and individual level: overcoming adversity, courage, loss and triumph. As such, Weston is portrayed as the archetypal war hero. This image is brought to life by clips taken from a documentary Weston was involved in at the time of his injuries and rehabilitation. The audience is not just being told the story; they are witnessing the unfolding of events on screen in scenes that are often distressing and emotional.

Image

The finished portrait is a representation of this narrative. Throughout the programme it is clear that Philipps’ task is to capture this human experience on canvas. However, in contrast to Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year, which follows a relatively unknown artist as he paints author Hilary Mantel, Philipps is already an established artist who is respected within the art world. The ‘reveal’ of the painting at the end of the programme is not to the audience. We see the finished piece before it is unveiled at the gallery. Our anticipation is on Weston’s reaction to the piece, which he does not see prior to the unveiling. We are not being placed in a position to critique Philipps’ piece, but rather witness Weston’s reaction as the figure of ‘the war hero’ that has been built up throughout the programme is reflected back at him.

Image

The outcome of both the portrait itself and the documentary surrounding it serve similar ends. Both represent Weston’s story, capturing the narrative in a form that aims to provoke a strong emotional reaction from those who see it. However, whereas one piece moves through time and space; telling as well as showing, the other captures a single moment in time; static and silent. The process of painting the piece is portrayed as an emotional journey of understanding the subject, resulting in the nature of art being represented in the romantic sense of capturing human experience and universal truth.

Image

Although there’s a sense that some would write The People’s Portrait off as more of a human-interest piece than an arts programme, I would argue that the two categories are in no way mutually exclusive. At their core, the arts engage us in shared human experience, expressing our very nature of being. I would suggest that perhaps there should be more arts programming that engages with the audience in this highly emotive way, provoking us to feel the art being presented on screen, rather than just witness it. Encouraging us to engage with it on an individual level, as opposed to just understanding it within a wider cultural and economic context.

Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake

Image

World-famous ballerina and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, invites the viewer backstage as she prepares to take on the dual lead in the iconic ballet Swan Lake.

Image

As part of BBC Two and BBC Four’s Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake presents a candid account of the challenges Rojo faces in terms of the performance of the two contrasting characters she will be playing.

Image

In contrast to Dancing in the Blitz, a previous programme from the Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan centres around interpreting the performance of the piece itself, as opposed to examining its social impact from within a wider cultural context.  Furthermore, the purpose of the programme is not to provide an introduction to Swan Lake, but to provide a deeper understanding and analysis of the main themes and symbolism within the story. Descriptions of the story within the programme provide the context for a deeper interpretation of the characters within the piece. As such, it seems apparent that the programme is aimed at an audience of those already somewhat familiar with ballet and ‘high culture’ in a general sense.

Image

The story of Swan Lake provides a linear narrative in which to place this analysis, starting from the moment the character of the White Swan, Odette is introduced. Between clips of the performance itself, we see Rojo in rehearsal studios and in her dressing room discussing the nature of the character and how this is represented within the performance.

Image

In one sequence Rojo is rehearsing a scene while talking the viewer through what each movement symbolises. Rojo is essentially teaching the viewer how to read each movement of the performance, providing them with the tools to interpret the subtle meanings of the piece.

Image

Although, of course, Rojo did not create Swan Lake, her interpretation of the piece is still one that carries a sense of validity and substance. As opposed to the analysis of say, an expert in the field who has seen Swan Lake numerous times and read countless books on the topic, the perspective of the performer provides a valuable insight into the process of creating the work itself. Through their performance, the work is recreated again and again.

Image

Good Swan, Bad Swan essentially presents a character study through the narrative of Rojo preparing to undertake the dual lead in Swan Lake. The programme is less about Rojo’s role as a performer, and more about understanding themes and symbolism surrounding the key characters within the piece.

Image

Programmes like Good Swan, Bad Swan demonstrate how television can compliment the arts by creating more informed audiences. However, I am hesitant to suggest that programmes such as this make the arts more accessible to a wider range of people. There is still the sense that these programmes are primarily targeted at those who are already familiar with ballet, and ‘high culture’ in general. So whilst they serve to nurture such audiences, they do little to contribute to expanding them.

Dancing in the Blitz: Telling the Story of British Ballet

Image

As part of the BBC’s Ballet Season, David Bintley, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explores how the British public came to embrace ballet during the Second World War in Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet.

As would be expected from a programme that focuses on events which happened during World War II, there is a strong focus on British national identity. The programme invokes the ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative of persevering in times of hardship and adversity to provide a social context for charting the development of British ballet.

Image

The programme’s focus is primarily on the ballet performers and other individuals involved in the company, rather than the art of the performance itself. This, along with historic context of the Second World War, makes the programme accessible to audiences who may not be overly familiar with ballet. The programme’s focus on the social context in which British ballet developed provides a framework of understanding that is accessible to a greater number of people than that of an artistic analysis of the movement.

Image

The programme uses a lot of archive footage and images to illustrate Bintley’s narration and the personal accounts of the performers. This footage is interlaced between shots of Bintley providing pieces to camera at the locations featured in the archive images.

Image

This juxtaposition between the past and the present is also used in studio footage in which dancers perform in front of projected images to create a sense of visually connecting the historic and the contemporary.

Image

This link between the historic and contemporary is most markedly represented within the opening shots of Bintley walking past what appears to be World War II re-enactment soldiers. A sequence that sets the tone for what will be a journey through history that combines the images of the past with the storytelling of the present.

Image

At the beginning of the programme, Bintley states that he is setting out to tell the ‘story’ of British Ballet. The process of creating the narrative for this story is represented and constructed on screen. We see Bintley go to talk to various experts and historians within the field and visit ballet performers to gather first hand accounts of their experiences. In this regard, the story being told is one that is also being actively made throughout the programme by these discoveries and recollections being put together.

Image

The linear nature of historical accounts is one that lends itself well to this idea of storytelling, but within stories there is also usually a sense of drama and suspense. Something to keep the reader reading, and in this case, the viewer watching.

To create this sense of drama, certain parts of the historic account are emphasised within the narrative. An account in which the Ballet Company are in Holland at the time of the Nazi invasion is given a lot of attention in particular. A member of the Ballet Company gives a personal account of the events that occurred, providing an emotive dimension to the narrative. Archive footage is also interlaced between shots of Bintley at various locations described within the accounts, providing juxtaposition between the historical images and the contemporary recollections of the events.

Image

Dancing in the Blitz combines archive footage and storytelling to create a historic account that is entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Even without any previous knowledge of the artistic merits of ballet, viewers are able to feel engaged with the personal accounts presented and the familiar narrative of wartime Britain. The multitude of archive clips and images used also creates a visually appealing experience that illustrates this narrative. Despite these elements, the programme is still seemingly marketed at niche audiences with its 9pm slot on BBC Four, where it must battle for attention with other prime time programmes on the more mainstream channels.