Tag Archives: BBC Two

Contains Strong Language: Some Highlights

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On the 8th of October the BBC marked National Poetry Day by launching a week long season of programmes celebrating both professional and amateur poets.

As the Director of Arts stated on the BBC’s Media Centre homepage:

From BBC One to Radio 3, the BBC is devoted to celebrating and showcasing the extraordinary arts and culture of the UK, bringing it to the largest possible audience wherever and whoever you are. To mark National Poetry Day, Contains Strong Language will celebrate the urgent and disruptive power of poetry, putting it at the heart of schedules, across the BBC’s channels, stations and online.

On World Poetry Day itself, the BBC Radio 4 schedules were taken over by We British: An Epic in Poetry, a series of programmes presented by Andrew Marr exploring ‘British history and identity through poems’. Arranged in a chronological fashion, the programmes featured readings, archive material, and interviews with a number of actors, media personalities and poets including Ian McKellen, Graham Norton and Carol Ann Duffy.

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I must admit, a particular highlight was Marr accidentally calling the poet Liz Berry “Mary Berry”, which I’m sure he’d put down to the final of The Great British Bake Off airing the previous evening.

Listeners were also asked to join the discussion through Twitter with the hashtag #WeBritish. Alongside this there was a special edition of the Shipping Forecast which invited people to ‘sum up their mood or activities in 10 words or less, using the style of the Shipping Forecast’ and submit their poems to Radio 4 via email, Facebook or Twitter. A number of these were then featured on a later edition of the programme.

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However, it seemed that the centrepiece of the season came a couple of days later with BBC Two’s 90-minute feature length documentary, Ted Hughes: Stronger Than Death.

Broadcast at 9pm on a Saturday night, the scale of the documentary presented itself through cinematic aerial shots of sweeping green landscapes and rustic towns. This was then juxtaposed by stark black and white footage of countryside scenes permeated by flocks of birds and lone foxes, mirroring the imagery of nature that dominates much of Hughes’ work.

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Speaking for the first time on television Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, discusses her father’s work, life and relationship with her mother. Her accounts, alongside those of others who knew Hughes well form something of a narrative thread throughout the programme, taking the viewer behind the poems to understand the circumstances in which they were conceived.

In lieu of a single narrator or presenter, the use of interviews to weave this narrative thread throughout the film also creates a sense of authenticity. By hearing the accounts of those closest to him, alongside a few more recognisable faces such as the poet Simon Armitage and arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, it becomes a far more human story beyond the black and white indifference of newspaper headlines and English Literature anthologies.

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For me, another particular highlight of this poetry season was BBC Radio 3’s special episode of ‘Between the Ears’ entitled ‘We are Writing a Poem About Home’. In this programme, the writer Kate Clanchy takes us into her poetry workshop to meet some amazingly talented award-winning young poets. Speaking 54 languages between them, the students of the former grammar school recite poems around ‘home’ that takes us beyond mere bricks and mortar to touch upon themes of heritage, belonging and acceptance.

BBC Four also broadcast a repeat of Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, an elegy to the young woman who was brutally attacked and murdered because of her appearance. The screen adaptation of Simon Armitage’s poignant poems about the tragedy is both beautifully rendered and deeply harrowing.

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This isn’t easy viewing and nor should it be. If one of the functions of art is to provoke empathy within the observer, then it should not be overlooked that art can also give a voice to the silenced.

In a media landscape in which tragic news stories saturate our television screens and Facebook feeds, it is sometimes only in the steady rhythm of poetry that we can stop to think.

“Perhaps their work wasn’t actually any good”: The Forgotten Story of Women in Art

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Over the past year issues surrounding women and sexism have once again been placed in the media spotlight thanks to high profile social media campaigns such as the Everyday Sexism project and No More Page 3. The public debate sparked by such projects has not gone unnoticed by more traditional media, with numerous newspaper articles and features on programmes such as Newsnight contributing to the discussion.

In the past week, along with a one-off special investigating sexism in the 21st century, the BBC has shown two programmes exploring the marginalisation of women in art: The Culture Show’s Pop Go the Women: The Other Story of Pop Art and the iPlayer premiere of The Story of Women in Art (airing on BBC Two 16th May). The following is a brief analysis of the ways in which each programme approaches the issues surrounding the marginalisation of women within the worlds of art and culture.

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Presented by art critic, Alastair Sooke, Pop Go the Women explores the forgotten history of female pop artists to reveal their impact and influence on the artistic movement.

If the title of the programme sounds familiar, it’s probably because it seems to be referencing Ken Russell’s landmark BBC documentary Pop Goes the Easel. At the beginning of the programme Sooke discusses the role Russell’s documentary played in introducing the viewing public to a new generation of artists who would go on to be hugely influential within the art world.

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As an artistic movement that emerged in the mid 1950s and predominantly bases its imagery on mass culture, the narrative of pop art’s artistic development was perhaps constructed more on screen than in the gallery. As such, the erasure of women from the history of pop art is perhaps a symptom of the institutional sexism that exists not only within the art world, but also a broadcasting environment that has traditionally been the domain of white middle class men.

In this context, it is rather ironic when exploring the erasure of women from the history of pop art that the BBC have chosen to use a male presenter. Although the programme is based around the stories and experiences of those who experienced the scene first hand, either as the artists themselves or their close friends, it is still Sooke who provides a frame for this narrative.

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Although the programme touches on the struggles faced by female artists living and working within a patriarchal society, it never explicitly puts two and two together to reveal the bigger picture. In his concluding thoughts, Sooke states:

“If I’m honest, at the outset I did worry a little bit that women pop artists may have been largely forgotten because their work wasn’t actually any good.”

If anything this statement cements an underling suspicion that Pop Go the Women is less about discovering why the narratives of influential female pop artists have been marginalised, and more about proving that they actually existed at all.

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The Story of Women in Art follows a similar line of inquiry in revealing the story of forgotten female artists throughout history. In the first episode Professor Amanda Vickery journeys from Renaissance Italy to the Dutch Republic in search of ‘a hidden world of female artistry.’

Vickery predominantly explores the social contexts in which female artists lived, revealing how the broader history of women has shaped their representation within the art world. The lives of individual female artists are not presented merely to prove that they did in fact exist, rather they serve as a starting point from which to analyse how society’s attitudes toward women throughout history has contributed to the suppression of female artists.

We are taken on a journey to churches, art galleries and museums to see the artwork created by women hung on the wall alongside more recognisable pieces. Many of these are not works that are brought out for one-off exhibitions, or stored away in clinical archive rooms. They have their place on the walls of traditional cultural institutions where the public may go and admire them if they know what they’re looking for.

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In contrast to Pop Go the Women, not only does the programme have a female presenter, the experts being interviewed from the worlds of art and culture are also predominantly women. As such, there is a sense that the story of women in art set out within in the programme is actually being shaped by women themselves.

To conclude this brief analysis, it seems that the marginalisation of women in art is not just confined history. There is also a sense of inequality in regards to who constructs the narratives today surrounding these artists and the movements to which they contributed. The forgotten stories of women in art remain so because they are either untold or barely audible over a favoured cultural canon that predominantly favours male artists. In this environment, it is no surprise that many believe that these great female artists remain hidden from public consciousness because ‘their work wasn’t actually any good.’

Mozart in Prague: Reconstructing Past Experience

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Mozart in Prague follows acclaimed tenor Rolando Villazon as he attempts to recreate the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Villazon travels to Prague to gain an insight into the music of the opera and the original social context in which it was first performed. The final product of which is a performance of the opera’s finale as it would have looked and sounded on its premiere night.

At the beginning of the programme, Villazon excitedly tells the audience: “We are going to restage Don Giovanni’s finale to understand the challenges Mozart faced, so we can all see and hear it as the first audience did.” The aim of the programme creates a sense that by being able to recreate the look and sound of something, you recreate the experience of being in that time and place. This is a concept that television as a medium inherently perpetuates. We are used to the weird unreality of being able to bend the rules of time and space with television. We no longer duck when the train comes charging towards us on the cinema screen because we know what we are witnessing is not real in the sense that it is happening in this moment and in this space. We are instead being offered glimpses of events that happened in the past and in another place. The fact that we see and hear events as they unfold prompts us to believe they are real, but the discrepancy in time and space reminds us that they are constructed images.

So through the medium of television it is quite easy to immerse ourselves in the illusion that we are watching and therefore experiencing an opera taking place in the past. It’s why costume dramas on television and cinema are popular: the nature of television as a medium that transcends how we usually experience linear time and space in our everyday lives lends itself well to presenting the past in a way that is believable. Not believable in the sense that we are under the delusion that these programmes were actually made in 1787, but rather that we are able to immerse ourselves and therefore become emotionally engaged in the narrative.

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When the finished product is presented on screen we watch the opera’s finale with little interruption or narration from Villazon. Although we do hear him at one point offer a few words on a character’s performance it is not too intrusive, as if he is sitting beside us in the theatre whispering in our ear as we watch. But we do not experience the opera as the audience would have experienced it in a true sense. We only see the finale, isolated from the scenes that came before it. We do not see the entire stage but a range of shots and close-ups. We are given subtitles to translate what the performers are singing. What we appreciate while watching the performance is the care and effort put into creating it. That is really what we have experienced during the course of this programme. The outcome is less significant than the process that led to it.

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In his conclusion, Villazon frames the documentary as a journey that has helped him understand more about Mozart. This fulfils slightly different aims than those set out at the beginning of this documentary, with its emphasis on the viewer experiencing the opera as it was originally performed. But, of course, a reproduction will never truly allow us to experience an opera as it was on opening night. However, it does offer a valuable insight into the creative process of the artists themselves through the task of imitating their work. More than being a witness to past events, we are a witness to their construction on screen and the creative process that made them possible.

From Civilisation to The Culture Show: 50 Years of Arts Programming on BBC Two

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This Sunday BBC Two will enter its Fiftieth year of broadcasting. Launched on the 20th of April 1964, the channel was established to provide more special interest programming than its BBC One counterpart. From its inception, BBC Two’s remit was for more educational, ‘serious’ programming with a focus on the arts, culture and drama. The Reithian values instilled within the channel by its content led to BBC Two developing a reputation for providing ‘highbrow’ entertainment.

The Visual Arts in Colour

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In 1967 BBC Two became the first European channel to transmit programmes in colour. To mark this landmark in television history, the BBC commissioned its first blockbuster arts documentary, Civilisation. Presented by Kenneth Clark, the 13-part series that aired in 1969 took viewers on a journey through the history of Western art.

It seems rather fitting that a programme about the visual arts should be chosen to mark the transition to colour television. The use of colour signified a more accurate depiction of reality. Art was no longer just represented on screen; it was reproduced. The great works of Western culture that Clark and his team travelled hundreds of miles to see were now available in the living room of any home in Britain (providing you could afford a colour TV set!) in vivid colour.

Civilisation proved to be immensely popular with audiences in Britain and abroad. Its legacy and influence is still evident in the array of pundit documentaries that populate our television schedules today. There are even plans for the series to be remade for contemporary audiences in line with Director-General Tony hall’s plans to expand arts coverage on the BBC.

Another ambitious project examining the visual arts was the aptly named One Hundred Great Paintings (1980), which comprised of one hundred ten minute episodes, each devoted to a particular painting and broadcast five nights a week. Each episode comprised of what could be described as ‘mini essays’, analysing the paintings in surprising depth for a programme so short in length.

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Reviewing and Critiquing Art

BBC Two has broadcast a whole host of arts and cultural programming over the last fifty years, including such thought provoking programmes as Ways of Seeing (1972) and Shock of the New (1980), both of which have been revered for their more critical approach to art and culture. These programmes exemplify BBC Two’s experimental nature in the sense that they push boundaries in terms of deconstructing dominant ideologies within the art world and British culture in general. Rather than just providing an authoritative account of historical ‘fact’, as in the case of Civilisation, Ways of Seeing and Shock of the New provide a basis for critical thought and analysis through their episodic illustrated essays.

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Over the last fifty years, BBC Two has also featured a number of arts magazine series including the very first arts programme to be broadcast on the channel in 1964 – New Release. More contemporary series include The Review Show (1994), which started life on BBC Two before moving to BBC Four in 2013 and ultimately being cancelled in 2014, and also The Culture Show, which after its launch in 2004 became BBC Two’s flagship arts strand, encompassing both weekly magazine programmes and thematic one-off specials. These topical weekly programmes have covered a wide variety of subjects from the world of arts and culture. Their short features and coverage of current developments and events have enabled viewers to feel engaged with the contemporary art world without even having to set foot in a gallery.

BBC Two Today

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Fifty years on, the BBC Two of today is one that must continually carve out its identity within an increasingly media saturated world. Although the strength of the channel still lies in its output of educational and special-interest programming, the introduction of BBC Four and an ever more competitive digital broadcasting environment has led to these programmes becoming increasingly more mainstream in their approach. Once synonymous with arts and culture, arts programming is increasingly vacating BBC Two to occupy a sort of ‘cultural ghetto’ in the form of BBC Four. The move of high profile series such as The Review Show has led to concern that the BBC are neglecting the arts in favour of attracting more mainstream audiences. Whereas the arts once had a place amongst a rich and diverse range of programming, they are now being grouped and packaged to even smaller audiences.

In the advent of digital television it would seem that new, specialist channels such as BBC Four have occupied the place once held by niche channels like BBC Two. However, with Tony Hall planning to expand the coverage of arts on the BBC, there is still hope that BBC Two will once again showcase innovative and informative arts programming. But in order to engage audiences with the arts within today’s increasingly competitive television environment, arts programming must evolve to avoid being confined to late night slots or specialist channels. Adapting arts programming to appeal to a wider audience is not inherently a bad thing. The elitism that surrounds the arts has led to their segregation from BBC Two as it evolves to accommodate a broader audience. But as the success of landmark series such as Civilisation has demonstrated, arts programming can have popular appeal without sacrificing quality. BBC Two could play a crucial role in Hall’s plan to engage more mainstream audiences with the arts, while re-establishing its identity as a provider of high quality cultural programming.