The War Game (1965)

Winner of the 1966 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Peter Watkins’ The War Game was never broadcast by the BBC when it was produced for the Wednesday Play series the previous year. Deemed too unsettling for audiences, it was eventually transmitted in 1985 (a year after the broadcast of Threads amid escalating nuclear tensions) to mark 40 years since the bombing of Hiroshima. Comparisons with Threads are inevitable, and although both films attack similar specific targets, they use markedly different techniques to do so.

A documentary voice is employed by both films, but where Threads allowed its terrifying speculations to unfold as a drama, The War Game comes from a more detached, factual perspective. Threads’ occasional stark captions have their role filled here by an authoritative narrator, one that would be as much at home in a Protect & Survive film. We are led through events by this single guiding voice, and the effect of hearing it underscore the action in contemporary Britain (and occasional illustrative diagrams) is similar to that of a newscast.  A crisis is imposed onto everyday reality through one of the most familiar formats to viewers at home.

Those viewers at home can also see themselves reflected in the vox pops that are interspersed throughout the film, offering opinions on the issues, informed or otherwise, and it is these that allow The War Game to take a different path to that taken by Threads decades later. With no single main character, we see a picture painted of wider societal views, and the film can also take the opportunity to break away and offer a clearer international context. Interviews in Britain cut away to scenes of unrest in Berlin – the flashpoint of a worsening crisis. Hypotheses are offered as to the US President and Soviet Premier’s motivations and actions that would lead to a nuclear attack on Britain. The divide between the leaders who would destroy and the people who would be destroyed is stark – a total disconnection.

While this approach creates a contrast with Threads, which largely gives a domestic view, the recipients of The War Game’s criticism are just the same. Narrator and talking heads alike expose the inadequate measures on the part of the government to prepare and protect the public. Safety manuals are overpriced, and people on the street largely ignorant of what to do in the event of an attack, while privilege is shown in some cases to lead to selfishness bordering on paranoia. One of the only people we meet in the film with the means to build a shelter for his family also shows off the shotgun he will use to ensure no one else tries to get in with them. When the attack comes (with just the same horror and dread felt in Threads), all are equally powerless.

After the impact is when these interviews with the public become most significant, as the attitudes on display prior to the bombing in Kent are demolished by the grim reality now facing the people who held them. Before, we saw people casually admitting they would like to see retaliation to any attack, and similar devastation inflicted on another country, not to mention residents’ reluctance to take in evacuated families on our own soil (“Are they coloured?”). In the aftermath, violent crowds grow. Citizens and police kill each other in riots. The narrator comments on Mrs Joyce Fisher, a housewife from Gravesend, as she pilfers armfuls of food retrieved from murdered officers. The scenes of civil unrest in Berlin that viewers might like to imagine could never happen here are shown to duplicate themselves all too easily in Britain.

Prejudices and preoccupations erode in the turmoil never foreseen by those who held them. A film that started with the blasé comments of detached adults on a potential apocalypse ends with parents frightened for their children, and the children themselves saying weakly, “We don’t want to be nothing.” Silent Night plays at the close of the film over scenes of destitution, following graphic descriptions and depictions of melted eyeballs, burned and blinded children, police officers shooting dead those beyond medical help, mass cremations to prevent disease and executions of relatives trying to retrieve bodies.

The imagery is as gruesome as that used in Threads – it is ultimately the ideas behind them that hold the real power. It doesn’t surprise me that the BBC withheld it at the time, although not especially a decision I sympathise with. The War Game is a very unsettling piece of television for a nation that had had questions asked in Parliament about Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation only the previous decade. While it was also fortunately mistaken in its prediction that the scenes shown in the film would have happened by 1980, its message is powerfully grim and, as Threads demonstrated twenty years on, still resonates. Tensions diminished slightly in the 1970s, but rose again. Today, they seem to have done so once more, and the people are once again in thrall to the whims of leaders unaccountable to us in other countries. 53 years on, the fear remains of what could be.

The War Game is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.


The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953)

Given the kind of week it’s been, it seems appropriate to carry on looking at films by John Krish with The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953). Made without the proper permission from British Transport Films, since it looked back rather than forward, this love letter to London’s trams brought Krish’s career with the organisation to an end for the next 24 years. Growing increasingly emotive, it reveals British documentary’s roots and points towards its future influence as it binds the trams to London’s communities, and uses this to lament other traditions falling to the passage of time.

Familiar to viewers at the time, the image of the hulking trams as they glide about the capital is at the forefront early in the film. Wheeling through the busy streets by day, a sweeping silhouette passing the orbs of streetlamps at night, they cut a distinctive figure. That public perception is expanded and manipulated as the film progresses. Eventually we come to see them en masse, standing silent and still in their depots, awaiting their final day in use. It unsettles the comfortable image of them built up in the opening minutes of the film. Worse still is the sight of the disused vehicles burning to a cinder in a scrapyard. The familiar crumbling to dust.

But the trams are endowed with a greater meaning than just a recognisable symbol to the public. Krish takes pains to emphasise every little action that comes into play as a tram goes on its journey. Every hand ringing a bell, every guard standing by at a points lever on the street, every precise mechanical movement as the tram driver connects the beast’s arm to a power line. Those intimate details, the glimpses into someone’s everyday life, bestow the trams with a more personal significance – that felt by the individual tram workers, conductors and especially the drivers, often viewed by the camera from behind, to the public nameless and unnoticed.

The emotional link is then broadened, and the public’s perception of the trams made more personal too, through the prism of an elderly cockney couple’s journey on one. A narrator binds the old transport to the working class Londoner’s experience: “the trams were theirs”. Straight away, we’re treated to an old music hall song, Archie Harradine singing “Riding on Top of the Car”, and the music is used to string together the images of the couple’s jaunt. A conductor checks their tickets, the lady gives a wave to pedestrians below, she and her husband look out over the Thames as their tram crosses one of the bridges. The song makes their experience a common one, shared by Londoners all across the city, wrapped in communal nostalgia.

It’s this same sense of nostalgia that manifests itself when the film captures the trams’ last day. Children are seen riding as many as they can, collecting their route numbers in notebooks. Trams go through bustling communities that later make way for street parties, waving Union Jacks and all. Again, the narrator steps in, suggesting that the motorists delayed by trams every day will curse a little less today – projecting an attitude onto the subject that exposes British documentary’s roots as a propaganda tool. That projection pervades the whole film, as the trams are woven into London’s soul by these various devices, given greater credence by use of film from decades before showing the very first tram rides.

London is brought together around the trams by The Elephant Will Never Forget, then. But it’s an older, traditional London that seems to be saluted and captured as well – one that seems in danger of being forgotten. As the transport that gave common experience to communities all over the city fades away, might that shared sentiment fade too? The trams’ decommissioning helps symbolise a wider phenomenon, and as the music hall songs and the street parties fade as well, we’re left wondering what might take their place.

The degrading of the old and anxiety about the new, especially when it comes to working class culture, is a concern that takes the foreground over the coming years, as Free Cinema and the British New Wave highlighted the clash of ancient and modern in the country. In this way, the film shows documentary’s continuing influence in British cinema, as well as displaying its origins proudly. And for the sentimentality that entwines something as seemingly mundane as public transport to the hearts and minds of a whole city, The Elephant Will Never Forget offers a view of London and its spirit that remains recognisable today.


Our School (1962)

I recently discussed John Krish’s moving documentary about old age, I Think They Call Him John (1964). Two years before then, in 1962, he looked at the other end of the scale when he wrote and directed Our School, a film examining life in a secondary modern. There are parallels that can be seen with the later film – emotional insight delivered to us through the filmmaker’s keen interest in the human face, and an innovative use of sound. But Our School communicates much more positive sentiments than I Think They Call Him John, while remaining nonetheless poignant in its own way.

The film is topped and tailed by shots that encapsulate its spirit. Its establishing shot pans across the contemporary school grounds as the headmaster leads an assembly in the Lord’s Prayer. We eventually settle in the school hall itself, the traditional ritual running alongside the modern setting. It’s a group experience, and the sense of stuffy anachronism is something many will doubtless remember. But more significant is the closing shot. At the end of the school day, the camera moves down a now empty corridor, the sound fading between memories of the lessons undertaken that day in the various classrooms we pass. It’s the rich variety of individual experiences and memories forged within a single day that is crucial to the film, and Our School is fascinated with this collision of the personal and the communal.

Captions at the beginning emphasise the range of education on offer (academic, technical, social), and we see a large number of different subjects, lessons and teaching styles on display. But we can identify common experiences for the children between all of these, as we recognise early tastes of doubt, fallibility, and new realisations about themselves. In a writing class, pupils are called up for common spelling mistakes. In English Literature, one shyly admits forgetting to hand his exercise book in. In an engineering lesson, another makes a mistake drawing up schematics and falls behind everyone else.

We can read on the children’s faces the self-consciousness that arrives in these moments, and sympathise. But most exciting are the moments of personal realisations or epiphanies, those which often arise in class discussions going towards their social education. A facial expression crosses a lot of the children’s faces, one that seems to say, ‘Yes, actually, why am I the way I am?’ In a discussion with a class of girls about marriage and relationships, the teacher interrogates them: ‘What do you mean, “settle down”?’ A pause – they all struggle to articulate a phrase they’ve received and are now repeating. Similarly, a mixed class of boys and girls approach with trepidation the reasons behind their own varied use of language and vocabulary – and whether they would consciously change the way they talk to fit in. Preserved forever, we can see these children ask “Why?” of themselves for perhaps the first time in their lives.

Aside from the chance to read youthful memories of our own on the children’s faces, these scenes also foreground the vital role the teachers must play – namely their fundamental task to form a bond of trust with every student, one that allows for such open discussions as those above. We can be intrigued by the variety of approaches and personalities among different teachers, all effective in their own right. With sterner, plain-spoken teachers (the teacher discussing use of language sticks in the mind), there can be a sense of prickliness, even of intellectual intimidation. Such is the nature of a discussion where views are challenged rigorously, with forensic precision. But we realise as the scene progresses that it isn’t so much intimidation we’re reading from the children’s subdued responses, but a sincere attempt to articulate themselves, as they grapple positively with the teacher’s grilling. There is respect here.

Later, we see a much pallier class-teacher relationship as a group of pupils are led through a discussion of budgeting their pocket money and their spending. The class rib each other about excessive spending, personal foibles – even a bawdy joke one of them makes. The teacher might not actively join in with that, but nor does he condemn. Rather he shows some restrained amusement. His approach helps instil an atmosphere of trust where every pupil feels comfortable talking to one another about their personal affairs. The comfortable openness of the discussion is something every class can aspire to. (No doubt an inspiration for the teachers the film was made for.)

These sequences are sufficiently enjoyable for one to rather long to join in. But one of my favourite moments of all was much shorter and much quieter. In the writing class mentioned above, a girl is spotted looking at her neighbour’s work. The teacher calls out her name to focus her. It could be a harsh repudiation, but after a beat, the girl looks back, and she and her teacher exchange a knowing smile. When authority speaks here, it isn’t as an oppressive voice from outside, but a trusted, respected one – about as close to equal as it could reasonably come. It leads to near-equal responsibilities as well. Never does it feel like order is being imposed from above – rather, everyone seems to meet their shared duties, adults and children alike.

To ensure such an atmosphere exists falls to the teachers, but to maintain it accordingly becomes a common effort. Our School, then, offers the best possible view of school experience, showing it as a mini-society that is open, liberal and respectful. Hardly surprising, given its origins as a film receiving sponsorship from the NUT. But it’s an ideal that it’s right to promote. For one aspect remains true regardless, that which the film puts forward most clearly. It is in this place, in the moments and experiences lived within these various corridors and classrooms, that people grow more fully formed, little by little. It’s a process that needs delicacy, nuance and trust, and one which Our School shows coming to perfect fruition.

our school


I Think They Call Him John (1964)

“The old are an army of strangers we have no intention of joining.”

So claims the narrator of John Krish’s I Think They Call Him John, a short documentary that examines the everyday life of widower John Ronson. The title of the film appears over a shot of the council block where he lives. A building whose exterior masks the humanity within. Every home is interchangeable, and the people inside are kept anonymous strangers. I Think They Call Him John  takes us into just one of those unknown places, and the result is one of the saddest and most affecting films I’ve seen in a long time.

The film is visually striking, but what struck me quickest was the unbearable quiet. We see John’s loneliness in everything – his behaviour and his surroundings, even down to the haphazardly draped clothes he picks up from his bedside chair in the morning to put on. No one to keep up appearances for, no one to tidy up with him. But just as telling is the role sound plays. Events are largely played out in silence, aside from the film’s narrator, so sounds that do occur draw enormous attention to themselves – simply to hear something is a significant moment. We hear a motorbike go by noisily outside John’s home. He looks out of the window after it, but the camera stays fixed on John. Life other than John is not part of this story, and the film keeps it separate from him.

It’s significant also that the longest stretch of uninterrupted sound is non-diegetic. As John nods off, the narrator mentions his wartime experiences, and the memories John has built up since. As the camera pans slowly across a mantelpiece filled with photographs and other souvenirs, the shot is nonetheless overwhelmed by the echoing sound of gunfire. Something so gigantic and terrible dominates and haunts the memories since forged. Yet when John wakes up, we do pick up on more of the ambience of his flat. There’s a little road noise in the distance, and the birds can be heard singing. A sense of life is roused only by John’s memory of when he had something to do – in spite of what it was. And the only sound he makes himself in the film is when he repeatedly mutters, “Good boy, Peter,” to his pet bird – his one living companion.

Naturally, John is alone in every shot of the film, and this is wrung out by the duration of so many of them. Every little action is lingered on, and we have all the time we need to take in even the smallest movement, gesture or change in expression. Dressing, eating, dusting. Sitting down to read a letter from his sister-in-law. The camera is fixed closely on John’s face, tracking his eyes as he reads (the letter is read to us by a narrator at the same time). His sister-in-law laments that she is likely incapable of visiting from America now. We take in John’s reaction, staring out of the window contemplatively, forlornly. He reads what we know must be that passage once again. Looks out of the window again, considering. John takes all the time in the world, because he has it.

The time his actions take is crucial, but so is the space they take place in – and the interiors of his home are often used to articulate and comment on his lonely situation further. As the narrator discusses John’s Sunday lunches as a child with his parents and siblings, he is framed in the hatch in the wall as he sits down to his solitary, silent meal. The film keeps him alone, and the human figures that occasionally accompany him take the form of paintings, photographs of family members, including his late wife, and his own reflection. This is used powerfully early on, when John has his morning shave. The camera doesn’t position itself to the side, rather it stands directly in front of the mirror, meaning John spends his shave staring directly at us. The most prolonged eye contact he will have had in some time, yet he cannot himself experience it.

Television provides some small comfort near the end, but even that is tempered. Before he switches it on, John’s reflection is framed alone in the screen. Even as it provides company, it is used to emphasise his loneliness. And the company it does provide is far from ideal. For every little smile he gives to the game show playing on the screen as he does his ironing, there’ll be a moment of bitter contrast when he moves elsewhere in the room. The cheery noise of the presenters and the crowd carries on indifferently as his solitary actions are framed in a darkened doorway. He might benefit from the company, but the company will carry on regardless without him.

And as he watches and irons, the camera pans across, drifting into John’s empty bedroom – just as lonely and dark. For this final shot, we see what John sees. The emptiness he sees every night when he returns to his room to go to sleep, where every next day will start exactly the same. The film ends on this shot with the same dry description of John it began with. And we now realise that, in spite of it moving us a little then, it told us nothing at all of what it is to live John’s life. The endless insistent solitude. And we don’t know what it is to life this life from a 25-minute film, either. To be known, this life has to be lived. And only from that could one also know the need for relief and companionship. That is the real message of the film: we can only imagine the gravity of John’s loneliness, and of anyone else’s, tucked away in a forgotten block of flats. It is up to us all to step forward and help how we can. But will we?


Ghostwatch (1992)

Twenty-four Hallowe’ens ago, BBC1 broadcast Ghostwatch to a minor furore. Ostensibly a live documentary presented by Michael Parkinson, it examines a supposed haunting in suburban North London, only for the poltergeist at work to use the broadcast as a nationwide séance, terrorising a family and seeking manifestation. The drama follows the narrative path of the climax of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), as a live TV broadcast, and the gaze of the masses upon paranormal events, inadvertently causes catastrophe.

Ghostwatch was billed explicitly as a drama, with a cast list, writers’ credit and an ident revealing it to be part of the BBC’s Screen One strand – all within the opening titles. Coming to it fresh today, it’s sometimes hard to see it as a 1990s answer to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938). For one thing, we can only watch it retrospectively, not as a live event, but also we now live in an age when viewers are more regularly alerted to the vocabulary of TV programmes and genres. (We live in a post-Screenwipe age, is perhaps what I’m suggesting.) If we’re familiar with the grammar of live TV, the nature of its mistakes, the occasional bouts of dead air, then the artifice of Ghostwatch becomes easier to spot. Yet for its flaws by today’s standards, the programme still has the capacity to spook nearly a quarter of a century on.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest and most convincing performances come from those cast members who work primarily as presenters. Watching it, I found some of the ‘civilians’ of the piece to give too refined a performance – knowing, affected, not rough enough around the edges. It wouldn’t be an issue if we were watching a programme working on the vocabulary of a fictional drama, but Ghostwatch’s script is designed to follow that of live television, inarticulate warts and all. When an ordinary person articulates themselves so clearly, so apparently effortlessly, we sense preparation. The frisson of live television dies a little.

I wondered at times whether the studio segments of the programme might have benefitted from an audience – not necessarily a vocal one, but one that might energise the performances within the studio, helping the programme escalate to its climax. Regardless, Michael Parkinson steers the programme very effectively, always maintaining the right tone. Special mention too should go to Craig Charles, sidelined towards the end, but displaying a very clear understanding out on location of just what kind of performance, and what kind of energy, the programme needs to succeed.

Technically as well, Ghostwatch seems just a little too competent for its own good early on. Even now, we tune in to live TV almost hoping for a few cock-ups here and there. As audiences, we quite enjoy disasters like One Direction’s appearance on Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. Glitches like those, including those far less laughable, are part of the joy of a live broadcast – they remind us that what we’re watching genuinely is unfolding before our eyes.  When they’re absent altogether, we start to suspect we’re seeing something altogether safer: exactly what a programme like Ghostwatch doesn’t need.

Yet glitches in the production, if not always in the performances, are often incorporated by design – there is awareness behind the scenes of the need for imperfection. In the rush of the moment, cameras aren’t always well-placed to capture what the programme needs to see. Possible sightings of the ghostly presence, ‘Pipes’, are often just beyond our view, while much of the climax is shrouded in darkness or viewed on infra-red cameras. Increasingly hysterical sounds– often the screams of innumerable terrified cats – are heard from unseen sources. Deeply troubling stories of the house and its previous occupant are recounted piecemeal by old neighbours. We can’t know the full nature of what we’re dealing with. Kept just out of sight, the thrill of the ghost is in the chase, not the capture.

Thanks to the cultural shift brought in by catch-up TV, and our distance from the programme now, elements don’t always spook us as they might have in 1992. The shadow of Pipes is glimpsed in the daughters’ bedroom in North London. Separate versions of the same footage are used in sequence, designed to trick viewers watching live into thinking their own imagination could be at play. At the time, unable to go back and review, that would have stirred the imagination in just the right way. It stirs ours too, but perhaps now only when we can bring ourselves to view the programme as a drama.

Yet fabricated technical imperfections do bring a sense of immediate menace later on. Best of all is when ‘Pipes’ again becomes visible in the bedroom as the camera briefly pans around the room during a poltergeist incident. Suddenly the camera stops, spins back – nothing there now. At once, we’ve just been given a POV shot, and we’re involved in the unfolding events – the cameraman agrees with us. Something is very wrong. Here, at least, we all feel some of the urgent worry that crossed the minds of any viewers taken in in 1992.

While it’s easier now for Ghostwatch to spook us if we look back on it as a fiction, we can still therefore grasp at the fear it provoked in some viewers when its attempts at illusion paid off. Unable to look back on this live programme, they were left at the mercy of its makers to reassure them, only for the makers to prove increasingly incapable of doing so. As glimpses and partial encounters build up within the house, and members of its cast and crew find themselves in extreme danger, the programme reaches a pitch of hysteria. Thanks in no small part to the fact that everything is hinted to us, nothing made explicit.

Its final scene offers no real resolution. The studio is left in darkness, Parkinson wandering aimlessly, the camera out of focus, abandoned by its operator. Nothing is sure of those left in the haunted house, or of those in the studio, or even of the viewers at home, party to this unwitting séance. We’re abandoned in the unknown by the ‘live’ disaster, and without the safety of predetermined narrative structure, we’re left shivering before the potential, unknowable aftermaths. Its blistering ending shows that Ghostwatch knew where its strengths lay all along.


The Lovers and the Despot (2016)

In 1978, highly regarded South Korean director Shin Sang–ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, his ex-wife, were kidnapped at the behest of King Jong-il. Like Mussolini, this was a dictator who wanted his country’s culture to act as propaganda to the rest of the world. Peculiarly, North Korean cinema was proving stagnant under a totalitarian regime, so he stole two people form the capitalist South. Setting them to work, he gave unlimited budgets and resources to make the best films possible – in exchange for their freedom. The Lovers and the Despot tells this frightening story, and is a compelling consideration of art’s uncomfortable relationship with authoritarianism, and, more significantly, of its relationship with reality.

Naturally, the film is full of archive footage, and we begin in an environment that seems oddly familiar: 1950s South Korea. Following the cessation of the Korean War, we see developing the promise, progress and optimism of post-War Western capitalism. The glamour of modernity permeates the clips we see of Choi in the youthful prime of her career. This world is recognisable – how many times have we sensed this particular vibrancy and hopefulness in the aesthetic of countless American and British films of the 1950s and ‘60s? We might be seeing it through the altered perspective of East Asia, but the sensibility is the same. We feel secure.

But almost immediately, we are treated to clips of North Korean propaganda, giving this exact same treatment to Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung. Our knowledge of the horrors of North Korean repression exposes the fundamental deceit of which cinema is capable, perhaps not only here but in the representation we’ve seen of our own way of life, in countless American and British films of the 20th century. Film can craft a fantasy from the stuff of reality so seductive that it can affect our perception of the truth – as is seen here, sometimes with worrying ease.

The framework of the film is more suggestive of the North Korea we know. Extracts of Kim Jong-il’s voice are heard, tinny and muffled, as we watch a cassette tape whirring round, surrounded by shadows, with ominous, droning music underneath. This music underpins a number of archive clips as well, often TV rather than film – the lower picture quality gives a sense of distortion, of a layer of information unobtainable, or withheld.

Sequences like these are rich in the kind of paranoid hyper-realism that is a mainstay of contemporary current affairs documentaries, and unsettle with the same certainty as a long night of reading online conspiracy theories. But just as we’ve been warned earlier to be sceptical of the ‘realities’ film offers us, so we must not take this paranoid aesthetic at face value. Cinema can create more than one truth, and if we look further, we see a situation more emotionally complex than first appears. Here, we must be alert to the dual threat of perspectives imposed not only by the film, but by our own prejudices as viewers.

The horrors of the regime are clear in memories recounted by Choi and other concerned parties, and in real footage of the paraphernalia we see on display (vast statues, enormous draped canvasses and paintings of the despot – the stuff of dystopian sci-fi). But this is set against the artist’s occasional relish of creative opportunity. Recorded onto tape, we hear Shin speaking enthusiastically with Kim Jong-il about their creative ambition; they even laugh together. Is this an artist who has sacrificed true liberty for a narrower one?

But in fact there is nothing seriously to suggest that this was anything like the case. Shin feared for his life, finally escaping his captor with Choi and finding sanctuary in the US. Clearly, he performed his loyalty to the despot, fleeing when he could bear it no longer. We are swept up by the paranoid aesthetic of the film’s framework, and also by our own desire of viewers for gripping drama. The story of an artist’s willing self-sacrifice for the sake of his creations is a compelling one. In reality, any optimism Shin felt seems more likely an attempt to find consolation in the bleakest of situations.

And art’s endurance is a consoling factor that runs throughout, as it intertwines with the lives of the film’s subjects. Choi describes on multiple occasions in terms of her life’s ‘cinematic’ moments. Her surprise reunion with Shin after their capture could be straight out of a love film – albeit a particularly warped one. She claims to have imagined her run to freedom in slow motion as it happened. And her account of finally receiving a Western passport, though we cannot see it, feels a moment of seismic redemption. Cinema’s fantasy weaves into reality, until the two are indistinguishable.

Similarly, directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan illustrate spoken accounts of events with clips of various films Shin directed. Whether kidnap, clandestine meetings, or a desperate rush to liberty, the truth of the filmmaker’s life can be seen reflected in his works. It may be that this was unintentional, and this is a new act of fabrication on the part of a new set of artists. But in any case, the parallel is there to be made, and cannot be denied once it has been. The fantasy of cinema can feed into reality, sometimes as propaganda to deceive us, yes, but just as surely to offer hope to strive for truth. Even from the most repressive regimes on the planet, art cannot help but show us something of the truth of humanity: a flickering flame that is impossible to extinguish.


Hyperland (1990)

Only very recently did I first watch Douglas Adams’s Hyperland. Broadcast on BBC2, it was a fantasy-comedy-documentary looking at rapid and exciting developments in technology (namely the rise of the internet), and the looming consequences for traditional forms of entertainment. 26 years after it was broadcast, my first impression was that it was one of the most quietly astounding pieces of television I’ve seen. Even today, it surprises with its remarkable prescience and depth of foresight.

The programme stars Adams himself as a likeably helpless everyman – performing an Arthur Dent role in such a way that belies the man’s formidable intelligence. Dreaming that he finally throws away his television, and the trash it broadcasts along with it, he is startled when a humanised computer interface called Tom (Tom Baker) appears. Tom spends the next fifty minutes amiably instructing Adams on the potential for television, culture and storytelling that lies within emerging technologies.

Baker is a perfect fit for the programme. In his status as the ultimate Doctor Who, he seems the ideal embodiment for technology of such scientific and intellectual prowess that it could be mistaken for wizardry at first glance. He’s also very funny, complementing Adams’s wit just as he did when Adams script-edited Doctor Who in 1979. Adams’s script therefore also knows what fun to have with Tom Baker – this is likely the only place you can see his portrayals of a fur-clad Neanderthal and a Welsh fish within seconds of each other.

Primarily, though, Baker is a kindly, servile face and voice for the workings of a computer as it runs. Just what novices need (I suspect there were even more of us in 1990). It’s incredibly useful to see the processes the machinery goes through translated into human terms, finding connections between all the different subjects Tom helps Adams look through. Everything is revealed to be interconnected in a complex web of information. It’s an idea that chimes well with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, published only three years previously.

Other elements from that book surface too. Bach gets a look-in, as does Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. As these artists combine with a worldview that fascinated Adams, treated with the sense of relish and enthusiasm he always responded to new technology with, we’re left with perhaps the single piece of work that best epitomises Adam’s attitudes all through his career. As he discovers more and more of the world of interconnected knowledge newly at his fingertips, we realise just how fast we’re approaching a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As I suspect Adams always knew was just around the corner.

He was wise to the vast change that would come about in an era of interactivity and immersive virtual reality. The ramifications for culture seem clear to him, as Tom says at the close of the programme: “linear television is closing down”. Throughout Hyperland, we’ve been treated to what non-linear television programmes might have in store for us. Adams bounces through a proto-Encarta Encyclopaedia, or indeed a proto-Wikipedia, as every segment of footage he sees is marked out by Tom for its connection to another piece of information. We follow the connections through, zipping from waveforms to Bach to Coleridge to artificial intelligence to Beethoven to Picasso’s Guernica. The possibilities are clear, but so too, in the use some of these pieces of art, is a challenge for the technology: that of compatibility.

When “Kubla Khan” is read out by Tom, glossary entries and annotations bob up alongside the scrolling text of the poem. But so do the poem’s connections to other subjects – at which point Adams clicks through to those, interrupting the poem. Similarly, Beethoven’s 9th symphony is used as the centrepiece for educational software that highlights musical structure. The piece is divided into its component parts and these can be listened to separately, helping the user develop greater insight into the composer’s technique. Elsewhere, a prototype DVD menu is used to map a viewer’s course through Life Story (1987) and its connections to other subjects, such as the real-life discovery of DNA the film depicts. In all these examples, the technology presents us with a delightful prospect for new educational tools and facilities.

But none of these pieces of art was made with this technology in mind. They are all linear, and none was designed to be ingested in this way, with constant interruption. It is, admittedly, up to the viewer, reader or listener to determine their own experience, and the new technology is clearly going to allow for that (26 years on, we can not only see it, but live it). My concern is that, as Adams says at the very beginning about linear television, “it seems such a waste of the technology”.

In a sense, Hyperland as a programme serves to prove its own point. It is, by the trappings of the technology of the time, a piece of linear television. Although it explores the possibilities that could be opened up to us as individuals with non-linear viewing, this is demonstrated through the perspective of Adams’s own viewing experience. He interrupts “Kubla Khan” when I want to hear more, and clicks away from vox pops with scientists and engineers before I’ve lost interest. The technology the programme discusses is thrilling in the opportunities it presents for viewers, but only when given programming designed for it.

Today, a truly non-linear version of Hyperland could be made – indeed, we have it: the internet. We can have a non-linear experience when we navigate a DVD menu selecting content to watch for ourselves, without film or programme makers having to worry about material they cut from their finished piece of work: it’s there for those who want it. But a challenge that remains is how to incorporate an experience like this into the fabric of a programme itself. Online streaming has shaped viewing habits, but not the content of programmes itself. Not to the extent that some would argue. The fourth season of Arrested Development (2013), its episodes of varying length, can be watched in any order, true. But the same could be said of Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays The Norman Conquests (1973). That way of making programmes and telling stories isn’t the product of new technology.

What I wonder is, could it be possible to construct a truly non-linear programme, in the style of Hyperland, in which the viewer truly can click away from the main body of the programme to other, specially shot footage on any related topic that comes up? Some limit would have to imposed by an editorial hand other than the viewer’s, surely. Otherwise the programme could theoretically last forever, contradicting all the known laws of TV budgeting. And how could the necessary footage be predicted as required and then filmed to frame the viewer’s unique experience? To some extent, any crafted piece of storytelling or argument must be linear. Can television or music ever function exactly as a painting or an encyclopaedia does?

These questions remain to be answered, but thanks to Hyperland and the technology that concerns it, they have at least been asked – which is a start. The evolution the programme describes is still ongoing, but the accuracy of its predictions so far, of the new ways we engage with culture, technology and the world around us, is striking. 26 years after its broadcast, Hyperland still inspires thought and discussion utterly relevant to the ongoing conversation as to where we’re headed. Engaged and engaging, it’s Douglas Adams at his finest.