Fast shows


Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?

At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)

The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).

As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans – all illuminating about the process.


Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.

That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.

So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.


In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.


The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.

I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?

A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.


I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.

I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.

Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!


The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.


Don’t speak!

I was almost speechless after this rare cinematic treat at the weekend. We had tickets to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død – on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London, with live musical accompaniment and the original Danish intertitles to add to the authentic evocation of the 1920s experience. Not everyone’s idea of a big Saturday night out in the year 2012, I realise, although the auditorium at NFT1 was encouragingly packed.

This was showing as part of the BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll Winners season, as it was voted number 9 in the magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll, as discussed here. Because it’s silent, and foreign, and black and white, it’s pushing against many prejudices to find a modern audience, but I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when silents – early Mack Sennett and Hal Roach comedies at any rate – were still shown on TV during the school holidays, so even though these curios were already 50 years old, I was exposed to them without prejudice.

That said, it’s unusual to be sat in a cinema watching one. I am coming relatively late to Dreyer (I’m never shy to admit my own latecomings – nothing worse than someone pretending to have seen something they haven’t), but was knocked out by Ordet, earlier this year, one of his later, sound films. My appreciation of his work has also been coloured by my growing love of modern Scandinavian cinema and TV, the ground laid by a longer-held love of Ingmar Bergman. Put it this way, I’m as used to hearing Danish speech these days as I am to hearing, say, French, or Spanish, or Italian, and that wasn’t always the case. Oddly, there is no Danish speech in Joan of Arc, as it’s a French film of a French story, featuring French actors, speaking in French. But with the intertitles in Danish, it retains the director’s origins. (The BFI notes state that this restoration is the closest yet to a replica of what the audience at the 1928 premiere in Copenhagen would have seen. Imagine!)

I wish I could credit the amazing pianist, but it wasn’t Neil Brand as listed in the BFI notes, as he was introduced as Steve something, and I can’t remember his surname. He also played flute while tickling the ivories at certain points, and made dramatic percussive noises on the piano strings too. Bravo! There is something uniquely thrilling about watching moving images soundtracked before your very ears. (I once saw Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the Cadogan Hall with a live orchestra and choir, and that was brought to life, in a completely different way.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is an hypnotic experience; you’re watching predominantly close-ups of actors’ faces for most of the 96 minutes, arranged as if in monochrome Expressionist paintings.

It goes without saying that the actors in these early silent movies will have been stage-trained. And the demands of emoting onstage, at a distance from the audience, mean that silent movies often feel melodramatic, with actors over-emoting, and over-gesturing. As such, they can be an acquired taste. In silent movies, damsels in distress will often hold a fist up to their mouth and bite their knuckles, to convey fear and anxiety. There’s a lot of staring off camera, too. But Jeanne d’Arc is incredibly controlled, and restrained, and subtle. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as the Maid of Orleans, is seen throughout, her amazing face filling the screen, usually at the same diagonal angle as the iconic image of Christ, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Actually 35 at the time, although playing a 19-year-old, she reminded me of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with her shorn hair and wide eyes.

The judges are grotesques; again, characterful old stage actors, one imagines, shot at Expressionistic angles, and, once again, filling the screen. (The famous playwright Antonin Artaud, he of the Theatre Of Cruelty, is also seen, as a monk.) The contrast between Falconetti’s smooth, wet skin and theirs – dry, wrinkled, fat, puffy – is stark. There is no doubt who’s the goodie, and who are the baddies in this film. The story concerns only her trial, and is based upon actual 15th century court documentation (which is shown at the beginning), and falls into three acts: the charges against her; the torture; and her execution at the stake. We all know the outcome, but – as with Mel Gibson’s heavy-handed, blood-soaked Passion Of The Christ – we are forced to endure the prologue to death right there with the accused. It’s powerful stuff.

Loaded with symbolism – much of it, to be fair, also sometimes heavy-handed – this is a sensory experience that pushes a lot of buttons. You’re swept along by the music: torrid, melancholy, sparing; by the imploring images: ugly, beautiful, exquisitely framed, the early tableaux giving way in the last act to crowd scenes and mayhem that you’re just not expecting; and by the sheer inevitability of the tragedy, postponed by administrative and legislative to-ing and fro-ing in the courtroom.

Sometimes, you watch a “classic” (or “an immortal screen classic”, as per the original poster), and you appreciate its historical importance, and are glad that you have seen it, but it’s a dry, academic, box-ticking exercise. With Dreyer, for me, it’s an experience to savour. There’s nothing antique about this film. It’s over 80 years old, and yet it moves and terrifies and manipulates with the same skill and artistic audacity as anything powered by digital technology or studio profligacy or – and here’s the point – endless dialogue.

More of this type of thing, please.

Mind you, can’t wait to see Looper.

Kane gang

You’ll be aware that Sight & Sound magazine, a journal I do not hesitate to call “august”, polls critics, curators, academics and filmmakers every ten years to reach a learned consensus on the Greatest Films of All Time. And if you’re aware of that, you’ll also know that Citizen Kane was finally unseated in this year’s survey – the biggest ever, with 846 critics etc. polled – by Vertigo. The poll is designed to elicit debate and dialogue, so do not think it prescriptive. I personally like Kane, and appreciate its importance in the canon, but I rate Vertigo as my favourite Hitchcock, which is why I put it into my own Top 10.

I remain, I must admit, flattered and delighted to have been able to add my own voice to the 846 this decade, to have attained a foothold on the cliff face of critical consensus. I have been a Sight & Sound subscriber since the 90s who, up to now, has had his nose pressed up against the glass. So how did I manage to break through? What changed since 2002? Did the Film Editor of Radio Times suddenly become more critically legitimate? Nah. I’m candid enough to admit that I emailed the editor of the magazine and asked if I could contribute.

Hey, I’m not too proud to beg. Indeed, it is one of the basic home truths I always try to get across to students and anyone else who asks me for career advice: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. We’ll call it pester power. (It’s been established elsewhere that I asked if I could “have a go” at being a proper radio DJ when 6 Music was in its embryonic development stage, and this audacious request eventually landed me a day job at the launch of the network.) I’ve only ever written one piece for S&S, a labour of love feature about Gene Hackman, in 2005, and can you guess how I came to be commissioned to do that? Yes, by asking. Naturally, Nick, the editor, could have politely declined, and I would never have held it against him or the magazine, but I caught him at the right moment, and I achieved a long-held ambition.

So, yes, I asked if I could be asked what my Top 10 films were, and I just squeezed in as the portcullis was coming down, at the last moment. As a result of the rush, I had little time to pore over my choices, but for the record, these are they. (In the rules of the game, each choice gets the same point, so in a way, the qualitative order is for vanity only.)

APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola, 1979)
RED RIVER (Hawks, Rossen, 1948)
ORDET (Dreyer, 1955)
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Eisenstein, 1925)
VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958)
WINTER LIGHT (Bergman, 1972)
RASHOMON (Kurosawa, 1950)

You can peruse and search and cross-reference the final results of the final poll here. You can also compare the 2012 Top 10 with those of previous years: 1952, 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 (the first year a Directors’ Poll was included), and 2002. You can even search for every critic and point at their choices. Imagine if actual democracy was this transparent!

I am excited to know that I am “Voter 811“.

The reason I bring all this up again is partly because I was too busy, it seems, to blog about it when the results came out, and when the full thing went online. But it’s also because the BFI in London are showing the top ten films right through September. It’s a great season, and tickets are only a fiver, so if you’re in what I call “town”, have a look at the season and the dates. I’m certainly tempted to get down to the South Bank, as – tell nobody! – there are a couple of silents on there that I’ve never actually seen.

Don’t feel that the S&S poll is all about intellectual oneupmanship. It isn’t. And nor is it only about silent films or Russian films or obscure films. There are plenty more recent films further down the list. Plus, it takes time for a new film to settle into “classic” status. And critics are obviously wary of anointing a picture too early in its life. Hey, 80 years down the line, it’s far easier to say that The Passion of Joan Of Arc is one of the greatest films ever made.

I’m all for extending the debate here, of course.

Admit one

Having expressed my lack of excitement about the discovery of the Higgs Boson on Twitter on Wednesday – a semi-principled, partly caricatured indifference predicated upon my own dimwit’s grasp of physics, a year-round allergy to hype and a more specific aversion to the sneering nature of the nickname “the God Particle” – I was informed by a couple of defenders of science that if so, I was therefore unqualified to get excited about anything else that I get excited about, including films, music, TV and, specifically, the Mitford Sisters. (I was also called an “intellectual pygmy” by someone who I will never hear from again, which I’m pretty sure is sizeist.)

I was on that day particularly excited by the Mitford Sisters, the world’s most interesting aristocratic sibling sextet, as I had tickets to see two – that’s two – great lost TV documentaries about them at the BFI on London’s South Bank. As part of what looked like a generally if typically excellent season, The Aristocracy on TV, they’d forged a Mitfords double-bill out of Nancy Mitford 1904-1973: A Portrait By Her Sisters (1980) and Jessica Mitford: The Honorable Rebel (1977), both made for the BBC, the latter under the umbrella The Lively Arts.

Having been officially and continually besotted by Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Debo Mitford since 2008, when Letters Between Six Sisters came out in paperback, my thirst for new material to ingest waxes and wanes. I went on an early rampage after Letters and Martin Bright’s C4 documentary alleging that Unity had been pregnant with Hitler’s child when she shot herself in 1939, shown around the same time. And from this first flush of enthusiasm for six literate women who were not only the subject of many books, they wrote plenty too (as well as seemingly endless correspondence), I created my own small library of new and secondhand volumes. (I am particularly fond of the yellowing paperback copy of Unity Mitford: A Quest, which erroneously displays a picture of Diana on the cover.) I have added to this intermittently when new reprints come round, or when Debo, the surviving Mitford, publishes another, but by and large, it’s kind of done. Which is why I jumped at the chance of viewing these two documentaries, which are unlikely to be shown on TV now.

I was delighted that the screening sold out, early on. It was a thrill to be among fellow Mitford groupies in NFT2, with not a spare seat in the house. Mitford fans do tend to be female, and not generally young, but this is by no means a rule. After all, five out of six of the Mitfords are dead – indeed, long dead; only Diana and Debo saw the Millennium in – and as such, loving them is not about remembering them, necessarily. I wasn’t aware of them, growing up, and I’m sure I heard about Nancy, the novelist, first. I don’t yearn to live in the tumultuous and deadly 1920s and 1930s that were their heyday, although I do find that era endlessly fascinating, with the aristocracy experiencing their first taste of decline, and losing their men in both world wars. (A life lost in action is a life lost regardless of breeding or money.)

Produced by Michael Barnes in 1977, when Jessica, or Decca, was a sprightly 60, the Melvyn Bragg-narrated portrait An Honorable Rebel was a real insight into Communist Spice’s life in Oakland, California. (She eloped to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War with her sweetheart Esmond Romilly – who was, sadly, killed in the Second World War, when he joined the Canadian Air Force – and ended up in the United States, where she married Civil Rights lawyer Bob Treuhaft.) By this time, she was in demand as a lecturer and speaker, and the documentary is topped and tailed by a talk given to students at a university. She had not developed an American accent, and retained the much-derided “Mitford accent”, which must have been impenetrable to outside influence. What a curiosity she must have seemed when she threw herself into protecting the rights of black people on the frontline of unrest in the 40s and 50s.

She and Bob – a lovely soul whose eyes almost disappear into slits when he smiles or laughs, which is often – are seen with compatriots from the Civil Rights years, when Decca was stamped a “subversive” by the authorities and the FBI started a long file that she reads from, having obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act. (It is, unsurprisingly, redacted; it also states that she and Bob were both earmarked for possible internment in camps that were always previously denied by the US government.) What a fiercely dedicated freedom fighter she appears. From a privileged upbringing, she confounded all by coming out and then going away, and none of it was a “gap year” pose. She and Romilly lived in an East End slum when they first returned from Spain, and the pair of them tended bar in Florida when they first arrived there. During the McCarthy years in America, she was not exactly blacklisted, but she refused to incriminate herself or fellow members of the Civil Rights Congress at the HUAC hearings – an episode she illuminates beautifully in the re-telling, with a comic twist about mishearing a question about her alleged membership of a “tenants’ association” which turned out to be a “tennis association.”

Here’s a thing: I have hardly ever seen the Mitford sisters moving about, or talking. There’s a marvellous late interview with Decca by Christopher Hitchens on iTunes, but very little footage exists of the sisters in their debutante days. Photos, yes, and portraits, and newspaper cuttings (such as when Decca eloped and her father, Lord Redesdale, sent out a search party), but moving pictures? Very scarce. Which is why both of these docs were such delights. Honorable Rebel – named after her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, one of my faves – is packed with Decca and her lovely, plummy voice, her sentences peppered with “you know”. But Nancy Mitford, made seven years after the eldest sister’s death by Julian Jebb, was arguably all the more valuable, as it featured brand new interviews with Pamela, Jessica, Debo and Diana, an icily elegant lady who was only 70 at the time, but could have been 90, with her white hair in a bun. Still beautiful, of course. Oh, and still defiantly claiming that the British Union of Fascists, led by her second hubby Oswald Mosley, were not anti-semitic. (Diana and Mosley were interned during the war, and did not live the life of luxury in there, other than being brought Stilton and Port by visitors, so it must have etched a few years into her, although she lived to the ripe old age of 93.)

There’s also some plum footage of Nancy from 1966, filmed for ABC. She is, if anything, the most Mitfordy of all the Mitfords, fluting, “I enjoyed the war very much … it was very lively in London.” Pamela, whose lack of strident political affiliations left her without a handy nickname, and who might have been a lesbian, is a smashing old stick, feeding her hens and letting her pony off for a run, cheerily reading from Nancy’s novels and chuckling away at her favourite bits, the very image of a Countryside Alliance stalwart. She is least known of the sisters, but comes alive in this film. Debo we are used to seeing in her active dotage, such a fixture has she become at Chatsworth and on the book-signing circuit, but it’s sweet to catch her, aged 60, when she was still the Duchess of Devonshire. I love the way she admits to her older siblings’ stereotype as a bit of a dunce (“I can hardly read – I hate it, books”), and it’s amazing to think that 32 years later, she’d still be going strong.

There’s a bit of Diana’s son Jonathan Guinness in the Nancy film (he co-authored 1984’s solid House Of Mitford with daughter Catherine), but it’s all about the sisters. These films have reignited my passion for them. I could literally recite their shared biography to you, with accompanying amazing facts and trivia, and part of me wishes I really had worked up a one-man show about them for Edinburgh, as I had once fantasised about doing. I’m happy enough spreading the word. Quite clearly, you don’t have to agree with hereditary peerage and the old class system like David Cameron and George Osborne do, in order to find these people fascinating. From a feminist perspective, the sisters weren’t schooled as their father feared they would develop “fat calves” from all the hockey and as such, effectively educated and motivated themselves. Only Pamela and Unity did not write books (and Unity may have, had she lived). Nancy wrote eight highly-regarded novels and, later, a clutch of tolerated historical biographies. Decca wrote a dozen books including memoirs and, more importantly, investigative journalism; she changed the way Americans saw their own funeral industry with The American Way Of Death. (She is seen testifying against the sharp practices of the funeral industry at a hearing in Honorable Rebel.) Diana wrote three memoirs and was a book reviewer for Books & Bookmen and the Standard.

That two of them turned out to be fascists, and one of them a card-carrying Communist is what makes them so unique. I love them. Anyway, my tried-and-tested guide to the best of Mitfords literature – Mit Lit – is here, although I may have to add Jessica’s memoir of her time in the Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict, to this, having now seen An Honorable Rebel, which has re-piqued my interest.

I know it’s in London, but the BFI is such an amazing place to go to, even if it’s just for a pricey drink in the bar. Have a look what’s on there now and in the near future.

Altogether now, for Decca:

‘Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
The Internationale
Shall be the human race

Great, Scott

What a proper treat at the Curzon Chelsea at the weekend: The Great White Silence on the big screen. This is the 1924 film assembled from the pioneering footage and photographs taken by Herbert Ponting on the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition. Just as we must by law always refer to the expedition as “ill-fated”, so we must describe the BFI’s 2011 restoration of the film to full glory as “painstaking.”

According to a title card at the beginning of this graceful and affecting 108-minute silent epic, this is the film as it was originally intended for exhibition, including the coloured tints, which seem incredibly modern. I don’t know for a fact, but I imagine a decade passed between Ponting making his photographic record of the expedition’s first year and its theatrical debut because the tragic end of the adventure made it too raw for public consumption. Ponting spent 14 months with Captain Scott and his doughty, pipe-smoking, mostly ex-Navy crew – plus Siberian ponies, dogs and one ship’s cat, with the unfortunate name of “Nigger” – and returned to England on the ship Terra Nova while the exploration parties headed up the Beardmore Glacier, across the Ross ice shelf, and, in the case of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Captain Lawrence Oates (“I could be some time”), Lt. Henry Bowers, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans, to their horrible, tented demise.

Although the whole enterprise whiffs of the glory of the Empire and a society hideously patriarchal enough for King George to urge “every British boy” to see Ponting’s film, the tang of the very early 20th Century gives The Great White Silence a personality that’s at once foreign, but no less endearing for that. The explorers’ apparently unflappable faith in God is quaint in itself; according to their letters and diaries (brilliantly brought to life by Dougray Scott, Max Irons, Alistair McGowan and others in ITV1’s Words of Captain Scott), every one of them felt that God was their protector, and this helped them through might have been an unbearably difficult time and gave them comfort in their final days and hours.

Ponting’s own narration – provided via intertitles as above – is alive with jolly, boys’-own derring-do, and although the tale has a tragic outcome, the first year is one of wide-eyed awe at the sight of penguins and seals and killer whales (none of which would have been seen moving about by most people in 1924, so you can easily share their wonder). There’s footage of the ship’s cat doing tricks on the ice, and more of the crew playfully chasing penguins around. Much of this mid-section is effectively a prototype nature documentary, and it’s astonishing how blase Ponting is in explaining that an Arctic skua has been chased off her nest so that he can get a close-up of her catching eggs. Never mind David Attenborough sneaking in footage of polar bears from a German zoo! If he’d been making the film in 1912 he could have shot the mother in order to get a decent view. (At one point, as a killer whale is about to eat a baby seal, the crew harpoon it in order to “save” the seal.)

The Great White Silence is available on DVD, and although I can’t recommend seeing it on a big screen highly enough (Chelsea were showing it to mark the expedition’s 100th anniversary). Details of the extras-packed DVD are here. I would also recommend last week’s excellent documentary on ITV1, Words Of Captain Scott, in which actors of the calibre of Dougray Scott, Max Irons, Alistair McGowan and The Killing‘s Lars Milkkelsen (guess who he plays) read from diaries and letters, intercut with some of Ponting’s footage and equally stunning footage of Amundsen’s luckier expedition. It’s still available on demand. I’d never expected to be so taken with this story, as familiar as it is, but thanks to this film and this programme, I am.

Art, house

The BFI are reissuing Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven on September 2 in a new digital restoration and it’s going out to various arthouses in the UK and Ireland (see below for details etc.). This is great news; anything that draws people to one of my favourite films of the American 70s. It’s available on DVD, in a no-frills widescreen edition that came out way back in 2001 (it doesn’t even have a title screen, never mind extras), and on Blu-Ray Region 1, if you can handle such a thing, so if you haven’t seen it, the recent release of Malick’s beguiling fifth feature, Tree Of Life, is a good enough excuse for having a look. It really is stunning. When I first saw it, years ago, I didn’t know that much about it, other than that Malick was a recluse who didn’t made another film for 20 years after Days Of Heaven, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I was less of a student of American painter Edward Hopper in those days, and although I recognised the paintings of Andrew Wyeth in Malick’s truly gorgeous endless landscapes of orange-yellow, wind-caressed wheat (not least Wyeth’s most famous work, Christina’s World), it was only when I watched Days Of Heaven again yesterday that I identified Hopper’s 1925 painting House By The Railroad in Sam Shepard’s abode, similarly placed on the horizon. [You can compare the two images above.] Malick is as much of an artist as any painter. With two cinemtographers working with him on the film – Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler – he obsessively painted with natural light, shooting almost exclusively during the Magic Hour between sunset and night, which casts a supernatural, God-like pink glow across landscape, humans and farm machinery. What a pain in the arse he must have been to work for. But what riches were captured.

It’s a typical 70s American movie in many ways: mumbled, episodic, esoteric, challenging, downbeat even under those heavenly red skies, lacking marquee names (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, even Shepard, were not known in 1976 when the film was made, nor in 1978 when it was finally released), set in the past (1916) but redolent of contemporary concerns, and evidently in thrall to European cinema. And yet, for all of its recognisable stylings and tropes, Days Of Heaven sits apart from Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Nashville, Shampoo, even Heaven’s Gate with its instant similarities of tone, period and the word Heaven. Though it tells a story that’s actually quite traditional and even classical – family of three leave the city to seek work in the country and the couple end up in a love triangle with their employer and benefactor which leads to deception and ultimately, trouble – Malick tells it in a non-traditional way, employing a seemingly improvised narration from Linda Manz’s younger sister, who meditates with a child’s idealism and absolutism about heaven and hell, work and leisure, right and wrong, and through a fractured narrative not in terms of chronology (there are no flashbacks; time moves forward) but in terms of jump cuts. Scenes do not end satisfactorily; rather, they end mid-dialogue, or fade, so that we are left wondering what else will be said. It’s intriguing; we pick up bits and pieces of information, but these are not spoon fed to us. We only find out it’s 1916 when a newspaper headline is seen, two thirds of the way through (this same headline tells us we are in the Texas panhandle, which I don’t think has been established before).

There is a climactic finale, which I won’t reveal even though it’s a 30-year-old film, and which seems all the more devastating for all the stillness and beauty that’s gone before. This fits in with a lot of slow-moving, European-influenced American films from the 70s, which very often lead to death or destruction, from Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider onwards. There was something in the air. And there is certainly something in the air in Days Of Heaven.

I found two learned essays about the film, here and here. See if Days Of Heaven is coming to an arthouse near you in September here.