• Opening up the box

    British television drama is having a renaissance, according to many, with Line of Duty, Broadchurch and Wolf Hall often cited as evidence. This is in fact contestable (a generation ago or so ago, for example, ITV alone could boast of having made Robin of Sherwood, Lost Empires, The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and several series of Inspector Morse, Poirot and Sherlock Holmes adaptations) but even as a debate it disguises a much more serious issue. Whilst the majority of such series are widely available on a variety of home media platforms and indeed still being broadcast, dozens and dozens of similar productions from the 1960s, 70s and early 80s linger in temperature-controlled vaults, having never been seen since their first (and in many cases only) transmission. For the creative talent that produced them and the public that, either directly or indirectly, paid for them, what can be done to increase access?

    Last week, a conference co-hosted by Royal Holloway University of London, Learning on Screen and the BFI examined the progress, problems and prognosis in this area. With experts in cataloguing, understanding, conserving and disseminating such material attending, as well as those simply interested in uncovering the best of British TV drama, it was a chance for all involved to share stories that were sometimes surprising, sometimes shocking but always of interest.

    The basics are pretty sobering. The archives of ITV, held in Leeds, contain over a million items and include over a quarter of a million hours of television. Of that, about 36,000 hours are drama programmes. The BBC’s equivalent, managed by the BFI, includes 600,000 individual video recordings, of which about a sixth are due to be preserved over the next five years. Just knowing what is out there is harder than you think. Both organisations maintain detailed databases, but there are gaps. Transmission dates shift or are cancelled, episodes or entire series are – infamously – physically absent in some cases and local variations in programming (which, then as now, were not confined to news and weather) aren’t always captured.

    Quite a lot of material is being made available, through a wide range of outlets. The BBC Genome provides historical schedule listings for the Corporation’s own programmes as published in the Radio Times, thanks to mass digitisation; linked to from this are about 35,000 radio and television programmes, permanently online via the BBC’s main website and another 5,000 are currently accessible for a fee from the BBC Store. Almost any item that survives can be made available for private viewing at the BFI. As a commercial concern, ITV seeks to maximise the ‘secondary exploitation value’ of its assets. Both have found considerable success partnering with the likes of Network Distributing, the British DVD producer whose growing catalogue of cult, much-loved and populist titles attests to the level of demand.

    The principal barriers are legal and practical. Anyone involved in making a television programme, whether actor, cameraman or director, will have been paid a fee, but that fee would – depending on the era – not necessarily have allowed for repeats, release for home viewing, and so on. In addition, there are rights within rights – clips of music or films or other productions used as part of a work have to be separately licensed, and can attract additional, extremely high costs out of all proportion to their length. The BFI has a special agreement with the main British unions (the Performance Alliance Licence) permitting a specific number of screenings at its London and regional venues each year, but this is not ideal. Even when all of these points are successfully addressed, softer aspects emerge, since what was once deemed acceptable to commit to film or videotape may now engage matters of taste, decency, ‘safeguarding’ or simply changing cultural taboos and attitudes.

    Prevention of the degradation of the items involved is the more pressing issue, and has been ignored by the media even as the parallel effort to save cinema features shot on decaying nitrate and other stocks has been widely publicised. Many of the programmes are held on video cassette formats that are now obsolete and whose playback equipment is itself scarce or even finite; one contributor noted that direct negotiation with a manufacturer had been needed to obtain parts. That migration (copying material to a newer format) is not only necessary once but may in fact be an unending prospect far into the future is at least now recognised, but even this is not a guarantee of life beyond initial broadcast. The BBC’s own experience with the D-3 video cassette, thought at the time to be the best option but which was subsequently found to be susceptible to degradation, has generated its own fallout.

    The benefits of all this effort were though eloquently explained. A BBC manager wanted “other people to do the curation”, whilst another speaker observed that watching TV is the least useful thing you can do with it, both making the point that it is the researchers, writers, academics and historians bringing their own viewpoints to the material that makes it come alive. Susceptible to analysis from an almost infinite number of angles, such as the cameras used to make it, the clothes worn by those in it or the words spoken around it, it is the job of everyone – including the odd informed-viewer-turned-author running his own website – to shed light on that all-important context for today’s audiences.

    The passion involved across the industries represented – broadcasting, retail, academia – was clear, but it was clear, too, that for the various initiatives covered over the course of the day to fully succeed and ultimately be part of a synergistic whole it is necessary for someone in sufficient authority at the BBC and ITV to care enough to make things happen. Until then, it’s for anyone with any interest in what led to today’s TV drama landscape to dig around, watch, buy and talk about what they love to keep those memories alive.

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  • Bricks and Words #2: ‘Crystal Palace’

    A day later than advertised, apologies.... It is impossible to overstate the achievement represented by the conception, design and erection of Joseph Paxton’s great iron and glass building, the pop-up home of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the ancestor of today’s High-Tech movement.

    McKean’s exceptional narrative – mostly, and wonderfully effectively, rendered in the present tense – covers every aspect of this cutting-edge work, beginning with Paxton’s famous blotting paper sketch during a business meeting, working through his relentless rationalisation of the pre-fabricated components and ending with the astonishingly efficient construction in Hyde Park itself, where the hoardings surrounding the site become the wooden floors of the hall and a third of a million panes of glass are installed by men on trolleys. Staggeringly, the building was finished less than eight months after that sketch was first scribbled; read this fabulous book and discover how, the make your own connections to what followed it.

    'Crystal Palace' by John McKean (Phaidon Press Limited, 1994; also available compiled with other as Lost Masterpieces, 1999, from the same publisher)

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  • The look that is 'Taboo'

    The BBC’s period drama Taboo, which concludes next weekend, has been a revelation. Though set during the Regency in a London of lavish palaces, glamourous balls and inter-personal machinations, it is a very long way indeed from Jane Austen or the Brontes. Dark, twisted, grimy and grim, it is shot through with corruption, African witchcraft and violence, as James Keziah Delaney returns from a decade away to claim his inheritance. Tom Hardy, who co-created the series, is stunning in that role, an unstoppable spirit emerging from the heart of darkness to wreak havoc amongst the establishment, renew a sexual relationship with his half-sister and play the Crown, the rebellious American colonies and the commercial giant of the East India Company against each other. An exceptionally good supporting cast includes, arguably, by the stunning production design, which gives each place a character of its own.

    The London of Taboo – which set in 1814 – includes many scenes along the Thames; indeed, with its nightmarish sequences of drowning, water torture and self-baptismal submergence, the river really does run through the entire drama. Its shelving foreshore is a bleak edge world of tough workers, shifting gravel and blackened timbers, these as broken and spiky as the characters who brood there. The atmosphere is part Turner, part Constable and all glowering. The real Thames at Tilbury was used as a location, with the walls and walkways of its famous coastal defence fortress, dating back to the 17th century, serving as the byways of Wapping.

    The isolation of Tilbury is in contrast to the bustling tourism of today’s Southwark riverside in central London where a full-size, sea-going replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde has been moored as an attraction since 1996. The vessel was used by the Taboo production team as Delaney’s own ship, as well as for a number of other maritime interiors. The Cornish port of Charlestown was also employed.

    East London’s St Mary the Virgin church effectively played itself for the funeral of Delaney’s father; similarly, south London’s exquisite Palladian villa Danson House became Delaney’s sister’s marital home. The Charterhouse lent its intricate courtyards for a number of hospital scenes.

    Importantly, some locations have also been chosen that are expansive enough to allow longer and more dynamic camera moves by directors (Kristoffer Nyholm and Anders Engström). The remarkably preserved enclave of Middle Temple was superbly suited as a stand-in for the bustling streets of Georgian London in this weekend’s penultimate episode, a character running at full tilt along a street, up some stairs and around a corner in a single shot.

    Outside the capital, one historic country seat provided for multiple realities. The south front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, home of Jacobean statesman Robert Cecil, became the exterior of the Prince Regent’s palace, unnamed in the script but which must be John Nash’s Carlton House on what was to

    become The Mall. The Long Gallery with its sumptuous gilded ceiling was used to represent the interior, in a number of extraordinary deep-focus shots. Appropriately, the chillier Marble Hall, with its black and white chequered floor and wooden panelling, was used for the interior of the other, secular palace in the series, the headquarters of the East India Company. Its exterior was played by the Livery Hall of the Goldsmiths Company, in the City of London.

    Cinematographer Mark Patten’s gorgeous tonalities have also made the set dressings of tapestries, furniture and more come alive, whether in the boisterous scenes at a molly-house or the quieter moments. Add in such details as tattoos, make up, shoes, hats and posters, and Sonja Klaus’s production design has been the final element that makes this Taboo compulsory.

    Taboo, written by Steven Knight, created by Steven Knight, Tom Hardy and Edward "Chips" Hardy and based on a story written by Tom Hardy, concludes Saturday 25 February on BBC One but is available on iPlayer afterwards.

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  • ReView: ‘Strange Days’ (1995)

    Cast your mind back 22 years. Bill Clinton was President and John Major occupied Downing Street; both were trying to address the continuing Balkans conflict. The Tokyo subway Sarin attack, collapse of Barings Bank and Oklahoma City bombing also took place, whilst more encouragingly advances in consumer technology saw the invention of the DVD, appearance of the first widely-available web browsers and release of the first computer-generated feature film, Toy Story. All these events suggested to many that the looming Millennium might bring about a profound change in world society. Two acclaimed film-makers, both with careers in the ascendant, agreed, and the result was Strange Days, written by James Cameron (with Jay Cocks) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

    Cameron and Bigelow had begun their Hollywood rise with successful, medium-budget entries in the speculative fiction genre (The Terminator and Near Dark, respectively) released within a few years of each other, and indeed found their paths sufficiently aligned to marry soon after. That they then divorced long before production of Strange Days began seems in retrospect significant for a film that explored divisions, tensions and oppositions in a fictionalised Los Angeles over the last two days of the year 1999. That aside, a combination of Cameron’s interest in the extrapolation of real-world technology and its impact on humanity and Bigelow’s focus on marginalised individuals and groups yielded an intense focus that also addressed wider issues.

    Taken together, Strange Days appeared to be a timely and original take on an imminent future. Viewing it from the perspective of today, with the turn of the Millennium forgotten, a fresh set of socio-political challenges in America, Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East to face and the descendants of those digital pioneers embedded in everyone’s daily lives, is thus doubly instructive.

    Depicting in a believable manner a city getting ready for fireworks of both kinds is no easy thing, but perhaps the single most impressive aspect of the film on first re-viewing is exactly that. The film takes place almost entirely at night, as former cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes in an early role) goes about his business peddling Squid clips of sensory experience and trying to reconnect with his ex, singer Faith (Juliette Lewis). Since he quickly finds himself linking up with friend Mace (Angela Bassett) in her new job as a limousine driver, these journeys through the contested streets of LA become a mechanism by which vignettes of the world Bigelow and Cameron created are revealed to the characters and viewers alike.

    Fires, flares, scuffles, arrests, hustlers…. All are tightly framed by the car’s windows and never completely seen, each showing instead just a fragment of an edgy urban landscape. Crucially, they convince utterly – none feels staged or artificial, a not inconsiderable achievement in any film let alone one shot at night and set in the near future. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti shares the credit for this, and in fact only the sublime Blade Runner (1982) impresses more in this regard. Interestingly both films are set in the same city, and both also take place over just a handful of days. The swoozy, ambient score by the underrated Graeme Revell reinforces the comparison with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece even further.

    As the canvas expands, the same verisimilitude is carried through to more complex settings such as the club in which Faith works. A credible atmosphere is managed here too, forming a perfect backdrop for Lewis’s storming performance of P.J. Harvey’s 'Hardly Wait'. The New Millennium party which forms the climax of the film is the ultimate iteration of this rigorous approach, and is as authentic as the rest. It was achieved in the pragmatic manner that came to hallmark Cameron’s work, here by the production company simply marketing and staging an actual party on the streets of Los Angeles. Ten thousand attended and real bands performed, all to be incorporated into the film. Leonard Cohen is also heard in the film, presumably on the basis that if anyone could soundtrack such a tense time, he could.

    The film’s other great achievement is the visualisation of the first-person point-of-view that derives from the Squid clips. Presented as a single shot, they are hugely impressive even today, particularly the famous early chase scene that ends in a fatal roof jump. The later rape scene, involving the victim being forced to wear a Squid headset that receives the input of her attacker, was extremely – and perhaps deservedly – controversial, yet few critics seemed to recognise the near-exact precedent seen in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom of 1960.

    Bigelow has cited the centrality of both the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King trial verdicts to the concept of Strange Days. In truth, and in retrospect for me, the results of this element too have their parallels in many previous films. Certainly plotlines involving the state-sanctioned murder of agitators and a fleeing prostitute’s evidence are somewhat pedestrian. They do though have an undeniably propulsive effect on the narrative’s progress. Aided by on-screen captions indicating a timeline, there is a palpable sense of conversion as the end approaches, making Strange Days a kind of pre-apocalyptic drama.

    Throughout, the principal secondary characters engage. Mace is superb, assisted greatly by Bassett’s performance. Continually dragging Lenny out of the fire, her true feelings are clear when she delivers the best line in the film – “Pussy-whipped sorry-assed motherfucker” – with affection underlying her contempt. Lewis is similarly perfect as the ballsy, slightly wired Faith, channelling – as does much of the film’s look – the emerging grunge culture. And did I mention how good her singing was?

    It is at this point, though, that the film’s weaker elements must be considered, and here the writing of the lead character remains a problem for me. Nero simply isn’t credible as a former police officer, let alone one with the heavily militarised and apparently competent LAPD depicted in the film. The scene in which he wields a pistol for a considerable period without realising it isn’t loaded grates as much now as it did first time around, and his continual inability to outfight or even outfox his opponents irritates to a point that is surely unhelpful in such a film. This may of course be deliberate, in that Mace and Faith are obviously intended to be stronger mirrors of Lenny, but it still feels a miss-step, and that conceivably might have contributed to the film’s commercial failure. That said, Fiennes is actually excellent as the man Nero has become, the sleazy “Santa Claus of the subconscious” at the margins of society. A little additional writing and, perhaps, direction might have bridged the gap between the two Nero more effectively.

    The other major failing remains the depiction of the Squid technology itself. The size and crudeness of the headsets needed to record and play back – large, plastic crab-like devices – is at odds with technology at the time the film was made, let alone when that was projected five years into the future. And given they require the wearer to don an elaborate wig for one to remain undetected, the idea that the Squid was developed as a more discreet version of the old ‘wire’ microphone, as the screenplay solemnly tells us, is of course risible.

    I was also aggrieved first time around that no acknowledgement was made to the novels of William Gibson, since an obvious debt is owed to SimStim, Gibson’s equivalent, conceived way back in the early 1980s (it is also far more elegantly envisaged). There is in fact considerable crossover between the two Canadians’ work even beyond this one point; the Strange Days promotor Milo Gant and his two female bodyguards are dead ringers for Lonny Zone and his henchwomen in Neuromancer (1984), characters in both talk of being “jacked in”, using “trodes” that connect to a “deck”, and a casual reference to America gaining its second woman President seems almost designed to follow Gibson’s Virtual Light, published in 1993, in whose world the same office is also filled by a woman.

    But overall, this new look at an old view of a possible future was pleasingly positive. Given how far the world has moved in two decades, the film’s advertising tagline of ‘You Know You want It’ suggests we really did.

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  • 'The White King' (2016)

    The continued popularity of the post-apocalyptic film is no surprise. There is always a fresh fear to be mined for its one fundamental necessity, The Thing That Happened, whether that be war, natural disaster, man-made accident or alien invasion. With three broad formats available (road movie, revolutionary struggle or simply survival) atop this, the scope for intimate character drama or epic action is wide and deep. And, finally, the continual and rapid evolution in the capability and affordability of digital technologies allows more and more to be accomplished with less and less when it comes to realising such an idea. This, then, is the context in which The White King, made by joint writer/directors (and spouses) Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel after a novel by György Dragomán, arrives and has to operate.

    The setting is a small rural community in the Homeland, a repressive state whose propaganda – delivered through the trident icon on posters and billboards, the words of its national anthem and, most inescapably, a great statue on a nearby hill personifying the founder figure of Hank Lumber – stresses the collective, agrarian nature of this new post-conflict society. However, young Djata Fitz (Lorenzo Allchurch) is forced to stand by as his father Peter (Ross Partridge) is taken away by black-clad officials, supposedly to help with an important project but, it becomes clear, actually as a traitor. Djata and his mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) survive in the face of neighbours’ scorn, bullying and a complete lack of information. Peter’s father, a colonel (Jonathan Pryce), and his wife Kathrin (Fiona Shaw), meanwhile, tempt Djata to his own dark side. Finally, determining to find answers, Hannah and Djata set out to confront another senior regime officer on the far side of their settlement.

    The initial impression here is encouraging. An animated film under the opening credits tells the stylised story of the nation’s founding, the tools of control are subtly and effectively introduced and wide-eyed Allchurch and fragile Deyn look the part. And yet, already, problems arise. Djata’s school has several dozen pupils but appears only as a wooden shack and a patch of open ground. The structure holding his home and those of his neighbours seems to be a loading dock rather than anything recognisably domestic, and the only other spaces we see are scrubby clearings in a forest. That events occur in the thirtieth year of the new state is stressed, but no explanation of the significance of this is given.

    True, things perk up with the journey to the estate of General Meade (Greta Scacchi) – we see open country dotted with apartment blocks emblazoned with vast entreaties to think of DUTY or FAMILY, then reach a Modernist dwelling with armed guards and fitted out with clearly advanced technology – and the confrontation that occurs therein, but instead of presenting a convincing contrast to the no-doubt-enforced backwards/backwoods existence of the masses, the entire sequence is awkward and unfocused, something that proves to affect the remainder of the film.

    Throughout, then, scenes are stilted and fragmented, but not in a way that suggests this is deliberate. Too much happens in isolation, with too little organic linkage to what came before or after. Incidents occur but are promptly forgotten. Thus one character is stabbed, but the injury is ignored and invisible in subsequent appearances. Djata and his friends live in fear of two local thugs, both significantly older, yet nevertheless play with them. A chess-playing automaton in Meade’s house captivates the chess-playing Djata, but the importance of either the game or the machine (or the film’s title) is not clear. Djata dares to meet a hulking watchman living in a fenced-off wood at the foot of the hill, but all that follows is an impenetrable conversation that ends – bafflingly – in a hug, and the grim contents of a fabled cave are explained only as “not for children”. The significance of a dragonfly hovering in the opening scene is not established. There is little sense of how much time has passed. Nothing, in essence, hangs together, making it difficult to invest in the story. The lack of any real emotion in the performances hardly helps, though Deyn does moderately well and Pryce convinces as a bullish, intimidating veteran. The eclecticism of the casting – often a plus in such films – seems a barrier too, with a mix of nationalities, accents and approaches failing to gel.

    The penultimate scene, in a crematorium, and the closing shots – intended, quite plainly, as the impassioned climax to the journeys of two heroes – unfortunately left me astonished and amused in equal measure as opposed to moved.

    What comes as real surprise is that the source novel is by a writer brought up in Ceaușescu’s Romania, surely a background ripe with potential. Yes, that blighted country’s socio-political landscape is clearly borrowed from in part, but that the overall result of this adaptation is so uninspiring is baffling. It also seems odd that a dystopian film shot in Hungary could end up being quite so starved of visual richness, but that indeed is the case. That the film is evidently of modest budget is not, regrettably, an excuse – imagination creates opportunity and both Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Colm McCathy’s Girl with all the Gifts (2016), to take two obvious recent precedents, demonstrate this. Ultimately though the real fault and disappointment is that too much of the content is opaque, uninvolving or just plain unconvincing, with neither plot nor characters really worth spending any time with. Sadly, then, this White King made me feel like resigning from the game.

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  • Bricks and Words #1: ‘Carscapes’

    Today I’m starting something new; on the last Friday of each month throughout this year, I’ll be choosing and saying a few words around a book about or involving architecture, cities or the built environment that I’ve found compelling, useful, beautiful or thought-provoking over the last couple of decades or so. They’re a real mix, including fiction, works with a political slant, populist publications and conventional monographs – the mosaic below gives a few hints. Not all are in print, but they can all be tracked down easily enough through second hand book shops, online resellers or specialised public reference collections. Each is well worth the effort. We start with…

    Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England by Kathryn A. Morrison, John Minnis (Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in association with English Heritage, 2012)

    No single invention has had a greater impact on this green and pleasant land than the car. A century of building, selling, keeping, using, parking and scrapping the automobile has left a fascinating legacy of structures associated with each of those stages in its life cycle, and this superb book, accessible but thoroughly researched, tells the complete story. It records powerful, amusing and workaday examples of what one could call ‘carchitecture’ from across the nation, from destination restaurants overlooking motorways and hotels perched on top of multi-storey car parks to Art Deco showrooms and filling stations that look like cottages. You can also explore the country’s last surviving mechanical car park, included thanks to a tip off from yours truly. The book grew out of an in-depth thematic survey of the subject, and it will open your eyes to the myriad of buildings that we have designed solely because of the presence of the car. I guarantee it will change the way you look at the next drive you take.

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  • Design of the times?

    The weekend brought me to the new Design Museum for the first time. Relocation from its ‘white box’ home on the riverside just along from Tower Bridge to the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park has been a controversial process, with questions asked over the changes needed to make this famous piece of post-war architecture suitable for its second life, the gleaming cubes of luxury apartments erected right next door that were deemed necessary to fund the scheme and the then culture secretary’s perceived willingness to de-list a heritage asset to make it all possible. Politics aside, the question now is simple – does the resulting building actually work?

    Opened in 1962 and designed by RMJM, the Commonwealth Institute was known for its concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof suspended from massive but delicate angled columns like a tent, the whole sheathed in 25 tonnes of copper donated by Northern Rhodesia. Engineered by Harris & Sutherland, the roof covered a single exhibition space dedicated to promoting the Commonwealth. This was broken up by a raised circular central platform, curved mezzanines and various flying staircases, with much of the display – by James Gardner – placed on freestanding structures. Glazed walls gave onto an approach landscaped by Sylvia Crowe with a stylised canal, causeway and statuary. Siting such a building just yards from the Blitzed remains of the Jacobean Holland House, whose grounds form the park, was a bold statement of post-war optimism and intent.

    The institute as a body survived until the Millennium, when the end of its status as a statutory body and transfer of its operations and assets to a private company to be funded by the Commonwealth nations took place. Faced with changed political and economic climates this eventually failed and was liquidated. The old building became surplus to requirements. Threatened by costly maintenance combined with a highly specialised architectural envelope, its Grade II* listing appeared a barrier to a change of use or, more darkly, demolition to realise the value of its plot. When news that this might be lifted emerged, heritage groups and locals protested loudly, especially after culture secretary Tessa Jowell appeared to support such a move even as she confirmed it was legally impossible and when news later leaked of a potential private members bill targeting the building.

    Ultimately only the attached administration block, more conventional in form, was permitted to be demolished. Sale to developer Chelsfield led to a plan for three mid-rise blocks of flats as well as the radical restructuring of the RMJM building. Reading the development brochure from about five years ago is amusing, its rather pretentious and self-justifying text tending to highlight the murky nature of the journey from there to here rather than the architecture.

    This transformation, then, by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA with John Pawson providing the interior fit-out, has in fact seen the complete replacement of the existing building’s façades and plinth and removal of much of its interior, whilst with protection for Crowe’s garden having also been removed, this too has been lost. The original esplanade off of Kensington High Street, with its forest of flagpoles, has also been replaced, by a straightforward piazza that now leads to the southernmost of the three residential blocks. My initial impressions here were however positive, in that these last crowd the Museum far less than I had been led to believe; indeed, clustered as they are to its west, they appear only as a ghostly white background and do not impinge on the drama of its folded roof planes.

    Nevertheless, and reflective of today’s other concerns, a forceful line of railings now demarcates the Museum’s much smaller domain, a hefty gate separating it from the park proper after hours. Once through this the land slopes down as a result of the remodelling and continues as a rather apologetic-looking area of hard and soft landscaping (admittedly the Museum only opened in November and thus immediately hit its first winter) complete with dull small water feature before reaching the entrance.

    Inside, it naturally takes a while to orientate, not helped by some exceptional crowds and the perhaps unfortunate decision to place the ticket desk right inside the inner door of the draught lobby. Ahead lies another problem on such busy days: Pawson’s main stair, which is wide but has built-in seats taking up more than half the width of the treads, a strange move given this is the only obvious method of ascending to the exhibition floors by foot.

    That said, it must be admitted that this stair is excellent from an aesthetic point of view and indeed forms the core of the scheme. Each flight starts on the opposite side of the floor to the last as the building rises and each storey is itself wider, thus creating a rectilinear spiral that has obvious echoes of Lasdun at the sublime Royal College of Physicians. Impressive too is the manner in which Pawson has fitted new, rational floors into the unwelcoming shape of RMJM’s original volume. Yes the delights of the roof and, more notably, its supporting walls are far less visible than they were, but they are not INvisible. The rough, grey concrete undersides of the original structure now peek above the restful, straw-coloured wood of the new spaces and the big concrete support columns dive through the new floors in plain sight, though they have been painted to match the new and partly clad in stainless steel.

    As with the Switch House at Tate Modern, a floor or so of private spaces – members’ room, education room, offices – sits between the main public floors, leading to some further circulation pressures, but the restaurant seems to enjoy a good view and small pocket atriums supply much-needed breathing space.

    The workmanship throughout is excellent, whether in the brushed stainless steel stair handrails with lighting concealed in their undersides or the simple, slightly sloped tops of the balustrading overlooking the main space – just right for leaning on. In the basement toilets a run of wash basins appears to have been made from a single slab of Corian, and the more conventional secondary stair – though somewhat hidden – is light and elegant in white and stainless steel, is provided with neat timber window seats and has good views over the park, even if the applied sunshade proves able to fox digital camera exposures.

    Exploration of the permanent collection galleries was rather less rewarding, accepting the large crowds. Seemingly crammed into a succession of spaces that are too small for the exhibits let alone those who wish to see them, progress is slow and confusing. The presentation is bitty and too in thrall to the current ethos of short captions and random placement. Where a good array of objects is encountered, such as a display showing the evolution of media formats from pens to iPods, the arrangement is scattered across a wall in no discernible order and leaving lots of wasted space, whilst locating the relevant caption is impossible thanks to the baffling lack of numbers linking both.

    Clearly a short visit on a busy day is clearly not ideal to assess such a complex project. A return visit would be useful to explore the remaining spaces in the building and its relationship with the park and the new apartment blocks in more detail, but certainly there is much to like in this new space for cultural review. Crucially the intimate changes to and immediate setting of the Commonwealth Institute seem coherent and convivial in many ways, even if they are source of some dismay intellectually and frustration practically. Crowd management and display quality are firmly for the management to address. Whether the venue will prove as amenable to the demands of a museum needing to display everything from cars to computers as the old venue was – itself a converted banana warehouse, it should be remembered – remains to be seen.

    Pictured below, for comparison, is the Institute as I first saw it in late 2011:

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  • This year in the City of London

    There is far more to the City of London than skyscrapers and rampant commerce, as the Corporation of London itself is often at pains to point out, but you do have to look hard for small museums, churches and other cultural venues or even private spaces open to the public outside of the Big Three (the Barbican, Museum of London and Guildhall Art Gallery). True, the little City of London Police Museum opened at the Guildhall late last year, as did the new citizenM hotel on Tower Hill, but fresh offering are rare. This year, however, will be different, because by chance there are no fewer than three significant museums and two major hotels opening in the Square Mile for the first time in 2017. Here’s a summary, in order of launch date (as far as is known).

    Charterhouse – Sitting quietly across the northern boundary of the City, behind Smithfield and bordering Clerkenwell, this hidden historical campus dates from the 14th century and has been, successively, a “monastery, private mansion, boys school and almshouse”, as the institution’s website neatly puts it. But in just a week or so’s time, its gardens, new museum and café open to the public for the first time, allowing anyone to sample an astonishingly preserved slice of mediaeval London. Charterhouse Square itself, with its famous Art Deco block of flats (Florin Court) that served as the home of David Suchet’s Poirot and actually is in the City, will be spruced up, too.

    Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN

    Opens: 27 January

    Ten Trinity Square – This swaggeringly Imperial building, which appears in my new book ‘How to Read London’, was built for the Port of London Authority by Edwin Cooper between 1912 and 1922. With its astonishing Baroque tower and statue of Father Thames pointing commandingly toward the estuary, it is something of an unknown icon for London, having appeared in the opening titles of every episode of The Professionals and in the Bond film Skyfall, to name just a few of its starring roles. A domed concrete Rotunda housing a series of concentric counters for logging shipping movements was lost in the Blitz and years of occupation by insurers Willis Faber followed. Now, after a few false starts architecturally – an earlier scheme filled the central space with a giant glass scoop or cone – it will become “a distinctive collection of spaces harmoniously arranged to provide the very best of places to live, to stay and to meet [;] the Residences, Four Seasons hotel and spa, and the Club.” Fancy a room? Yours, ‘from’ £430 a night…

    Ten Trinity Square, London, EC3N 4AJ.

    Opens: February

    The Ned – Ok, so it’s a silly name, but Edwin ‘Ned’ Lutyens’s stunning head office and branch for the Midland Bank, closed for almost a decade, has also been restructured as a hotel and private members’ club and so will once again be open to the public, in part at least. As explained in my new book too, it was built between 1924 and 1939 with Lutyens providing the facades and representative areas and E. G. Stevenson and executive architects Gotch & Saunders handling the rest. The vast banking hall, with its forest of columns in green African stone with contrasting white plaster capitals, will become a food court with half a dozen restaurants; the directors’ board room, containing the largest tapestry ever made in England, will be an exclusive dining area and the basement safety deposit – with its massive circular door wedged firmly open – becomes a bar. I suspect the building will no longer be taking part in London Open House after this, but no matter, it’s still thriving.

    27 Poultry, London EC2R 8AJ

    Opens: April

    The Postal Museum – Along with the railways, the general post office MADE modern Britain, and so it’s fitting that this year we get a brand spanking new museum near Mount Pleasant telling its story and covering the incredible organisation, art (think of those beautiful stamps) and technology it spawned. Oh, and you also get to actually ride on Mail Rail, the GPO’s own small-gauge railway network that ran below London from Paddington to Whitechapel for three quarters of a century before its closure. Given the unfortunate closure in the City of BT’s own Museum of Telecommunications years ago, this museum is definitely a good thing. Sign up to their email newsletters for more.

    Opens: mid-2017

    London Mithraeum at Bloomberg London – Norman Foster’s new sandstone and bronze headquarters for the financial services firm on Queen Victoria Street has taken six years to build. it should be completed at the very end of the year. A permeable ground floor will take a new street through the narrow gap between the building’s two halves; there will also be a new entrance to Bank tube station. Best of all, however, the ancient Roman temple of Mithras that was found in the 1950s when the previous building on the site was being constructed is to be reborn. Mithras was a Persian deity worshipped by Roman soldiers who clearly gravitated to its world of bull-slaying, underground spaces and ritualised drinking. Originally reconstructed very inaccurately, above ground and to the north, the remains that once attracted crowds so large the police had to marshal them have been prized away from their concrete-and-crazy-paving base and re-sited underground, much closer to their proper position. With state-of-the-art interpretation such as mist and atmospheric lighting and displays of some of the thousands of new finds from the site, hopefully including some of the wonderful Roman ‘notebooks’ that have been discovered, this will be a new chance to meet London’s past.

    Opens: c.September-December

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  • 'Inside No.9: The Devil of Christmas'

    As a big fan of film and television from the 1970s, I was intrigued to read – during the ritualistic pre-holiday pore over the double issue of the Radio Times – a preview of The Devil of Christmas, a special festive episode of the blackly comedic anthology series Inside No.9 that was created, written and occasionally directed by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, of The League of Gentlemen fame. The programme promised to recreate “the style and idiom of ITV’s creepy 1970s anthologies and has even been taped on creaky cameras from that era by veteran director Graeme Harper”, whilst the cast “employs preposterously arch delivery” and the whole thing has “twists in the tale” (note that use of the plural). Even more interestingly, it continued, “shortly after the start, someone hits a rewind button and we hear a running commentary, as if it were a DVD feature, from the programme’s fictional director, Dennis Fulcher”. The recorder was duly set, but playback was only achieved this past weekend. I was alone in the house, and the lights were down…

    We start not with the drama itself but a brief technical cue-in to a studio session that the period-correct ‘blackboard’ VTR clock tells us is occurring on 10 December 1977. A library film (and I do mean film) clip of a snowy alpine lodge overlaid by gaudy onscreen titles introduces us to the drama proper, which in a further nod to its era is clearly being shot via multiple cameras in a studio, and recorded on videotape. Bluff, middle-class, middle-aged Julian (Pemberton), his young, pregnant, second wife Kathy (Jessica Rain), haughty mother Celia (Rula Lenska) and small son Toby (George Bedford) all enter the lodge – against a background of studio snow glimpsed in the doorway – with Austrian guide Klaus (Shearsmith) at their heels. As they bustle around their new temporary home, each actor declaiming his or her lines slightly too theatrically, the cameras follow them or pointedly push in or linger on a significant detail or face. Any viewer familiar with the style being emulated so precisely simply IS transported back thirty-odd years to their own youth.

    That curious voice-over does indeed pop up from time to time, cattily pointing out where the actress played by Lenska misses her mark or flubs her line; occasionally a second off-screen voice joins in, and as things progress we also see other instances of the curtain being twitched aside, metaphorically – the crew and the studio come into view, Pemberton is asked by a floor manager to “try the [dinner] plate please”, and a laugh continues – awkwardly – for far too long, until ‘cut’ is called. What is going on?

    As the family settle in, poo-poohing Klaus’s story of the fearsome local legend that is the Krampus, things start to warm up, but saying more would spoilt the surprises and the triple twist ending. Suffice it to say that this is a glorious piece of entertainment, both knowing and affectionate, that works – as with so many other such tributes – thanks to slavish attention to detail, both technical and artistic. So watch out for the notorious ‘comet tailing’ of the candle flames, the slap to the wrong side of the face, and the subtlety of the entire thing being presented in (almost) 4:3 aspect ratio. Of the performances Pemberton’s is the most noteworthy, simply because his voice is EXACTLY what you would expect to hear in this place and this time – plummy, strong, and with that very slight sense of patronising the material that was common to mature British thespians forced to work in genre television. Raine’s stridency, rising to hysteria at times, along with her strawberry blonde wig , very clearly channels Jane Asher in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, whilst Bedford’s ability to copy a not-very-good child actor of the time is spooky. And whilst you might find the majority of the drama tongue in cheek and thus not especially frightening, that is likely to change when the macabre penultimate twist makes its appearance.

    This gem could only have come from the current generation of 40-something creatives that find themselves able to make original work that harks back to their own influences; see also talents as varied as satirist Charlie Brooker, film-maker JJ Abrams and movie director Gareth Edwards. That Harper directed a slew of episodes of 1970s and 80s television drama but especially the classic Caves of Androzani story for Doctor Who simply confirms the point. It turns out that I managed to miss Inside No.9 entirely until now, something I’ll need to remedy soon. In the meantime, Inside No.9: The Devil of Christmas is available on iPlayer for another 17 days so that you too can find out who was good and who was very bad indeed this Christmas. Don’t miss it.

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  • Design desperation

    Yesterday the BBC launched a new series of idents for BBC One, replacing the ‘circles’ concept that has persisted for the last decade with photographs and footage of people from around the country (shot by Martin Parr, no less) that "capture an evolving portrait of modern Britain in all its diversity". Just to hammer the message home, the ‘ONE’ logo onscreen momentarily gets a scrolling, handwritten-style ‘-ness’ appended to it. Blimey.

    Well, after what seems to many like an especially divisive year for the country that might well be a good thing, but does the national broadcaster really need to spell out its worthy aim in such a clunky fashion? After all, the circles series made the point quite neatly already, whilst of course the Corporation’s original ‘revolving globe’ mark was arguably the ultimate indicator of that purpose and indeed ran in various forms from 1969 to 1997. And from a purely visual standpoint, the new identifications seem very far from ideal – without even the implied geometry of the circle to give the channel surfer a nudge, let

    alone any overlaid graphics to enhance the effect, there is surely little that actually identifies the image quickly and easily as a start-of-programme warning rather than a bit of the programme itself.

    Interestingly the same problem afflicts Channel 4’s current (and also relatively new) design for their own idents; its ‘deconstructed’ graphic element seldom appears, whilst Jonathan Glazer’s truly weird underground crystal mine/people in hazmat suits sequences confuse me even now…

    Perhaps, then, the nation’s favourite broadcaster should have stuck to its understated motto – Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation – to signal its principles, and adopted something simpler, clearer and more direct for the vital onscreen task of alerting the audience that Strictly is about to start. Something like a globe, say…?

    Happy new year!

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Books

How to Read London

A crash course in London architecture

My new book is now on sale. It reveals the hidden gems of London's rich built history whilst celebrating the well-known landmarks. From shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments, over one hundred buildings are featured.

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