BFI & Radio Times Festival: a write-up

Radio Times
Is TV as we knew it dying?

What was once a communal experience – households across the nation gathered before the glow of the cathode ray tube – has now become a more private experience.

It seems not to matter how you consume the latest episode of must-watch telly, be it Broadchurch or Bake Off, alone or in company, live or via catch-up, so long as you’re able to take part in the water-cooler discussion come Monday.

With such a shift in the TV-viewing landscape, it’s especially interesting that this weekend saw the first BFI & Radio Times TV Festival – three days of events at the BFI Southbank, celebrating the best of British TV; both new and old.

As such, attendees ranged from enthusiastic teenage cosplayers (mostly there for Doctor Who) to more conservatively dressed older couples, plenty of families (perhaps unsurprising given the presence of Jacqueline Wilson), and a smattering of journos looking for a scoop.

While relatively little was forthcoming on the breaking news front, the festival did unearth a few historical gems. It should be no surprise: as the BFI website states, they have the largest accessible archive of British TV programmes in the world.

One such programme is The Author Of Beltraffio, a previously lost (or at least misplaced) Henry James adaptation directed by the late Tony Scott. Shown for the first time in forty years, with a pre-filmed intro by Sir Ridley Scott (presumably busy with post-production on Alien: Covenant), it proved an atmospheric little number.

The tale of a well-mannered, if slightly callow, American (Michael J. Shannon – no relation), who makes a pilgrimage to the bucolic country home of controversial novelist Mark Ambient (a jocular, understatedly sinister Tom Baker; the same year he took over on Doctor Who).

Ambient’s wife (a pale, ironic Georgina Hale) disapproves of his writing, specifically his unrestrainedly esthetic sensibilities, and fears they may be a malign influence on their son, the angelic Dolcino; enough so that she refuses to leave the two together.

As befits James’ writing, this adaptation – originally made for French TV – is studied and full of unsettling undercurrents. A Q&A with Georgina Hale afterwards understandably yielded little insight after more than a halftime; apart from an apropos comparison between a then-dilettante Scott’s directorial style and that of Ken Russell.

More discursive was a panel discussion with a quartet of Radio Times editors – a masterclass called How To Write About TV – which focused on their day-to-day and how they got into the business.

Editor Alison Graham recalled taking a punt at doing the TV column in the Yorkshire Post for £40 a week. This was, though, as each of the panelists reminded us, more than fifteen years ago.

While talking about laying out pages, how embargoes work, and always finding something nice to say – a documentary on dust storms, for instance, might be “informative” – the panel failed to discuss the similarly shifting landscape of TV criticism.

Online, both journalism and streaming TV (jokingly, not “proper TV”) barely merited a mention and the four were quick to brush off Twitter as non-essential. The only suggestion that the Radio Times itself, once a British institution, might not longer be as influential as once it was was the passing suggestion the bigger programmes are no longer willing to be as flexible with their own scheduling, even for the sake of a cover feature.

What this panel did do, though, was introduce perhaps the key theme of the festival: that of TV as somehow defining of British character; a longing for the days when twenty million viewers would gather around the box to watch the Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show.

The festival as a whole struck a balance between looking back at such icons of British telly with, for instance, a celebration of Victoria Wood, while focusing on modern programmes such as Poldark or Line Of Duty. Both Dame Maggie Smith and Michael Palin made appearances at events I was unable to attend due to their sheer popularity.

The notion of nostalgia influencing the present found a continuation, albeit obliquely, in Jack Thorne’s Masterclass on How To Write TV Drama. Thorne, whose recent credits include National Treasure and the Olivier-record-smashing Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, reflected briefly on his own TV viewing habits as a child – Party Of Five, anyone?

He also voiced his fear that the future lies solely with big-budget European co-productions with universal appeal; such as The Last Panthers, which he wrote for Sky Atlantic. This, he fears, is partly responsible for the challenges of getting commissioners to back content about people with disabilities; a demographic, he says, that’s too often left out of conversations about onscreen diversity.

While very much a British export, the Doctor Who panel – which took place in no less impressive a surroundings than the IMAX – included the show-runner (Steven Moffat), exec producer (Brian Minchin), new companion (Pearl Mackie), and outgoing Doctor (Peter Capaldi).

Moffat displayed a dry wit and schoolmastery demeanor – he corrected one audience member on their pronunciation of “Mondasian – but also displayed a love for the programme that perhaps explains his seven-year tenure on the show, which has encompassed two Doctors.He also spoke of The Doctor alongside King Arthur, Robin Hood, and, yes Sherlock Holmes, as the first mythological figure in British culture to have come out of telly.

Capaldi, meanwhile, refused to divulge his own fan theories about the character for fear of chipping away at the mystery. Mackie, beaming, seemed genuinely thrilled to be there.

At a separate “Conversation” shortly after, Moffat’s Sherlock co-creator, Mark Gatiss (pronounced gay-tiss, Mr. Event Announcer), spoke about The League Of Gentlemen and their upcoming Brexit special – which reportedly started as a joke – and the difficulties of trying to get the BBC to make ghost stories a regular feature in their Christmas scheduling — after all, what could be more festive?

There was a definite state-of-the-nation feel to the inaugural BFI & Radio Times TV Festival. No matter the future of TV, one thing’s clear: whether it’s a serious prestigious drama à la National Treasure or “just a silly kid’s show” (Hetty Feather), a wall-breaking comedy BBC3 online (Fleabag, whose writer-star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge – “Pheebs”, according to Jack Thorne – is in the Han Solo movie) or a beloved sci-fi classic teatime (Doctor Who), TV continues to play a vital role in the creative lives and imaginations of the British public; no matter how we consume it.

Long may this endure.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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