BFI and Radio Times Festival, 12-14 April 2019

❉ Robert Fairclough & Mike Kenwood on the unveiling of Russell T Davies’ Years and Years and other TV tales!

Two years on, the rechristened BFI and Radio Times Festival returned to London’s Southbank, offering as diverse an appraisal of modern (mainly BBC) television as it did in 2017. Among the featured guests were Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker, Keeley Hawes discussing the new Steven Poliakoff drama Summer of Rockets, Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar talking about their refreshingly angst-free crime drama Unforgotten, and Joanna Lumley and Helen Mirren being inducted into the Radio Times Hall of Fame. (Well, of course. And about time, frankly).

Doctor Fairclough! (Photo: Phil Newman)

While you were filling in time between the various events, held both in the BFI and the IMAX cinema, you could amuse yourself by poking your head through giant size Radio Times covers and, among other (exclusively BBC) TV luminaries, pretend to be the cast of Call the Midwife, Patsy and Eddie from Absolutely Fabulous or Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who (guess which one RF opted for? It’s not difficult…)

Perhaps a better use of the attendee’s time was in sampling the virtual reality technology on offer. We’d never tried it before, and it’s no hyperbole to say that, now we have, VR is truly, truly remarkable. There were two environments on offer: the recreation of a 1943 Lancaster bombing raid on Berlin, with audio recorded by the sound man of BBC war correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who was on the flight, and – by complete contrast – the ‘interview’ of a record company executive by the rappers from Kurupt FM, featured in the BBC3 mockumentary People Just Do Nothing (2014 – ).

The technology is astounding. After we put on the headsets and headphones, the youngsters manning the VR installation were suitably entertained by us twisting in our seats and looking up and down and behind ourselves, the reason being that everywhere you turned in the virtual 3D environment, you got a view of what you would see if you were actually in that position – in the plane, the navigator sitting behind you while, all around, anti-aircraft shells exploded; tied up in Kurupt FM’s seedy ‘office’, MC Grindah and DJ Beats got quite alarmingly in your face with their UK Garage while their manager, Chanbuddy G, leered at you from a chair to your left.

Lancaster CGI

It really felt like you were there. The only slightly disorientating thing was that when you looked down, you couldn’t see your hands or legs, which you would expect to in either situation. If the VR masterminds ever crack how to place a simulation of the user’s whole body inside a virtual environment, that really will be something. We’ll be talking either the wonders of the Star Trek holodeck or the VR junkies of the Red Dwarf novel Better Than Life. Nonetheless, the VR headset is an INCREDIBLE piece of tech; how exciting is it to imagine inserting yourself into an episode of Bodyguard (2018), or being able to sing with David Bowie (or even be David Bowie?)

Speaking of whom, at 4pm on Saturday the archive component of the Festival was a selection of unseen, or little seen, clips spanning the career of the Thin White Duke, introduced by BFI TV consultant Dick Fiddy and Radio 4 journalist John Wilson, who interviewed Bowie several times. Appropriately, the presentation began in the 1970s with a delicate, glammed up David performing Drive in Saturday on Russell’s Harty’s ITV talk show, via (several years on in Bowie’s timeline) a ferocious, Prodigy-style workout of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) filmed at the Phoenix Festival, to conclude with a live, thrillingly extended version of The Jean Genie from Top of the Pops in 1973. Missing for several years, it resurfaced in 2011.

David, Mick Ronson and co. – The Spiders from Mars, effectively – preen and strut in front of a TOTP audience who look, and nervously dance, like a ‘70s primary school kids witnessing an alien incursion on their playground. Bowie’s joyous shout of “Thanks!” as the band finish encapsulates why an artist so determinedly avant garde was also so lovable. A rare combination.

In the audience was John Henshaw, the cameraman who recorded the performance, who discussed the endearingly homespun nature of television in those days, together with how the clip came to be saved: “Johnnie Stuart, the producer of TOTP, said, ‘What we need for this is a fisheye [lens]. Have we got one?’ I made them and I said, ‘No, but we could have in five minutes.’ He said ‘OK, break for tea,’ and I hared out the back of Television Centre to my car, parked in a side street and got the fisheye lens out… I also got out an eight-inch reel of tape that Southern Television had given me, and when we’d done the recording, I said to Johnny, ‘Any chance of a copy?’ He said OK and took me down to VTR.”

“What you’ve seen today is a second generation copy, never before played from that day on, but always stored really carefully in the airing cupboard.” The panel concluded with the exciting news that Bowie’s rendition of Starman on the ITV pop show Lift Off with Ayesha – recorded before his legendary TOTP performance of the same song in July 1972 – is not far off being completely restored from an old VHS tape. Tantalisingly, too, John has another 200 tapes that need archiving…

Elsewhere at 4pm, an interrogation under caution was being conducted in the IMAX concerning the complex police corruption thriller Line of Duty. Present were showrunner and writer Jed Mercurio, cast members Maya Sondhi (who plays regular Maneet Bindra), Rochenda Sandall (Lisa McQueen), and Polly Walker (Gill Biggeloe).

Line of Duty is now into its fifth, riveting series, with a sixth in the pipeline. If no seventh series is commissioned, Jed promised that all the loose ends would be addressed: “If we didn’t know we could go beyond [six], we would have to approach it in a way that concluded things. Broadcasters sometimes [end a series and] run counter to serving the audience. There are shows that have invested quite a lot in building stories, and developed a following [which] are cancelled, for whatever reason… We have a very good relationship with the BBC; that’s why we have this ongoing dialogue with them, but it is up to them. At the moment we’re very happy with the series and we do want to carry on.”

Jed revealed that he was open with his cast and regularly discussed their characterisations with them. “With Maneet in Series 4, we had a conversation about what was motivating her giving secrets to Hilton, so Maya knew all that before we even got to Series 5.” He also enjoyed being involved in the casting process: “What we’ve established in the series is a certain acting style… It’s social realism. We are trying to depict a certain side of life [with] actors who have naturalism and an ability to convey quite complex things in quite a small way. It’s not theatrical in the sense of big performances. It’s smaller and more focused. The important thing is they’re believable.”

One running question throughout this event remained unresolved – the identity of “H”, a corrupt senior police officer, hiding in the background or more likely in plain sight. Regular viewers will be aware that this question is turning into one of the biggest TV Mysteries Of Our Time, comparable with “Who is Number One?” in The Prisoner (1967-68) or “Who killed Laura Palmer?” in Twin Peaks (1990-91). Is Jed making this conspiracy up as he goes along, or does he know who H is? “Oh yes, I know that!” he laughed, early on. “[But] if I had a better idea later on, I could change it, as you want it to be as good and surprising as possible.” Clearly, he’s going to keep us guessing for now.

Next up at the IMAX was what can only be described as an event among events: the unveiling of Russell T Davies’ new drama Years and Years. When you consider that his last one, A Very English Scandal (2018), was a critical and popular success and accrued two prestigious accolades (and counting) in Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards, this was really something to get excited about.

Years and Years didn’t disappoint. We can’t say too much about the content as the audience was very politely asked not to. Rest assured, though, that it’s searingly truthful, very funny, very, very dark and an uncompromising state-of-the-nation address, seen through the eyes of a Manchester family called the Lyons. Innovatively, RTD has inverted the normal trajectory of the family saga by having it start in the more-or-less ‘now’ and progress, over its six episodes, fifteen years into the future (the usual pattern is to begin in the past and come slowly up to date). Rory Kinnear, playing the surrogate father of the Lyons clan, summed up the series – rather wonderfully – as “Our Friends in the North meets Black Mirror.

Rory wasn’t the only Lyon present. Showing how enthusiastic the main cast were about Years and Years, nearly all them were in attendance. Joining Rory were Ruth Madeley, T’Nia Miller, Anne Reid and Russell Tovey; sadly Jessica Hynes, the nomadic Lyon sibling, and Emma Thompson, playing the worrying political leader Vivienne Rook, couldn’t make it (together with, presumably, the kitchen sink).

Stressing the significance of the production, Simon Cellan Jones – who oversaw five episodes of the seminal Our Friends in the North (1996)was engaged to direct, and sees Years and Years is a drama of urgent, contemporary relevance: “We always said in pre-production, ‘The world hasn’t changed that much in the last ten years’… so we celebrated not embracing… the dystopian factor, or the technology factor, and when I first read it, I went ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing on TV!’ rather than ‘Oh, it’s a futuristic thing’… It was very personal to Russell, and it was very personal to me, and I hope everyone who watches it will go, ‘Ah, that’s about me, that is: that’s my mum or my brother, my family and my job and my house.” Russell T was unequivocal about the strong statements the series makes: “The world is getting madder and stranger, and we’re all getting more politicised, and more and more fed up with politics, all the time.” It’s not often we say this, but DON’T MISS IT: Years and Years is that good.

The panel celebrating Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s live, Halloween broadcast of their darkly comic anthology series Inside No. 9 looked at television in another innovative way, in that it can now become part of a larger narrative involving social media and the internet. The conceit behind Dead Line was that during a live transmission things go wrong (due to supernatural intervention, naturally) and the ploy worked. Nine minutes in, 20% of the audience switched off as they were convinced the broadcast had been aborted, text messages of condolence were sent to producer Adam Tandy and Steve, while Twitter was “alight” with debate about the ‘catastrophe’. Following the grisly, apparent deaths of Reece and Steve, without their knowledge someone even changed their Wikipedia entries to inform browsers that they were deceased.

“In an age of streaming television, we did something that could only be done live on BBC2, at 10 o’clock, at that moment, and that felt really exciting to us,” Steve proudly declared. In this era of 24/7 media, it’s amazing that no-one outside the production team and select officials at the BBC – not even the stars’ families – knew the truth. An extra treat for attendees was the opportunity to hear Tandy’s recording of the talkback from the production gallery during the re-screened episode as a ‘commentary’. Considering the stress and pressure of such a situation, everyone – in particular director Barbara Wiltshire – remained notably unruffled, to the point where recording concluded and Steve and Reece “punched the air” after “being on adrenaline all the way through.” The pair are clearly men on a mission to be creative, always looking for new angles on how to push television forward, and in doing so they always surprise and delight. It’ll be fascinating to see what the fifth series of Inside No.9 – now in post-production – reveals later in the year.

Although things continued well into the evening after Mark Gatiss’s Sunday lunchtime slot, for us his conversation with broadcaster and writer Matthew Sweet about his BBC ghost stories was the last event. It was an ideal way to end: it’s always a pleasure to hear these gentlemen talk, two rich voices engaging in witty, intellectual and engrossing banter about their favourite subjects. In fact, we could have been eavesdropping on a fireside chat in the book-lined study of Gatiss’s favourite ghost story writer MR James, sometime in the early twentieth century.

After the prank of getting the audience to “summon” Gatiss through the “satanist” chant of “Okar doo-ar!”, Sweet settled down with his guest for a fascinating discussion, which kept returning to the main theme of why ghost stories are so appealing as a genre, and how their ‘rules’ subtly change over time.

Gatiss’s fascination with the medium began with the BBC Arts production of James’ The Stalls of Barchester (1971) – which he saw when he was four! – that he articulated as having “the haze of distance” and an “antiqueness… that is absolutely… part of the charm for me.” He brought the same feeling to his adaptation of The Tractate Middoth in 2013, even down to the casting of John Castle and Trevor Baxter, “actors with heft and hinterland” who followed in the tradition of Jamesian contributors like Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern. It was captivating to hear how Gatiss chose to move the art of the ghost story into the present day with Crooked House (2008) and The Dead Room (2018). The former featured “the idea of a ghost in a kind of Barratt home, [which] was very appealing to me,” while the latter incorporated a ghost from the 1970s: “[one] that looks like David Cassidy feels like it’s traditional, but is pushing [the genre] somewhere new.”

Asked by a member of the audience what his favourite era of the ghost story was, Gatiss paraphrased comedy hero Barry Cryer’s comment that “There isn’t a golden age, there are just lots of golden ages.” That observation is a fitting summation of the whole Festival, which offered a scholarly but entertaining insight into how some of the best modern television is made, while maintaining a respectful archival eye on the medium’s past. It was a bit pricey – £25 per event was the average entrance fee – but, overall, the quality of what was on offer more than compensated for any financial twitchiness. And we’ll never forget the VR.

See you in 2021, then?

❉ BFI and Radio Times Festival took place at the BFI Southbank, 12-14 April 2019. ‘Years & Years’ is a RED Production Company production commissioned for BBC One by Charlotte Moore, BBC Director of Content, and Piers Wenger, Controller of BBC Drama. 1The 6 x 60-minute drama is created, written and executive produced by Russell T Davies, with Nicola Shindler as Executive Producer.

❉ Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood are the authors of the definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. 

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