Last Night's TV: The Story of British Pathé/BBC4
Country House Rescue/Channel 4
Friday 19 August 2011
Fans of The Hour (of which I'm most definitely one) will already be familiar with the "brisk banality" that so often dominated mid-century news coverage. It's depicted beautifully there, the Powers That Be calling for society lunches while the world slowly spins on its political axis. "Martial law may have been imposed in Poland," complained reporter Freddie (Ben Whishaw) in episode one. "And we have footage of Prince Rainier on honeymoon with his showgirl."
The Hour, of course, is set in the 1950s, just as television was beginning its five-decade dominance of the news media. But rewind 20-odd years, and you see a similar scenario unfolding at British Pathé, the seminal film and newsreel company. As the 1930s played out in all their turbulent glory – the Depression, appeasement, the collapse of the League of Nations – Pathé retreated into perpetually perky coverage of community cricket. The aim, according to last night's The Story of British Pathé, was to discourage revolutionary sentiment, keep the working classes in check. The result, though, was to lay the foundations for newsreels' steady decline.
It's a shame, since Pathé had far more radical roots than such ephemera would suggest. Its inaugural broadcast in June 1910 showed an early suffragette march alongside the first passenger flight across the channel. When it caught the gunfight of the so-called Siege of Sydney Street on camera, it became a sensation. For the first time, a spontaneous national catastrophe was captured live on camera. It's a piece of footage Kate Adie can remember seeing; it was fascinating, she said, their being right on the spot. Equally dramatic was the eerie footage of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison as she attempted to capture national attention by storming the track of the Epsom Derby. She was trampled into the ground by the horses, dying shortly afterwards.
It wasn't just this sort of live coverage, though, that Pathé developed. They invented all sorts of gimmicks and features that have come to define today's rolling news. The notion of a vox-pop, those little segments where ordinary people are asked for their opinions on the events of the day, was a Pathé innovation. Polls, political debates, challenges to the establishment – all were pioneered in the cinemas where Pathé film would be shown, first as a newsy tag-on to a feature film, and then as events in their own right. By the outbreak of the Second World War, more people were relying on newsreels for information than were reading the papers.
But it wasn't to last. After the obsequious 1930s, Pathé returned to form briefly, bringing sensational footage from the frontline. When one cameraman managed to film inside the Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps, it brought images to Britain that were so shocking – so outside the realms of credibility – that they had to be authenticated by an MP. The rally was shortlived. Pressure from cinemas, concerned that Pathé was over-politicised, left the company floundering in a magaziney mix of sport, showbiz, fads and fashions. The Suez Crisis rendered them impotent, churning out Government propaganda without question. At the same time, television news programmes (like fictional The Hour) were offering far more challenging, if not subversive, coverage. By the 1970s, Pathé had ceased newsreel production.
In the end, The Story of British Pathé was a familiar one: a pioneering media force overtaken by events and innovations. Still, told as it was – a combination of archive footage and talking heads – it was also an engrossing one.
While Richard Desmond attempted to revive the Big Brother house, shifting the 10-year-old reality show from Channel 4 to Channel 5 and stuffing it with a who's who of tabloid notoriety (Sally Bercow, Jedward, Pamela Anderson, someone off The Only Way Is Essex), Ruth Watson was busy attempting another form of restoration.
The non-nonsense presenter and her bob are back for a fourth series of the unflaggingly successful Country House Rescue. This time it was Gissing Hall in Norfolk that needed the helping hand, run as it was by William and his artist wife, Anne. It was a hotel, they said, though curiously lacking in one crucial component: guests.
Naturally, Watson had a solution. Before you could say OK!, she'd brought in the Beckhams' wedding planner, one Peregrine Armstrong-Jones, to give the place a bit of pizzazz. Gissing Hall, to the apparent chagrin of Anne, got a new logo, new gateposts, new windows and a new identity – not as a hotel but as a wedding venue. A match made in heaven, so to speak.
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